Richard has a complicated home life and feels he doesn’t belong anywhere. A
series of events finds him desperate and living on the streets, where
he finds himself dragged into 9th century Norway by a Viking warrior.
Richard finds acceptance with the Vikings and joins them on a
colonisation raid to Ireland.
Brother Aidan never tired of looking at the holy manuscript. The beautiful, intricate plait-work and spiral knots, and the complex panels with their ornamental and sometimes comic figures, could hold him entranced for hours. The volume he now held in his hands contained the Gospels of the four Evangelists. It was a masterpiece of richly decora¬tive art. The vibrant yellows, reds, blues, and greens cascaded and swirled, jumping from the pages in a brilliant cacophony of colour.
Scribes and artists had worked together on this and other texts to create magnificent works of art—symbols of the Christian faith. The gospels and accompanying summaries Aidan was studying were of the mixed text incorporating Vulgate, with many words and phrases of old Latin. It was bound in a carved leather casing. The swirls and knot-work of the volume were faithfully reproduced on the leather casing, a beautiful, enticing prelude to the breathtaking symphony it housed. The text itself was written on calf-skin or vellum, a longer lasting medium than parchment, and one that absorbed the pigments in a more permanent manner. Aidan pored over the large full-page illustrations in the gospels’ text, a practice employed by the monks to emphasise the significant parts of the story. Key events such as the arrest of Christ, the crucifixion, and the resurrection were illustrated as complex full-page designs.
Throughout the whole of the manuscript appeared the symbols of the Evangelists, four of Jesus’ apostles: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew was represented by a man, Mark by a lion, Luke by a calf, and John by an eagle. Other animals, such as fish, cats, mice, hens, snakes, dragons, and many kinds of birds, were used also; sometimes clearly symbolising a section of text and at other times simply for lively decoration. A knot of emotion welled in Aidan’s throat as he paid homage to the holy manuscript, a precious icon to his faith. Reverently, he replaced the precious manuscript in its niche.
Brother Aidan was visiting the monastery in Armagh. In the past, this area had been the centre of the church in Ireland but now it was a monastery, a major library, and scriptorium, housing some of Christianity’s greatest treasures. Over the centuries, since the life of St Patrick, the Christian Church had gradually dominated the society of Ireland. Monasteries were built as religious fervour grew throughout the country. Aidan was here to borrow some of the monastery’s lesser texts. He would take these back to his monastery in Durrow to be copied by his scribes for the library, then the originals would be returned to their rightful place in Armagh. It was common practice among the monks and it enabled other monasteries to have a wider Chapter 2: Aidan range of working texts so that knowledge could be passed on to the faithful.
He wandered into the scriptorium and glanced at an open manuscript currently being worked on. The intricate carpet designs and illuminations were absolutely perfect, the work of a true artist. But his keen eye noticed errors in the text itself. The scribe undertaking this manuscript had poor Latin skills. The text had been corrupted almost to the point of confusion. Aidan thought this was a poor copy for a scriptorium of repute, so he made a mental note to bring this to the head librarian’s notice.
‘Aidan.’ Brother Colman, the head librarian, brought him back to reality. ‘I have found the volumes you have requested. The Missals, Psalters, and Lives of the Saints are all ready for you,’ he said.
‘Thank you, Colman, I am in your debt. As the day is drawing in, if it is your wish, I will pray and sup with you and be on my way on the morrow,’ replied Aidan.
‘That would be most pleasing, Aidan,’ said Colman.
‘Your brothers here would hear all your news and welcome a fresh face. But first, I would enlighten you on a matter most pressing. We have had grave news that concerns us all. A fellow brother from Bangor has sent us a message of warning. Raiders are said to be on the move not far from that area. It is thought to be the Vikings again, come to claim this land and defile it. The messenger told of many evil deeds. It is rumoured that they torture and use us for sacrifice to their pagan gods.’ Colman handed Aidan a crumpled piece of manuscript. It was a beautiful piece of illumination but it was not finished. ‘Look to the margin, our brother has written a message,’ said Coleman. Aidan read the hastily scrawled passage:
The Northmen are coming from the sea … they appear under cover of evil fog, killing, defiling, stealing … crumpled bodies strew the land, blood stains the soil … brothers hang from the trees … women raped, defiled … we are animals to them, bound for slaughter … brothers left, gone, deserters from our monastery …
Who will stand their ground when the pagans rain their worst on us? Who? What will become of us? What will become of our faith?
