“Any reason we can’t have a fire?”
The question was asked quietly enough but the words seemed to carry in the frost of the early morning air.
“I’ve already explained to you why we can’t light a fire.” The answer came out of the darkness.
“You realize I took a shit a little while ago and it froze before it hit the ground?”
The darkness sighed lightly at his companion’s complaints. “It will be morning soon enough.”
“And what of vespers?”
“What of it?” the deep voice asked, a hint of an edge like it was tired of answering the same question over and over again.
“Three days, Dagda. Three days we’ve not said morning prayers or evening vespers.” There was genuine worry, even fear in the voice. “And confession. We haven’t done confession for what, five, six days?”
“We haven’t had time,” Dagda responded.
“You think God cares about how much time we have?” the other snorted. “You might think you’re well hidden where we are, but not from God, my friend.”
“I’m not hiding from God.” Dagda let his voice rise slightly in an attempt to get the other man to drop his daily complaint. He raised his eyes to the east and saw what they had been waiting for. “Dawn will be here soon,” he commented at the paling of the nights sky where it touched the earth.
“Another day.” the other sighed.
“Another day,” Dagda repeated.
“If I die today, I’ll go straight to hell.”
Dagda finally turned in the direction the other voice was coming from. His eyes searched the darkness until he found the outline of the man sitting on a log. “You said that yesterday,” he said. “And the day before that and the one before that…” He would have continued but the man on the stump stopped him.
“Yes!” the other hissed. “But for the grace of God, I haven’t.” The man stood up, a slight groan escaping from his lips. He stretched out the kinks of the night. “I’m too fucking old to be wandering through forests at night.” He stamped his sandaled feet to warm them. “I could easily catch the sickness and die on the spot. Then where’d you be? Answer me that. All alone in this strange country with naught but my soul on your conscience.”
Dagda spat on the ground. “I’ll take my chances,” he said bluntly. “And need I remind you again that I didn’t twist your arm to come on this trip.” He wiped some remaining spittle with his sleeve. “As I recall you wanted to come.”
“Only because you said the trip would be useless if I didn’t.”
Dagda sighed heavily. “Today’s the last day we need to hide. After this we’ll sleep in warm beds and eat cooked food, I promise.”
The morning light had grown steadily as the two men argued and now Dagda could clearly see his companion. He looked at the grey hair that was left on the balding head and wondered if he had done the right thing by taking him. He watched silently as the older man stomped around the small clearing they had taken refuge in. “Aedan?”
The old man stopped and cocked his head. “What?”
“How old are you?”
“You ask me that now? After all these years?”
Dagda shrugged his huge shoulders. He towered over his companion at almost six and a half feet. He was always conscious of his height around others but he refused to diminish his stature by slouching. He tugged nervously at his jet black hair and equally black beard as if he was asking a very personal question. “Just curious,” he finally answered.
“You think I’m too old don’t you?” Aedan stammered accusingly. “You don’t think I can take care of myself. That I’m some feeble old cripple!”
Dagda shook his head, regretting even thinking about asking the question.
“Then why ask?” Aedan growled. “Why now?”
“I’m just curious.”
The old man turned away slowly, his irritation fading. He continued to stomp his feet not caring if he made too much noise. “I don’t know really,” he finally answered in a subdued voice.
“It’s not important, Aedan.” Dagda said kindly enough.
Aedan grunted and continued to pace around the clearing but he took greater pains now to keep from making too much noise.
The dull ‘dong’ of bells sounded off in the distance.
Aedan raised his head and grumbled. “They’ll be going to morning prayers,” he said accusingly.
Dagda just nodded, choosing to keep his words to himself for the moment.
The bells stopped and the forest was plunged into the cold silence of winter.
“I think I’m over forty.”
“What?” Dagda turned and looked at his older friend.
“Forty. I think I’m over forty.” Aedan stopped his moving about and looked sidelong at the taller man. “What year is this?”
“Year of our Lord 1157.”
“As near as I can figure, I was ten or eleven years old when I entered the monastery.”
“When was that?”
The old man scratched at his unshaven face and grumbled.
“I didn’t hear you,” Dagda pressed, his curiosity fully aroused.
