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DRUIM CETT, 575 AD
“King Hugh, listen to me, I beg of you. To abolish the fild will be to abolish the very foundation of Ireland. Our identity as a nation owes itself to this order; the filid are the keepers of our history, the ones who preserve our culture. If they are exiled, who will ensure that Ireland and her people are not forgotten? Please, listen to my words.” Columba’s defense rises on the shimmering breeze and floats across the field, weaving in and amongst the courtiers, bards and laymen that are gathered in apprehensive numbers. The king’s entourage stand at rigid attention, their mouths pursed in a solemn line, fingers encircling the hilt of their weapons. It is a stark contrast to the men gathered to Columba’s cause—their wind-mussed hair, unshaven beards and muddied garments only escalate what Feidhelm fears most.
“You speak well of the filid, Columba,” King Hugh allows, a hint of mischief rising beneath his diplomacy, “but will you forget their misdeeds only to praise their achievements? One must recognize the fault to appreciate the good. Do you not agree?” A titter ripples across the royal company, the premature celebration of their king’s championing. Feidhelm bites his bottom lip in disgust—even at his young age, his blood boils at their arrogance. A frustrated sigh escapes through his now bloody lip.
“Do you grow weary of the convention, my son?” Dallán reaches a hand to his left and finds the youth’s shoulder. He gives it a gentle squeeze, then resumes entangling and disentangling his fingers in agonizing anticipation. Feidhelm doesn’t bother to meet his master’s vacant gaze.
“How much longer will they go on like this? What good can come from their quarreling?” As he speaks, his eyes find the king, his knuckles whitening from their grip on his sword.
“Perhaps nothing,” Dallán concedes. “Perhaps exile is our fate. But I do not believe the Almighty, nor Columba, will fail us. We are Irish, my boy, and in Ireland we will remain.” Feidhelm nods, forgetting his master’s blindness and returns to chewing his lip.
To the adolescent, it seems that the tension between the bards and the crown has been going on since he was in the cradle. Demands for tax exemption, more freedom, less responsibility… it stews in Feidhelm’s mind until it spills over and creates a foaming, frothy confusion. And, being the scribe for the Ollamh is no cure. When Master Dallán is not dictating his latest eulogy or epic, his waking hours are filled with such apprehension for the future of the filid—his future—that Feidhelm cannot escape its clutches.
Now, it has come to this. A crisp, April morning at Druim Cett to celebrate the return to their rightful place in Irish society, or perhaps, be banished altogether. If only for the sake of his master, he hopes for the former.
“Oh my King.” Columba spreads his hands in an arc before him, reaching, stretching, as though closing an invisible divide. “They do not hide their misdeeds from you. But exiling them will only wound our nation further. No. The answer is purification.” At this, Feidhelm raises his gaze to meet the man fighting for his people. Despite his best efforts to conceal it, he is curious.
His face is framed by flaming strands, which stands as the pinnacle of a mountainous build. Hands that have seen rougher days than Feidhelm’s reach out before him, palms to the heavens, the fate of the bardic order exposed for the taking. He waits, his expression one of fervent hope.
“By what means would you purify such a filthy body as the one you so admire?” A resounding cry of agreement fills Feidhelm’s ears. He clenches his jaw.
“Reform.” Silence falls like rain over the entirety of the convention’s attendants. All eyes, royal supporters and bards alike, turn inward to fix upon the peculiar diplomat. “Reform the filid as you see necessary and maintain their status as Ireland’s poets and minstrels. Allow them to carry on our traditions, but in a manner honouring to the crown. In this way, their demands will cease and they will once more be the treasured members of society as they once were. Is this agreeable to my lord the king?”
Dallán’s fingers dig into Feidhelm’s forearm, the force of his master’s nerves tangible in the air between them. “This is our moment, Feidhelm. Oh Lord God, may it be a favourable outcome.” Feidhelm wriggles himself out of the man’s grasp and takes a step forward. He sees what his master cannot, and at this moment, he is grateful for it.
King Hugh’s sword hangs in the air between himself and Columba, awaiting orders. The men at his back follow their commander and draw their weapons from their lairs. Columba is motionless, but his face betrays no anxiety. Feidhelm’s heart beats faster, anticipating, fearing for the next moment.
Dallán’s grip tightens around Feidhelm’s arm. “What is happening, Feidhelm? Tell me.” But he is silent, his eyes fixated on the impending battle. The sword inches nearer to Columba.
“Oh my master, I’m afraid it may be the—” Before Feidhelm can finish speaking, the field erupts into chaos. Shouts for “exile!” and “justice for Ireland!” fill the air, as King Hugh’s men surge forward into the defenseless filid.