Aidan was horrified. He had heard of previous raids by the Vikings, led by a most vicious and merciless leader, but he thought that the noble Taoiseach Tadhg had stilled his thirsty blade forever. Coleman’s voice interrupted Aidan’s thoughts. ‘The Abbot wishes to speak to you. I believe it is a matter of great urgency. Come, Aidan, we will go to him now.’ Aidan hurried with Colman to confer with the Abbot, wondering of what possible use he could be.
Abbot Bede was a sombre holy man. His rough woollen tunic did not detract from his presence, in fact the very plainness of the garment enhanced the calibre of the man it robed. Though the Abbot was small and solid of stature, he was a man of strength, one not easily fazed, with a body hardened by the harsh lifestyle of the times. His hands were large; hands befitting a stonemason or a simple herdsman used to manual labour, not a cleric of intellectual prowess. His hair was jet-black and cropped short in the monastic style. From his face shone a pair of piercing eyes filled with intelligence and the total conviction of a zealot. Today those eyes were troubled and the huge hands were clasped in a gesture of concern. ‘Welcome, Aidan. It is always a pleasure to have our southern brothers stay with us a while. Please, sit down. I trust your needs have been catered for adequately. Did you find the resource material you required?’
‘Yes, thank you,’ Aidan replied. ‘I have been successful in finding the manuscripts our monastery requires. I will have them returned to you as soon as my scribes have finished with them. By years end, would that be satisfactory?’
The Abbot locked eyes with Aidan. ‘Do not trouble yourself on that account, brother. If the news that has just reached me is true, I fear that you will have possession of these and other treasures for years to come. You see, the Raiders have travelled more quickly than anticipated. Come, come. Walk with me.’
Abbot Bede breathed deeply. His eyes became troubled and his brow furrowed. Aidan listened intently. ‘Aidan, the noble war chieftain Tadhg has disappeared into the boglands and is feared perished of a great wound, or devoured by the Bogg Demon.
‘His army is mostly dispersed, lacking the courage and leadership befitting true warriors. They have left us to our fate. Tadhg’s sibling Gráinne has disappeared from our midst, either killed or captured. If she is alive, I dare not think of the torture in store for her. Our time for preparation is very limited. I had estimated two full moons before thoughts of barricading and battle would come to pass. As it stands now we will have to take our chances and try to stand our ground with the weapons we can find. The messenger gauged just two weeks before the marauders are upon us.’
They continued walking and the Abbot moved closer. ‘I am glad only the two of us will hear what I am about to say. You see, Aidan, not only do the Raiders burn and plunder our villages and religious sites but they also destroy any evidence of the existence of our way of life, and more importantly, our faith. Already, many valuable manuscripts and sacred icons have been destroyed, while other holy things have been profaned in the basest fashion. Our monasteries to the north have been totally razed and all their treasures laid waste. They raise pagan icons in place of our most beautiful monuments and practise idolatry to their foul gods on consecrated ground. It is not only our lives that I fear for, but our very souls and the souls of future generations.’
The Abbot paused for breath as he nodded to a fellow monk walking toward them. He quickened his pace and looked around furtively to check that no one else was about. He pushed a thick wooden door in the wall of the passage. It creaked open to reveal another narrower passageway. They continued walking. Abbot Bede did not speak again for a while, so Aidan had time to take in his surroundings. They were entering a part of the monastery that Aidan had not visited before. It was very dark and dank. An occasional torch attached to the thick stone walls gave off a meagre light. It was an insipid glow, but threw off enough brightness to guide their feet on the uneven surface. The wall of the passageway looked slick with moisture. Aidan realised that this part of the monastery was a secret place. The Abbot continued speaking in a hushed voice, filled with emotion. ‘These barbarians may break our bodies and burn our villages, but they must not destroy our faith. We need to protect our most precious treasures. Aidan, I believe a man such as you is worthy of the task. It is your duty to take these holy things from here to a haven, far from the marauders, and protect them from defilement by heathen hands. Quickly! Come into the inner sanctum.’The inner sanctum was a tiny room behind the altar in a private chapel. It was a place where no light penetrated, yet a light always burnt—a constant reminder of the presence of God. This holiest of places, where the most precious manuscripts and relics were kept. Aidan felt very privileged to be here. The Abbot’s eyes darted about nervously to check that they were alone, and then he pressed a stone protruding out of the smooth surface of the wall. With a loud scraping noise the stone receded to expose a niche. The recess was smooth and rounded, big enough to store a small barrel of wine. From the niche exuded a yellow glow, a light dissipating through a richly decorated covering. Aidan could not stop staring at the glow.