“I need a shave,” Aedan snapped. He grumbled a bit more while he thought. “It was the same year that Gelasius III was pope.” He shrugged his shoulders, “What year that was I have no idea.”
“1118,” Dagda offered.
Aedan’s brow crinkled as he struggled with the numbers. He looked at Dagda for help.
“You’re forty-nine,” he offered. “That’s if you’re right about your age when you entered service.”
“Forty-nine?” Aedan looked both surprised and saddened by the news. “You sure?”
“Well the art of numbers was never a strong point of mine but it works out to that.”
“That’s pretty old isn’t it?” The old man sat down on the log and rubbed his knees.
Dagda shrugged his shoulders. He had guessed within a couple of years his friend’s age and wondered what had made him bring the subject up by asking. Silently he chastised his lack of foresight and compassion for his long time friend. Voices rose up in song from inside the Abbey and Dagda felt his own strong urge to go inside and join them.
“How old are you?” Aedan asked.
“That’s not so old.” Aedan tossed his friend a wink of a blue eye, “But not so young either.”
Dagda chuckled. “Not so young.” He turned his attention to the building that lay just beyond the trees. The morning light had grown enough for him to make out the details of the building they had been watching the last three days. It was made from rough-hewn stone and logs cut from the forest they were hidden in. It was small and crude but served well enough as a monastery. The Catholic Priests of the Celts were isolated and had built it mostly themselves with some help from the locals. Dagda noticed that the original building had been added to many times over the years. Wings jutted out at odd angles giving way to small open courts around the perimeter. There were no defensive structures in place and Dagda wondered at this absence. Most monasteries were prone to attacks at one time or another.
“I don’t see him.” Aedan grunted coming to stand next to Dagda.
Dagda looked down at the other, their closeness accentuating the differences in height. “He’ll be out soon enough.”
“And then what? We hit him on the head and plop a bag over him?”
Dagda smiled. “We’ll save that as a last resort.” He pulled at his beard in thought. “If I’m right about him and his talents, he should already be aware of us. Should have been since we arrived.”
Aedan stamped his foot. “Then why in God’s name have we been freezing our damn arses off in this bush?”
Dagda opened his mouth to talk but was cut off.
“And miss three days of vespers.” Aeden now wagged a finger in his partner’s face. “And missed daily confession!”
Dagda tried to speak again.
“Pah!” Aeden spat and waved his hand at his friend and stomped off to stand facing the trees at the far edge of the clearing.
“We needed to watch and learn,” Dagda tried to explain. “If he has the talents I think he has, we needed to see what he would do.”
“Well he’s done naught and we’ve come all this way and froze ourselves for naught!” Aeden refused to turn around, growling his words into the forest. “Your dreams have led us to a dead end, Dagda. Its time you admitted it.”
“I’ll admit it only after we talk to him.” Dagda was firm in his mind about the young monk they had come to see but his words sounded less sure.
“You’ve been wrong before.” Aeden accused.
“Not this time.” Dagda almost lost his temper and muttered a prayer under his breath for patience. “The feeling is too strong to be wrong.”
“He wont agree to come with us.”
“Maybe,” Dagda mused. “At first he might resist but I think in the end he’ll see his true path to God.”
“Or Satan,” Aeden argued. “The church, even our Celtic brethren think that we are nearer to the cursed one.” He rubbed his hands together. “We live on the edge of heresy and not a day goes by that I don’t expect to see the soldiers of Rome bearing down on us.”
“We’re safe for the moment.” Dagda pursed his lips in doubt at his own words.
“Not for much longer, Dagda,” Aeden spoke in a whisper as if the trees hid the very soldiers he feared. “Rome is moving on Ireland,” he continued. “His Holiness doesn’t like the fact that the Celtic Catholic church is separate from the constricts of the papacy.”
“You know,” Aeden hissed. “And yet here we are, two Celtic monks freezing over a boy who may or may not have the gifts. Who may or may not choose to come with us.”
Dagda turned a dark stare on his friend. “You’re not telling me anything I don’t know or fear, my friend.” he sighed heavily. “The soldiers are already on Irish soil and the burning and inquisitions have started.” He held his friends eyes with his own. “We are safer, freezing as we are, here, on British soil.”
