Monday, October 27, 2008
Celtic Sacrifice - Sheryl Brennan
By Sheryl Brennan
Publisher: Underdog Press
Genre: Historical Romance
Copyright: 2008 by Underdog Press
Published date: November 2008
Where it can be purchased: www.underdogpress.com
“Do you know how to make the gods laugh, Ceana? Tell them of your plans.”
When members of her dead mother’s clan of O’Connor come to claim Ceana O’Hagan on her eighteenth birthday, she believes her destiny is clear: to marry Cian O’Connor, become a druid priestess, and restore the mystic powers of a long-lost ancestor.
But the path becomes muddy when a mysterious stranger captures Ceana’s heart as well as her body, setting an alternate course of events into motion. Dangling within the chasms of religion, duty, and newly discovered emotions, will Ceana’s desire to fulfill her tribal obligations force her to give up the love of Cian, her country, and her culture, or will she refuse to become the Celtic Sacrifice the English crown craves?
Cian did not attempt to engage me in conversation for the remainder of the ride to Roscommon. The hours slowly slipped away, seeing us laugh at jokes and stories told by the guard and Amargein. We breached a hilltop overlooking the stronghold of the O’Connor clan bathed in day’s final light. At last, our travels were ending.
I etched the remaining steps into my mind, committing to memory how the brilliant yellow-orange sun dappled the fortress. Entering the woodlands, we briefly lost site of the castle and village below. Twilight enveloped us and a ground fog seeped over the greenery.
Father and son exchanged secreted words before Amargein and the guard sped ahead to announce my arrival. Graceful rolling clouds signaled the coming rain. No moonlight would guide our way this eve.
Cian stared off into the encroaching wooded area at something invisible to me. As if entranced, he grabbed the reins to my horse, leading me toward the object of his intense concentration.
"I wish to show you something," he said. "A sacred place that is essential to our faith and heritage."
After dismounting in a thick bed of ferns, Cian reached up to assist me from my horse. Weary from our long journey, I allowed him to catch me as I slid from the saddle. His steady arms lowered me expertly to solid ground. Our eyes met briefly, then we tied the reins of the horses to low lying branches.
Darkness closed upon the forest quickly. I could see only shadows looming and weaving before me. Unfamiliar with the terrain, I needed to rely on Cian’s senses---but he forged ahead too quickly in the dense surroundings.
“Cian, I cannot see. Where am I to go?”
I heard his careful footsteps tracing back to where I stood. “The way is very dim. Will you trust me to guide you?”
The sarcasm in his words made me giggle inwardly. He served back to me what I so thoroughly heaped upon him earlier that day. And I’ll admit, I deserved it.
I extended my arm in answer. Without groping, Cian softly entwined his fingers with mine and led me deeper into the wood. Each step sent up the musky smell of decaying leaves whilst the fog left myriads of tiny droplets on our shoes and cloaks. The chill wind beating at our backs blew a hole in the clouds to reveal a waning gibbous moon.
Mysteriously, the wind ceased and light from the heavenly body appeared, focusing on the spot where we stood. Wonders I had yet to know met my astonished gaze.
Nineteen standing stones surrounded us, each inscribed with Ogham. Awed by their omniscient power, I felt drawn to touch each one.
Cian appeared knowledgeable of their magic. Ceremoniously he escorted me to each stone, allowing me to place my palms upon the mossy rock. The vibrations emanating from the monuments warmed my hands.
We stopped at the center of the great circle where a small squared stone shimmered in the moonlight. When my gaze shifted from one part of the rock to another, a new opalescent color glistened forth. A touchstone! The legendary touchstone of Una where the focused power of the conjurer would diffuse into each of the nineteen monoliths reaching toward the heavens.
As my senses drank in this mystic site, emotion overwhelmed me. With sudden clarity, I knew this must be the place of my mother’s dreams and stories.
Cian spoke in low, fluid tones. "This is the site where Una drew her power and received her visions. The ancient faery circle where she married your mother and father and where the hopes of west and north conceived a son who would throw the authority of the Celtic gods to the English. Do you feel the power of the O’Connor priestess inhabiting these aged pillars?"
I closed my eyes and strove to identify the vibrations pulsing around us. The mists swirled with the breeze, carrying the scent of approaching rains. I knew we should away to the village, but the power of the stones shackled my feet, preventing escape.