Abbot Bede spoke gently, almost seductively, ‘Beautiful is it not? I will get to that presently. For now, I will show you this most important and precious relic. The most exquisite and powerful manuscript your critical eye will ever live to see. Look upon it. Can you see a flaw in its text or illuminations? Could it not have been crafted by the Archangels themselves?’ A glow of fanaticism had crept into the Abbot’s face and Aidan felt a tingle of fear up his spine.
The manuscript Abbot Bede spoke of was similar to the leather-bound volume Aidan had admired in the library, although on closer inspection there was no comparison. This manuscript had a distinct ethereal quality in its perfection. The vibrant colours fairly hummed in their brilliance and the volume almost breathed with intensity—a reflection of the love and faith that created it. Aidan could only stare trans¬fixed, tears of joy and respect unashamedly rolling down his cheeks. Once he had composed himself, he studied the man¬uscript. The illustrations were so exact and the colours were vivid. It was a work of true artistry. ‘The origin of this manuscript is unknown. It is thought to have been transported from Ionia or Northumbria some centuries ago but, before that, its history is very sketchy. It may have come from the Continent, even Rome itself, so shrouded in mystery is this treasure. But it must be preserved, this I know to be God’s will, for the sake of those who created it and for future generations. I can sense that you, Aidan, have been chosen for this task. Now, for the real prize, the most holy of relics …’
Abbot Bede spoke rapidly, oblivious to Aidan’s presence. ‘Did you know that tonight is the anniversary of that most courageous act by our Father Patrick? Patrick, who challenged the High King and his evil druids this very night, centuries ago. On the hill of Slane, Patrick lit the paschal fire on pain of death, in violation of the High King’s law. No other fire was to be lit in the vicinity of the great festival fire on the hill of Tara. King Laoghaire saw Patrick’s fire and called his druids to quell it. The druids’ response was, “If this fire which we now see is not extinguished it will overpower all our fires and he that has kindled it will overpower thy kingdom.” The King immediately summoned the stranger to appear before him.
‘Patrick, our valiant brother, and his followers marched to the castle. They sang ‘The Deer’s Cry’:
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me.’
Abbot Bede paused, he seemed distressed. From the folds of his robes he took a small flask and drank deeply. His breathing became more even. He offered Aidan a swig from the flask. Aidan declined; he wanted to keep a clear head.
The Abbot continued talking. ‘Patrick also carried a sacred cup. A chalice so beautiful and enticing that to look upon it unprepared could result in madness. A relic so holy that the unchaste cower before it, covering their heads in shame, aware of their unworthiness before the sacred vessel of God.
‘Many were cleansed by the holy chalice that night. The old rites of fertility were practised for the last time. Patrick had his first conversion on that Easter Eve and many a soul was cleansed by the one true faith—Christianity. The most beautiful and precious cup beckons. Cast your eyes upon the chalice and it will mesmerise you with its mystical quality. A mere glimpse of this most venerable object will prove your worthiness of the task before you.’
The Abbot spoke raggedly, breathing in quick gasps. His skin was oozing perspiration, a moist, shiny film formed on his forehead and upper lip. His hands had become clammy, shaking in anticipation. His hands darted covetously towards the silken covering then teasingly snapped back to his sides. Abbot Bede was enjoying the power he held over Aidan. He could feel a crescendo building up in the walls of the sanctuary, a tangible vibration bringing his nerves to breaking point.
Aidan held his breath as the Abbot continued, ‘It has been said that this object is the one true cup, the cup from which our Lord drank, transported in some mystical way to this place of sanctuary. Could it be, Aidan, that the highest power has placed it here for a specific purpose? Has it been hidden away to be preserved in this pure state until its purpose is made known and its time has come? I firmly believe that its time has come and that your fate is entwined with this most sacred of relics.’ As he said this, the Abbot whisked the covering off in a sharp movement, catching Aidan off guard.
Aidan had never seen such a beautiful object. It seemed to be made of some unearthly metal, so unusual was its ap¬pearance. Embedded in the surface were what looked to be three jewels. These ‘jewels’ were placed equidistant from each other: a sapphire-like gem with its clean blue hue; a pearl-like gem with its cool chasteness; and a ruby-like jewel which appeared to throb and ooze blood. The significance of the Trinity formation was not lost on Aidan. He believed that the sapphire represented God, the Father; the pearl represented the dove, the Holy Ghost; and the ruby represented Jesus, the Son of God who shed his precious blood to save us. The chalice’s surface shone with an ethereal light pulsing with life force and purpose.
