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Authors: Philip Freeman

Sacrifice

BOOK: Sacrifice
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For Kenzie

SACRIFICE

Chapter One

N
o, no, no! Deirdre, you don't add the wine until
after
you stir in the fish sauce.”

“Grandmother, I have been cooking this dish for twenty years. I think I know by now when to add the sauce. And besides, you're the one who taught me how to make it.”

“Well, then I didn't do a very good job, because you're supposed to put the wine in last, or it will boil off and you'll lose the flavor.”

My grandmother and I were in her hut near Brigid's monastery cooking a special May Day dinner for Father Ailbe, Dari, and two of Grandmother's druid friends. It was not going well. Early that morning I had taken a loin of pork from her smokehouse and simmered it in an iron pot with bay leaves,
peppercorns, celery, and a spoonful of honey. Grandmother had hovered over me the whole time, making sure I didn't cook the pork too quickly. After an hour, I took the pot off the hook over the fireplace and set it aside to cool. Meanwhile, my grandmother was making the dessert, a plum custard flavored with cumin and raisin wine.

“Ailbe and the rest will be here any minute. Deirdre, make yourself useful and fetch a jug of wine from the wellhouse. But be careful not to break it. This Gaulish pottery is so fragile, not like the solid Roman stuff from the old days.”

“Grandmother, I'm not five years old anymore. I won't break the wine jar or ruin the dinner.”

She waved me away as she stirred the custard. I stomped out the front door and went down the path to the small stone hut near the well. I grabbed a jar of wine from the back of the cool, damp building and made a point of banging it against the side of the door as I left. As much as I loved my grandmother and was grateful to her for raising me after my mother died, there were times when she made me want to scream.

“How's the dinner coming?”

I turned toward the familiar woman's voice and saw Dari and Father Ailbe coming up the path that stretched through the woods back to the monastery at Kildare. Dari was holding Father Ailbe's arm to steady him on the rocky path. She held a bundle of yellow buttercups in her other hand.

“A gift for your grandmother,” she said. “I wish she would have let us bring some food to help with the dinner, but at least these should brighten the table.”

Dari wore a typical bright smile on her face. I was always amazed that she managed to look so cheerful and that her long blond hair always seemed in place. My own dark red hair was frazzled and generally looked like I had just been caught in a windstorm.

“Dari, be glad you didn't bring anything to eat. Nothing would be good enough for that woman.”

“Oh, having a little trouble around the cooking fire, are we?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye. She knew very well how my grandmother and I clashed in the kitchen.

“Don't get me started. I want this to be an enjoyable meal for all of us.”

Father Ailbe stood next to her, waiting patiently. He had heard all my complaints before and knew they were a regular part of my visits home from the monastery. He had once been a tall man, but more than eighty years of life had left him slightly bent. Still, I was pleased to see him looking so well on this lovely spring day. I knew the winter had been hard on him, as it had on us all, but I could tell he had gained back some weight and that his color was much better. I reached out and gave him a big hug.

“Thank you, my dear, but what was that for?” he asked as I let go.

“No reason, Abba. I'm just happy to have you here today.”

I had called him “Abba” since I was a little girl and couldn't pronounce his name properly. I took his other arm and walked to my grandmother's house with them. She was stirring the pudding as we came in.

“Ailbe, welcome, and you as well, Dari. Sorry the dinner is a little late. We've been having a bit of trouble with the main dish.”

Before I could think of some witty comment, Father Ailbe spoke up.

“Aoife, you're so kind to invite us here today. I know what a busy time Beltaine is for you and the other members of the Order. Are you going to King Dúnlaing's festival tonight?”

“Yes, I'm lighting the sacred fire and helping with the sacrifices. You know you're invited as well. The king is always glad to see you.”

“And I him, but it's a long walk to his farm and my knee has been bothering me today. My arthritis is acting up again.”

“Well, you're the physician. You know that a brew of willow bark with a touch of clove will help with that.”

“Yes, but like most doctors I'm a terrible patient. Please do give the king my regards.”

“Aoife,” said Dari, “I brought some fresh flowers for the table. May I put them in a vase with water?”

“Yes, of course, and thank you, my dear. It's so nice to have such a thoughtful young woman visit my home. Proper respect for one's elders is so rare nowadays. Would you like to help with the pork?”

Father Ailbe shook his head, urging me silently not to say anything.