"It was within this circle I beheld visions of you, Ceana. The destiny you hold, the healing you will accomplish, and the restoration of power our unification could bring."
I looked into Cian’s face, seeing the glimmer of earnest devotion reflected in his eyes. His voice was not threatening or warning. I could feel his respect for this place and his faith that transcended any selfishness.
"Ceana, I long to fulfill my own fate, but you discredit me if you feel I would do so to the exclusion of the greater role you are to play. I believe our paths are bound to each other, but I will not sacrifice the good of our clan for my own contentment. I am an O’Connor druid first and foremost. The future of our clan is my primary responsibility."
My heart wanted to reach out and allow him entry. On the surface, it appeared our goals were the same. Had I been too hard on him earlier? Had my fear overshadowed my judgment? So many were counting on my success, I feared failing them by following the wrong path or indulging in a pleasure that might not be mine to take.
"I do not know if or when our time is measured, Cian, but know we stand as one to do what must be done for the sake of our tribes and clan."
A smile curled the edges of Cian’s lips. He pressed my hand to the shimmering touchstone, covering it with his. "I pledge to you, my life and my love, for the sake of our kinsmen."
I smiled, feeling as though a heavy weight lifted from my shoulders. Now I could concentrate on what I must do to obtain that end. I turned to face Cian and confirm our solidarity. "Then we are agreed? For the sake of our kinsmen?"
Within the circle a cold, drizzling rain fell upon us. Cian reached around my neck, tenderly pulling the hood of my cloak over my head. With a gentle touch, his finger pushed back the damp fringes of hair framing my face. His war hardened body closed in tightly to protect mine against the chill. Cian’s finger continued to trace the outline of my face, pushing the boundaries of my restraint. I could feel his heart beating wildly within his chest.
His voice became a sensual whisper in my ear. "I must deliver you to Roscommon before you catch your death."
Held captive by Cian’s attentions, I could hardly feel the downpour weighing on my cloak. We ran back to the horses more on instinct than memory, then flew to the gates of the castle as fast as the beasts could carry us. We were admitted heartily, then hastily shuffled to quarters to prepare for the night of feasting ahead.
Within my chamber, a large wooden tub was prepared containing warm water and herbs. I welcomed the heat of the liquid to chase away the chill as well as the lustful thoughts that had invaded my head.
The enclosure of the chamber was smaller than my quarters at the grove, but well appointed. Tapestries depicting Ireland’s epic history covered the windows, keeping out the cold of autumn nights.
Above the brownstone hearth hung a giant painting of a captivating young woman in the robes of Brigid. Focusing my eyes on the portrait, I noticed she wore the amulet of the O’Connor. From what I could distinguish, her amulet contained the moonstone within the boughs of the Oak. Whoever she was, the woman must have completed her apprenticeship in order to wear the symbol.
I concentrated on the picture attempting to identify her features. She did not have the look of my mother. Could she be my grandmother? A distant cousin? As though the portrait would hear and respond I questioned aloud, “Who are you?”
"She is your great-great-grandmother, Una O’Connor. She sat for the painting on the day she completed her apprenticeship.”
After closing the creaking door, a small white-haired woman shuffled across the room. Engrossed by my curiosity, I had been oblivious to her entry. Crossing to the bath, she steadied herself by grasping onto pieces of furniture. She approached the tub, firelight reflecting the dull blue hue of her eyes. Her soft, wrinkled hands made contact with my face. "Is this my grandchild? My Ceana?"
Her fingers traced the outline of my cheeks, eyes, nose, and mouth. “You have your mother’s eyes…the eyes of Una.”
Grandma Rionach? I remembered the story my mother told me of her. She and my mother had been gathering herbs in the gardens when a sudden storm came upon them. They were attempting to cross the meadow back to safety when lightning struck Rionach. The gods spared her life, but took her vision. Over the years, what was lost in her eyes she gained in the second sight.
Rionach kissed my cheeks then gave them a motherly pat. "It is good to have you here where you belong."
My father’s parents had passed on to Tir-nan-óg long before I was born. I had not known the love of a grandmother or grandfather in Dungannon, but looked forward to enjoying the affection of my mother’s kin while at Roscommon. "I am glad to be here."
My grandmother toddled to a rocking chair set beside the tub. The creak of the chair swaying back and forth had a comforting sound. I attempted to rise from the bath, but Rionach stopped my ascension.