Aeden’s face fell as if he had been struck a stinging and unexpected blow. “You know this?”
Dagda nodded his bearded chin. “Aye, I know this.” He turned away and began his own pacing of the clearing, his much longer legs making short work of the distance. “Our brethren at Armagh sent a runner with tidings. It seems King Henry II has received permission from the Pope to rid our dear Erin of all her evils and to return her to the fold.” Dagda spoke with disgust at what he had heard. Tortures, killings and worse had sent hundreds of his brothers fleeing for their lives. He refrained from telling his friend that the soldiers had asked for both of them by name and that many had been tortured to reveal their location. He knew Aeden would not have left the island had he known this.
Aeden’s eyes watered and his face dropped. “Can we ever return?” He asked quietly
Dagda shook his head. “No. Unless we are called to duty.” He placed a comforting hand on his friend’s shoulder. “We live in exile from this point on. Can you be content with this?”
“Do I have a choice?” Aeden asked, flashing Dagda a pained look. “I wish you would have trusted me enough to tell me this before we left.”
“I could hardly trust myself,” Dagda explained. “It was all the will I could muster to keep from going to our brethren’s aid. I would not have been able to contain the desires of both of us.”
Aeden remained silent but nodded.
The two friends stood side by side in silent prayer for their brothers as the morning light finally began filtering through the trees.
Dagda closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He had chosen to travel at the right time. Winter was over and spring newly begun. The nights and mornings would still bring a chill for a while longer but they would have several months of good weather, which they might need if they were forced to remain hidden in the woods of this strange country. His nose picked up the faint scent of wet grass and his mind flew back in time to the glen he was born in. Summers spent helping his father till the earth. Lazy afternoon’s when it was his turn to watch the sheep. The memory was faint and fleeting but it cradled and steadied him. In his heart he knew that he would always have a piece of his Island with him.
Noise from the courtyards brought him back to the present and he craned his neck to see if the boy was outside.
“He’s over by the barrow,” Aeden whispered. “Near the gate wall.”
Dagda’s eyes searched the area and found him. He was clad in the usual monk’s garb, hooded robe and sandals. He bore his Celtic heritage in his wide face and jet-black hair. The young man clearly was just out of boyhood, the skin of his face smooth and hairless and free from any blemishes or pox. His isolation had been of benefit to his appearance but Dagda knew that the years ahead of him, either at the abbey or by his side would age the boy to the point where he would be unrecognizable from the youth who now stood in the courtyard.
“Well?” Aeden asked. “Do we jump out of the bushes, rush him and drag him off?”
Dagda didn’t answer right away. He was watching the boy who had now left the shadow of the wall and walked into the cleared area between the abbey wall and the trees that hid the two monks. He stopped a few strides from the edge of the forest and bowed slightly.
“God be with you.” His voice was soft but deep like a mans’ and strong. Dagda felt the strength of that voice and knew immediately that his dream had not been false.
Aeden and Dagda exchanged looks of surprise.
“And also with you,” Dagda responded, pushing his way through the thick underbrush until he stood in the clearing facing the youth. It took a little longer and several mumbled curses before Aeden joined them.
The young man regarded the two with a mixture of satisfaction and surprise. Dagda towered over him like a giant from children’s stories and his dress leaned more to that of a travelling warrior than monk. The young monk’s eyes took in the man who had answered his blessing. The huge frame was wrapped by a dark, weather stained cloak of heavy wool and underneath he wore a dark brown leather jerkin over a wool shirt. Both were belted with a wide, studded leather belt and on his left hip hung a scabbard holding a long dagger. The man’s tree-trunk like legs were encased in black wool and bound with leather. The soft, sheepskin boots he wore looked big enough for two men to fit their feet in.
“The Lord’s blessing be upon you this day,” Aeden managed between gasps of breath.
“Thank you,” the young man responded, a smile playing on his lips. At least this one looked more like a monk he thought.
“We are both brethren,” Dagda spoke as if reading the young man’s mind.