Feidhelm rears back, stumbling against Dallán as the men in front of him retreat. Hooking his fingers around his master’s wrist, Feidhelm draws him back, slipping on the damp grass as they flee from their pursuers. Feidhelm chances a glance back; a mess of limbs lay entangled in the grass near to where they had stood moments before. Let it not be Columba, he prays silently. Scanning his surroundings, he searches for the diplomat, but his eyes find nothing.
Dallán tugs at him sharply. “Hurry, Feidhelm! Hurry! But be careful, the ground—” Dallan’s warning is interrupted as Feidhelm tumbles headfirst down the grassy slope and collides with the rock formation at its base.
The world goes black.
The fire dims and night grows ever nearer when Feidhelm begins to stir. Dallán leans over the youth, concern and relief wrapped up in his face.
“Feidhelm? Can you hear me?” He whispers the words at first, but when Feidhelm shows no response, he repeats himself, louder and louder until he is speaking at regular intervals.
Nothing. Feidhelm lays motionless before the blind poet, all metaphor and symbolism offering little comfort in the face of true peril. “Oh God,” he whispers, “revive him.”
Beneath his hand, Feidhelm shudders, a stronger movement than made thus far. Dallán squeezes his shoulder, his prayers ever more fervent for his healing.
“What, what has happened?”
Dallán resists the urge to fall on his friend with thankfulness. “Feidhelm, thank the Lord! Are you well?” Feidhelm shifts slightly, and moves to sit up. Weak, he falls back to the pillow.
“Stay still, my son. You were hurt in the battle.”
Dallán’s memories of the day’s events are all too vivid, as he searches for the right words.
“Do you remember Columba?”
“Who is Columba?”
Dallán sighs, and tucks the blanket tighter around the patient. “Feidhelm, today you and I, and the other members of the filid gathered with King Hugh and his men to try and preserve our order. They sought to banish us from Ireland.”
“Banish? But why?” Again, Feidhelm attempts to sit up, but Dallán eases him back.
“You must rest, Feidhelm.” He does not argue.
“There was a battle, Feidhelm. And some of our members were killed.” He waits, but there is no response. Feidhelm’s eyes are open and attentive, so he continues. “We thought it was sure banishment. We were retreating, and that’s when you fell. You became unconscious from the fall, Feidhelm, and have been for several hours now. Cathal helped me bring you here. You’re in my home.”
“No need. You are like a son to me. It was all I could do.”
“So, are we banished then?” A slow smile creeps across Dallán’s face as he reaches out to set his other hand beside the first on Feidhelm’s shoulder. Seeing his smile, Feidhelm’s eyes light up, expectant.
“No. We are liberated, Feidhelm! God has seen us through this trial, and praise be to Him for his provision.”
Feidhelm’s face breaks out into a boyish grin. As if his strength comes back in the words of this revelation, Feidhelm sits up, removes Dallán’s hands from his shoulders and squeezes them tightly in his own. “Liberated! But how?”
“Columba! He was not among the dead, and Cathal told me later that upon seeing the spilled blood, went boldly up to the king and said: “My king, you are and always be my king. My heart’s desire is to honour you, and to have the filid honour you. Please, show us your mercy! Stop this bloodshed and allow us to repay you for our misdeeds, and to give you the honour you so deserve.” Dallan’s voice grows louder with excitement as he speaks; his words echo off the stone walls of the room.
“The king relented?”
“Yes. You see, it was his second-in-command, Dunstan, that provoked the battle. When the king heard Columba’s plea, he demanded Dunstan to cease the attack. I have heard since that Dunstan has been dismissed from the king’s service. But we are free, Feidhelm. Free! Columba has liberated us.”
They sit quiet for a moment, digesting the drastic turn of events. It is Dallán who breaks their silence.
“While you were, indisposed, I composed a poem I would like to dictate to you. When you are recovered, of course.”
“Another poem, master? What about?”
Dallán intertwines his fingers excitedly as he speaks. “About Columba, my boy. His valour and his courage. His vision to fight for the filid, against all potential dangers, is magnificent. We should seek to follow his footsteps. That vision shall be ours, Feidhelm, to hold, to preserve and to guide us. Columba is a treasure among men, loved by all and blessed by God. How can a man such as he live without a poem to honour him?”
The fire has ceased to glimmer and night has drawn its curtain across the sky. But the light burns bright in Dallán’s eyes, and Feidhelm’s strength begins to return.
Continue reading Follow the Vision, Part Two here.