Aidan put out a tentative hand and brushed the cup with his fingertips. The result was extraordinary. A wind roared in the tiny room. It tore through his body. A cleansing tempest, exposing any self-doubts and tearing them from his soul. The searing wind cauterised the gaping wounds of his negativity, filling the space with love. Aidan was sure this strength came from God, the Father, working through the Holy Ghost. He felt renewed. A pure, white light radiated from within him—a furnace of faith that gave him true life.
At last Aidan spoke, ‘I feel ready to perform the task ordained for me, Abbot Bede. Have no fear, I now have the strength of spirit to carry this through. I will die protecting these most sacred relics and will do so willingly.’
Abbot Bede stared, his eyes full of respect. ‘I was right, Aidan. You are more than equal to this task. When you have succeeded and the barbarians are driven from this land, your name will be revered. Stories of your bravery and faith will abound. But you must make haste, brother. Go to the kitchens and gather all you require for your long journey. I will pack the precious relics so they appear as nothing more than a monk’s effects. Hurry, my friend, I will see you safely away.’
Within the hour Aidan had left the safety of the cloister, his heart full of courage and hope. He had decided to travel south-west from Armagh towards his own monastery in Durrow, a long journey but a route he knew well. He was sure the holy relics would be safe there. Aidan was travelling by foot, a common occurrence for the monks of his order. Any luxuries were avoided by the brothers so they could concentrate their energies on their craft and their faith. The advantage of travelling singly and on foot was that he could find cover quickly if the need arose, and a lone monk attracted less attention than a large group. He covered a great distance, being almost invisible in the darkness.
After travelling many hours towards the river, Aidan decided to stop for the night. He came upon a grove of ancient hazel trees, a perfect cover. They were nine in number and surrounded a pool, their ancient branches hanging over the water. Aidan ate a hurried supper of bread and cheese and drank some refreshing water from the cool, deep pool. He regarded the trees around him. They were most unusual. By the light of the moon Aidan could see that they had a quality about them, as if they were awake, responsive to their surroundings. The nuts on the trees were most curious. Crimson in colour, one tree held a particularly large nut. Its branch hovered over the deep pool, quivering with the effort of holding the fruit. As Aidan watched, the branch seemed to drop a little closer to the pool. Suddenly, all the hazel trees began to sigh and thrash their branches, shaking the leaves violently. The rhythm of the trees had a spellbinding effect on Aidan. Suddenly the huge 28
nut dropped towards the deep pool. A massive salmon jumped out of the pool and gulped the nut down greedily. Aidan, astonished by the strange scene he had just witnessed, was overcome with a feeling of drowsiness. As the trees gradually stopped thrashing their branches, all the remaining nuts in the grove withered and fell to the ground.
Without warning, Aidan fell into a heavy sleep. He dreamt of ancient warriors and fabled heroes fighting and falling for their cause. He dreamt of druids and monks, bishops and marauders, fighting and slaughtering each other. He dreamt of the sacred objects he carried and protected with his life. At first light, in the misty steam of the morning, a huge bead of moisture tumbled from one of the ancient trees and trickled into his ear. He woke up, shaking his head to rid himself of the icy drop. As the fog of slumber lifted, Aidan smelt the delicious aroma of fish cooking. He quickly gathered his things and followed his nose.
A short distance away he discovered a clearing. In the centre was a blazing fire. Over the fire was a spit with a huge salmon cooking on it. Aidan’s mouth watered. He had his own meagre supplies to eat, but the wonderful smell of the cooking fish tempted him. He glanced around the clearing again, searching for signs of life. There was no one to be seen. Maybe he could just have a little taste of the fish. Before Aidan’s conscience had a chance to gnaw at him, he reached down to pull a small piece of meat from the salmon. He burnt his thumb on the hot flesh and immediately stuck his thumb in his mouth to cool it.
It was then he felt warm breath on his neck and heard a soft voice in his ear, ‘I see a holy man warming himself by my fire.’ Aidan turned and saw a man dressed in resplendent white robes and carrying a staff. His tunic was tied at the waist with a hemp girdle and belted to it was a bronze dagger and sickle. Aidan had heard tales of the ancient druids. Like most Christians, he thought (and prayed) that these ancients had long disappeared with the growth of Christianity in Ireland.