The young man took a quick step back and looked hard at the tall monk. “It is you who have invaded my dreams of late,” he said quickly. “Although I must admit I had not expected one who could actually touch the heavens.” The smile he wore turned sly. “Tell me my brother. Do you also converse with the birds of the air?”
Aeden hissed violently. “Mock him at your peril, boy.”
“I doubt it not that he could easily crush me.” The crooked smile had not left his lips.
The blow that came resounded in the courtyard and the boy shook his head. His look had changed to hurt at being struck and genuine surprise at where the blow had come.
Aeden had moved faster than an eye could track and struck the boy a solid slap on the side of his head.
The young man held a palm up to the side of his head for a moment before collecting his wits. “I offer both of you my apology.” His voice had lost much of its bravado and he hung his head.
“You are forgiven for my part,” Aeden said tersely
“And for mine,” Dagda added.
The young man raised his head again and held out his hand. “My name is Brennus.”
“I am called Dagda and this,” Dagda gestured to his friend, “is Brother Aeden.”
“Brennus?” Aeden repeated with a lift of an eyebrow. “Of the elder Celtic Lords?”
The young man nodded. “The same who sacked Rome in a time long past.”
“Long past but not forgotten it would seem.” Dagda interjected. “Why did your father choose this name?”
“My mother told me that when I was born I was not breathing. The woman attending her cried that I was still born. It was then that a raven flew in to our hut and landed on the bed. My father could not make the creature leave until it had heard me cry my first breath.” The young monk smiled at the memory. “Brennus is ancient Celtic for raven.”
Aeden threw a look at Dagda. “It would seem he is well chosen.”
“We are all well chosen, my friend.” Dagda opened his arms in greeting and benediction. “Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Glory Be to the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. We are all well met on this day.”
“Amen,” Aeden and Brennus answered in unison.
“Then the only question is why have we met on this day?” Brennus asked.
As if in response, a cloud passed before the sun and the world darkened around the three men.
“A sign from God,” breathed Aeden, making the sign of the cross.
Dagda shook his head and looked up at the sky. “It’s a fucking cloud.” He growled in irritation at his friend.
“It’s God’s fucking cloud.” Aeden corrected.
“It would seem that you two have travelled far together,” Brennus interjected as if to try and stave off an argument. “We’ve already taken morning bread but travellers are always welcome and meals are served in their honour.”
A sigh escaped Aeden’s lips before he licked them. “Would that be a hot meal?”
Brennus nodded his head. “Porridge,” he said bluntly. “A meagre meal but the bread is fresh and the butter churned this very morn by yours truly.”
“A king’s feast to such as us,” Dagda said.
A shadow passed over the young monk’s face and he hesitated. “I would ask something of you Brothers before we go on.”
“Ask,” Dagda and Aeden said in unison, their mouths watering and bellies grumbling at the thought of food.
“The world,” the young monk began. His brow furrowed as if searching for the correct words. “I have dreamed of a terrible thing for almost two years now. Lately, the dream has come more often to my sleep as if there is a deep urgency.”
Dagda remained silent, his head only nodding slightly.
“It would seem to me that the world is torn,” Brennus almost whispered. “Somewhere, there is or will be a tear that will bring ruination to life.”
Both Dagda and Aeden stiffened at the monk’s statement. Dagda cocked an eyebrow at the young monk. “You dream true, I fear,” he said at last.
“Then is this the end of times? Are we to prepare to meet our Lord?” Brennus asked the questions in a voice that was strangely mixed with fear and anticipation.
Dagda stroked his black beard while he considered what to say in answer. It was Aeden who decided for both of them what to say.
“No, Brother it is not that end as written in the revelations of John.” Aeden glanced quickly to the larger monk as if looking for permission to continue. Dagda nodded quickly.
“But it may be that should we fail, then that which was prophesied could indeed come to pass.” Aeden made the sign of the cross and became silent.
Brennus looked at the older monk then to Dagda. “Then what is to happen?”
Dagda reached out and grabbed the young monk firmly by the shoulders. “It is because of your dreams that we have searched you out my young Brother. With God’s help and yours, we intend to prevent this tear from happening.” His stomach made a loud noise. “Now what about our breakfast?”