"No, no, no. Sit. Enjoy your soak. The clan has a full night of festivities in store to celebrate your arrival. We must both refresh before entering into the revelry."
Back and forth she rocked, humming softly. I closed my eyes enjoying her serenade. Her humming gradually turned into a song with intriguing lyrics about the gods and members of the O’Connor clan. I listened intently. Many of the songs she crooned I had not heard before.
Rionach sang of my mother, her time on earth, and her contributions to the tribe as healer until she moved to the North Country. Her voice trilled in the same way as my mother’s, making me feel at home in this new environment. Only the sound of the drums beginning their chants below interrupted her lyrics.
“I have never heard such harmonious tales. Will you sing more of them to me tomorrow?”
Her whimsical laughter filled the room as though an unseen wind carried it to each corner. “Sing them? My child, you will learn them yourself to retell to your own children. Tomorrow begins your Bardic lessons. This is where all novices begin their training.”
Rionach stood, cautiously feeling her way to the chamber door. Opening it with effort, she summoned the waiting attendants to my bath. "Let us get you dressed."
I rose from the tub, covering myself with a length of cotton toweling before exiting the water. Two young maidens instantly appeared, each holding articles of clothing and jewelry.
Since it was my family color, I had planned to wear the green velvet gown I brought for this purpose, but my grandmother had other designs. She instructed the girls on what items she would prefer to see upon me, if the gods saw fit to restore her sight, of course.
To begin, they brought a chemise of the purest white, with billowing sleeves, embroidered with ribbon down their center. Next, an overdress of ruby brocade cinched in the front and dotted with finely cut amber stones that twinkled in the firelight. A belt of gold, inlaid with the symbol of the Triple Goddess for my waist. A small shawl of wool dyed golden yellow and the softest deerskin shoes to complete the ensemble.
Gloves with half sleeves attached and made of chain mail were slipped onto my hands and arms, while a silver circlet bearing the crescent moon was gingerly placed atop my head.
With tender hands, the young women combed and plaited my hair. Upon completion of their preparations, I felt mightily overdressed. Even in Dungannon, as the daughter of a chieftain, I did not choose such extravagant garments.
The finishing touch was the amulet of the O’Connor and O’Hagan signet. Proudly, I displayed my clan connections, as they were more precious to me than any finery.
The maids curtsied and quickly exited. Rionach approached with her arms outstretched. Taking her hands, I pressed them to my cheeks. "I do not deserve robes of such luxury."
The elder smiled while her hands reached to read the look of my transformation. Her approval became evident. "Cian will be unable to resist you."
I immediately tensed. Rionach giggled at my discomfort. “Come, come child. I may be blind, but can still see many things. The beauty of my granddaughter and a nephew skipping about the halls as though a child with his first piece of sweet cake can not only be heard with the ears, but seen with the heart. He has been waiting an entire lifetime for you, Ceana. It is only right he share his joy with a clan that has also waited a lifetime to receive you."
Her voice, soft and soothing, calming my fears of a future not entirely revealed. "For now," Rionach bade, " eat… drink… dance. Enjoy the freedom of the night. Tomorrow begins a new journey that will stretch you far beyond what you have known before."
Arm in arm we left the bedchamber to take part in the festivities below. Drums, lyre and pipes continuously played until we appeared in the grand hall. At the music’s abrupt cessation, all eyes turned toward our entrance.
On a dais near the musicians stood a man who emanated the authority of a chieftain. Taller than my father, he sported long white hair freshly washed and tied with leather strips. Though his face showed each worry as a deep wrinkle, his body was fit and sturdy. The sword hanging from a scabbard at his waist belied any intentions of allowing his age to define him. His ominous presence was that of a leader capable of defending his clan to the bitter end. This was my Grandfather Chullain.
His eyes, of the same sparkling green as my mother’s, became moist when Rionach and I approached the podium. Chullain and Cian stepped down to help us both onto the platform.
In my ear, Cian whispered tenderly. “You are a vision to behold, Ceana. A true princess of our clan.”