‘Yes, wise one, the warmth is very tempting on this brisk morning,’ Aidan stammered.
The druid sat next to the fire on a fallen oak log and motioned for Aidan to sit beside him. ‘Did you taste this salmon, holy man?’ asked the druid. Aidan looked at the ground guiltily and confessed that he had. The druid sighed deeply. ‘Then, I suppose this is for you,’ he said as he served the fish on a rough wooden platter and handed it to Aidan.
‘But … this is food to break your fast, I only had a taste,’ replied Aidan.
The druid rubbed his forehead tiredly and exclaimed, ‘Christian, this is no ordinary fish! Have you forgotten the ancient tales? Has our history and folklore been snuffed out completely? Surely a learned man such as you would have heard the tale of the ‘Salmon of Knowledge’. Please eat your prize.’ Feeling very remorseful, Aidan took the fish. The druid looked hard at him. ‘Do not feel guilty, Christian. It is destiny that brings us to this spot. You were meant to taste the Salmon of Knowledge. Please … eat. I am not displeased with you. While you eat, I will tell of the legend of Fionn,’ said the druid.
Aidan greedily ate the succulent fish.
The druid spoke, ‘Legend tells of a young man named Fionn, the son of Cumhail MacArt. His father was killed before Fionn was born. His mother, fearing for her son’s life, sent the boy away to be trained by a druid on the Isle of Skye.
‘We of the druidic order are great philosophers, striving to understand the elements of nature. In times past, we gathered in groves and taught lessons, sharing tales in the shade of the oak trees. The name ‘druid’ means ‘oak wise’. We are seekers of truth.
‘In the time of Fionn, we ruled Éire, but our numbers are sparse now. As time has passed and beliefs have changed we have almost been wiped out—almost! But there will always be some of us left to guide the real seekers of truth.’
The druid paused for a moment, looking closely at Aidan. He continued, ‘Fionn stayed on the Isle of Skye until he was a young man. He had learnt many things during this time. He could name all the trees in the wood. He knew herb-lore and the medicinal properties of herbs. Being a young man, he was not content with his simple life so he left the island to seek adventure. He searched for the ancient sacred well which is the source of inspiration of all Éire.
‘He followed the river. He travelled further and further upstream into the mountains and the wild lands, the river becoming smaller and smaller until it was a tiny stream. Finally he came to a well from which the stream sprang. A circle of old and purpled hazel trees stood around the well. The ancients tell us that there is a certain time when one of the trees will drop a hazelnut. If the hazelnut is caught by a salmon before it reaches the water and if this salmon is caught by a druid, the salmon will bestow great wisdom and inspiration. The environment has to be perfect for the hazel trees to bear fruit and for the salmon to reproduce.
‘Fionn circled the ancient trees curiously. They seemed more alive than normal trees; their branches thrashed as if in a strong breeze. The air was breathless, almost overpowering. His nostrils sensed the delicious aroma of fish cooking. The smell of simmering salmon made his mouth water and his stomach rumble with hunger. Fionn found himself beside the hearth. The beautiful fish was before him. He was tempted. Just a taste, he thought. It was such a large fish, surely a small taste wouldn’t upset the owner of the fish. He reached over to rip off a portion of flesh. He burnt his finger on the searing flesh of the salmon. Quickly, he put his thumb into his mouth to ease the pain of the throbbing thumb.
‘A druid emerged from the grove of hazel trees and looked at him sternly. The druid questioned him closely. He knew that he was face to face with Demne, a special youth who was to be given a special gift. So say the ancients, so it is.
‘The druid knew that this boy was the chosen one. He became a King and a leader of skilled warriors, known as the Fianna.’
The druid looked steadily at Aidan. ‘I speak to you of this tale, I am sure you know why. The fish you have just eaten is the fabled Salmon of Knowledge. You are the chosen one. You are the Fionn of this generation. Whatever journey or burden you undertake will be lessened by the boundless knowledge you have absorbed. Just as Fionn gained his wisdom from the Salmon of Knowledge, so have you, holy man. So say the ancients, so it is.’
Kathryn is married with three beautiful daughters. Amidst busy family life,
she studied at University to become a Primary school teacher. When
she is not teaching, she loves to write and dabble in other creative
pursuits such as painting and drawing. She and her husband hope to
realise their dream and move to the country one day – soon.