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INNISKEEL MONASTERY, 598 AD
Dusk curtains the monastery as Feidhelm traces a finger beneath Aibreann’s closed eyes, along her cheekbone and across the dimple of her chin. She is still warm, clinging to the last fragment of life that struggles within her. One more moment, one more breath. But no. Soon she will be cold and he will leave her, taking with him only the memory of a daughter that will fade too fast. She’ll become a phantom, a ghost—just like her mother did. A silent tear escapes his lashes and he follows its path down the crease of his nose to his chin and watches as it lands centered on the child’s forehead.
An icy breeze drifts in through the open window, bringing it with the last threads of daylight. Feidhelm shivers. A shadow falls on Aibreann’s face, highlighting her sunken cheeks in the dim light. He covers them with his hands; she is already feeling colder.
“Aibreann. How could they do this to you? Oh, my precious child.” A hand grazes Feidhelm’s shoulder and he lifts his head to see Dallán standing over him. The old man’s hands shake and he is unsteady on his feet, but the grief-stricken father minds this not, as he throws himself around his old master’s frail shell.
“She’s gone, Dallán. Gone.”
“I know.” Fragile as he is, Dallán holds the weeping father against him, whispering prayers of comfort against the backdrop of choked sobs. Gently, he leads Feidhelm to a seat across the room and helps him sink into the cushions. Feidhelm leans his head against the familiar cloaked shoulder.
“I lost someone very dear to me, Feidhelm. Twenty-five years ago, just a year before you became my scribe.” Feidhelm doesn’t move. Dallán continues, his voice low and smooth. “My sister was a beautiful woman, so gentle and kind. It was before her time but illness took her. So swiftly, nothing could be done.”
The silence rings in Feidhelm’s ears, Dallán’s words knocking fiercely to be let into his heart. “How did you go on without her?”
“It was God, my son. He took me by my hand and lead me forward, one step at a time. It was tortuous and beyond any pain I had experienced. But do you know what happens, Feidhelm, when you allow him to guide you in your grief?”
The last strands of light disappear from the window, replaced by a sheer layer of iced air that stings his skin. “No.”
One word. Its echo bounces off the walls of the room and ricochets against Feidhelm’s heart—but it cannot enter. It will not.
“I will not have peace. That is too much to expect.” Feidhelm pushes himself up by his hands and straightens his spine. Taking a hand, he wipes his tears from his eyes and dries his damp fingers on his tunic. He stands, suddenly shaky on his feet.
“Don’t expect it, Feidhelm. Just let it come. Let Christ be your guide, your vision.” He pauses, and Feidhelm turns to look at his face. Tears gather in the corners of Dallán’s eyes. Feidhelm moves to touch his hand to the man’s shoulder.
“Do you remember Druim Cett, Feidhelm?”
The question is so unexpected that Feidhelm cannot answer. He traces through his memories, searching for familiarity, and then, it comes. “Yes. I was injured then, during our fight to keep the filid from being exiled.”
“That’s right.” Dallán’s voice becomes even softer, and Feidhelm leans forward to hear. “Columba had a vision to preserve the bards and our art—the very heart of Ireland. His vision saved us, Feidhelm. And just as it was for Columba and the filid, so it will be with God. His vision will save you and guide you to freedom. Rest, Feidhelm, and allow him to lead you there.”
They come, as they stand, heads bowed, by the freshly dug grave. Feidhelm watches through his shower of tears as Adhamh and Harkin lower the coffin that contains his daughter’s remains into the earth. Dallán, standing at the head of the grave, speaks a eulogy, but Feidhelm cannot hear his words. His grief is too strong.
“And Lord, we submit Aibreann into your love now. She is safe with you now, Father; no more pain, no more tears. But as she is now without pain, we pray that you would come and be comfort to Feidhelm in his; be his strength in this time of grief. Help those who love him to comfort him as he needs, but knowing that the ultimate source of comfort is you. Lead us to yourself, Lord. Amen.” Feidhelm murmurs his amen with the gathered mourners, but the reverence of the moment is sliced by a scream.
Like owls with softened wings in pursuit of their midnight prey, they surround them; their swords glint in the soft light of the setting sun. Their beards are unshaven but cut short, and their dark-hued garb resembles the night in which they travel and pillage.
One pirate, a hefty man with hair layering his skin like a cloak, leads the charge, his sword protruding from his hand like a kitchen knife. Feidhelm is frozen where he stands, the utter disbelief of the scene before him rendering him motionless. It unfolds in rapid succession, body after body falling in murdered obedience, but to Feidhelm, each strike of the sword comes slowly. Such precision, such violence.
And he cannot move. Until that is, he sees the hairy pirate charge toward Dallán. Feidhelm’s heart gives a great jerk within his chest and his feet respond. Without a second’s delay, Feidhelm bursts from his stance, which until this moment has gone unnoticed by the raiders, and charges forward to his master’s side.
But it is too late. Dallán, gasping for breath and clutching his bloodied flank, collapses to the dirt. He does not rise. Feidhelm, forgetting his own danger, kneels down and presses his hands to his master’s temples. “No, Dallán. No. Stay with me. You must stay!”
It is in vain. As his friend’s breathing stills and his writhing body becomes motionless, Feidhelm collapses once more into tears. How could God allow such a thing to happen? First Aibreann, now Dallán.
A scream rouses Feidhelm from his renewed grief. He looks frantically about him, and sees just as Cathal, on the opposite side of the cemetery, is made to obey. Feidhelm turns back and comes face to face with the hairy one. In his desperation, Feidhelm wonders if it would be better to simply hand himself over to the inevitable. This way, he would be with Aibreann. And Dallán.
He does not have time to make a decision. It is made for him. He slumps to meet the earth and his maker, and as the world begins to dim into blackness.
Better to end with pain, than to live with unending sorrow.
“Come in, my son. Be welcomed in my name.” Light greets his eyes, a bright, inviting light that seems to emanate from every thread of air and strand of grass, even himself. He looks up, trying to find the source of the light, but is surprised to see a child, dressed in a white robe with a golden crown on her head, standing before him. Behind her, is a man, donning the same robe and crown. Their entire beings seem to sparkle.
“Welcome, friend.” The child’s voice is light and kind. Her smile is bright, and he returns it. Glancing about, he takes in his new surroundings—emerald fields meet turquoise seas, and the light, which first baffled him, now seems as though it has always been so.
He motions to the field, where at its end, is the sea’s beginning. “Does it go on forever?”
The child smiles, but it is the man who speaks. “It does, Feidhelm. It is the essence of the Lord’s vision, from creation to creation.” To his surprise, the robed man begins to sing, and as he does, it feels as though the world stops to listen.
“High King of Heaven, my victory won
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heav’n’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.”
The child smiles and reaches out her hand to take his. “Isn’t it glorious?” Spreading her hands far and wide, she continues. “It does go on forever. As do you. And I. Here, together, we shall go on forever. Guided and protected by the vision of He who was and always will be.”