There was a knock at the door. I opened it to find two elderly women standing in front of the hut. They wore the distinctive white tunics of druids under their cloaks and had slender golden torques about their necks. Their long gray hair was tied in braids down their backs.

“Cáma, Sinann, please come in,” said my grandmother as she swept past me to greet them. “Deirdre, were you going to make them wait outside all day? Fetch some cups and pour everyone a glass of wine.”

Both of the women were friends of Father Ailbe and greeted him warmly. Dari took their cloaks and placed them on my old bed near the door. Everyone sat down at the table, aside from my grandmother, who was still fussing with dinner. She laid the hot bread fresh from the hearth on the mantel to cool for slicing and placed a small jar of her special butter-and-honey relish on the table with a wooden spoon. She then sat with us and took a sip of the wine.

“Not bad,” she said. “It was a gift from King Eógan after I used a vision to help him find one of his prize rams that had wandered into the hills.”

“That man would lose his head if it wasn't attached to his neck,” said Cáma. “He called on me last year to interpret a dream he had after three of his horses wandered off. He had some silly night vision about them being taken by dragons, but any fool could have told him they would be grazing on the summer grass near the Avoca River, which they were.”

We all laughed as Dari refilled the cups.

“So, Sinann, how are the heavens looking lately?” asked my grandmother. “It was beautiful last night. You must have been up late gazing at the stars.”

“Yes, indeed, the skies are rarely so clear. I was able to measure the angle of separation between the pole star and true north more accurately than ever before. I also found a new tailed star, very faint, just below the Great Bear's nose.”

“A new tailed star, really?” asked Father Ailbe. “Do you think it will grow brighter?”

“Hard to say. These tailed stars—or comets as you Greeks call them,” she said with a teasing glance at Father Ailbe, “usually fade away in a few days.”

“Could it be an evil omen?” asked my grandmother.

“Possibly,” said Sinann. “I don't put much stock in astromancy, but this star has a nasty red tinge to it. I'll be watching it to see what happens.”

“Sinann, are you and Cáma going to the festival tonight?”

“Oh, yes, Ailbe, we're helping Aoife with the sacrifices. I thought Dúnlaing might have invited Finian to perform the rituals, but he can't stand the young man, no matter how skilled a sacrificer he is.”

“I'm sorry,” Dari said, “I don't know as much about the druids as I should, but do you mean that any druid can perform the job of any other druid? I thought there were different positions within the Order.”

Although teaching comes naturally to the druids and we're always glad to share our knowledge, I was a little perturbed
with Dari. I had tried to explain all this to her before, but she never showed any interest in learning about the druids from me.

“Yes, my child,” Cáma answered, “there are many different roles within the Order, but we all receive the same extensive training in the foundations of druidic teachings. Any of us can, for example, officiate at ceremonies, offer sacrifices, or render judgments in legal cases. Just last week I performed a wedding and two funerals and settled a boundary dispute between some local farmers. But we each have our special areas of expertise that require years of extra study. I'm an interpreter of dreams and Sinann studies the workings of the heavens, while your friend Deirdre is a bard and her grandmother a seer. Still, while people come to me to understand their dreams, they could also go to Aoife, who would do a wonderful job.”

“Oh, but not as well as you, my dear,” protested my grandmother.

“And I was never good at visions like you, Aoife,” Sinann said.

“But you're the best astronomer in Ireland,” I said.

“Just as you're our most talented young bard,” Cáma added.

“Ladies, please,” Father Ailbe said as he raised his hand. “Let us agree that you're all wonderful at what you do. Now, is it just me, or is anyone else hungry?”

Everyone laughed, then Grandmother put the pork loin on a platter with garnishes while Dari and I set the table with plates and knives. We then brought the bread and pork to the table and all took our seats. Dinner smelled simply marvelous.

“Ailbe, would you like to ask a blessing on the meal?”

Grandmother normally wanted nothing to do with Christian rituals, especially after I became a nun, but she was a gracious host. I knew that Cáma and Sinann would have no objection to a Christian prayer since most druids are open to all aspects of
the divine. Father Ailbe, for his part, had the greatest respect for Irish traditions and always urged understanding and harmony between the religions of our island.

“I would be honored, Aoife.”

Father Ailbe bowed his head and made the sign of the cross on his chest, as did Dari and I, while the three druids sat in silence with their eyes closed and hands raised to the sky.

BOOK: Sacrifice
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