I feigned to curtsy out of respect for my Grandfather, but before I could complete the gesture he grasped my arms and kissed my cheeks. Chullain held me close and spoke in low murmured tones. "We have waited many moons for you to return to us, Ceana. Our people have long anticipated your coming." Clearing his throat, Chullain took my hand, extending it toward the multitude assembled. "Many years ago, our daughter Nessa went in search of her destiny. In Dungannon, she found safe harbor with her husband Aodhan of the clan O’Hagan. Before Nessa was called to Tir-nan-óg she bore the future leaders of Ulster and Connacht." The crowd buzzed and nodded. "Tonight, we celebrate the coming of the future druidess of Roscommon… my granddaughter, Ceana!"
Chullain raised my hand even further into the air as a sudden roar mounted from among the assembly. There must have been fifty men and women within the hall. From what I could surmise, all related to the clan of O’Connor in some way. My father’s clan in Dungannon was not nearly as large. I suppose with the O’Hagan sept being a warrior race, many of my father’s relatives had been lost to one battle or another.
Chullain continued his oration. “Let us feast in her honor tonight. Let us dance and sing for the gods in appreciation of gifts they have given us in the harvest and in our returning child!”
The music began with a lively jig. As each of the crowd chose a partner, Chullain introduced me to the aunts, uncles, and cousins assembled on the dais. Of those gathered, I could only remember the names of my immediate cousins: Moina and Ilt.
They were quiet girls, one older and one younger than myself. Since they barely spoke, I wondered that I recalled them at all. Yet something about their demure smiles and placid dispositions had imprinted their names into my memory.
Formalities done with, now came a time for feasting. Servants moved a trestle table onto the dais. Tribal members hastened to take their places at dining planks set along the outer edges of the hall.
Chullain disappeared with Rionach, leaving me feeling quite like a fish caught within a net. Cian came to my rescue, directing me to a place at the table beside him.
Kitchen servants seemed to pour from everywhere carrying trays of fish, game, vegetables, breads, ales and sweet meats. The Michaelmas feast in Dungannon could not compare to the volumes of food on display this evening.
All at once Chullain reappeared beside me. Seating himself, he excused the absence of my grandmother for the remainder of the festivities due to her overtaxed emotions.
Everyone ate until they felt they would need to be rolled away from the tables, including Chullain, who allowed an enormous belch to emit from his lips. Cian and I were sharing a trencher, but could hardly finish anything on it. Each time we would reach for a slice of meat, our hands would brush, only serving to reignite the fires we attempted to sequester.
The musicians struck up a reel and I was relieved for the opportunity to put our energies into more rigorous sport. If we could exhaust ourselves from the dance, perhaps our minds would be unable to remember the events from earlier in the evening.
The distraction proved successful. Breathless, we excused ourselves out of doors to take in the air. The rain had ceased and the wind had blown many of the clouds further east to reveal a quiet, star filled sky.
Cian outstretched his arm. “Shall we walk?”
Still catching my breath from the dance, I nodded in acceptance, taking his arm so we might traverse the torchlit grounds. As we walked, Cian took care to explain the occupants of each cottage or shop we passed.
He paused slightly, turning to me in earnest. “When we passed through the wood of Dungannon, I happened to notice a small workshop and garden set there. To whom did it belong?”
Astonished he had remembered any of the landmarks from his travels to my village, I responded excitedly at his inquest. “Twas mine. Déahglán and Glaisne built it for me as a remembrance when they went to foster with the O’Neill.”
“You must miss it terribly.”
Cian led me through an herb garden freshly laid with straw over the fallow areas to prepare the soil for winter. The fresh scent permeated the evening air, reminding me of my own winter routine. Strange how a simple smell could transport you back in time.
“Aye.” I sighed deeply, remembering fondly what I had left behind.
We rounded a corner in the garden leading to a pebble laid path. At the end of the lane stood an expansive wood planked structure with glass windows. My workshop could fit thrice over into this building!
The glint of candles burning brightly within reflected upon the panes. I could hardly contain my girlish excitement at such a find. "Cian… is this?"
“My herbarium?” He chuckled. “Aye.”
I let go of his arm, almost running to the entrance of this wondrous place.
“Would you like to go inside?”
Energized, I hopped on my toes as Cian opened the heavy door. Once inside, I immediately closed my eyes to breathe in the aromas of thyme, Echinacea, and multitudes of other scents floating within the atmosphere. "I thought it would be moons before I would smell such fragrances again."
I opened my eyes and drank in the surroundings. At either end of the herbarium, embers in hearths designed to dry the harvested herbs glowed warmly. Shelves holding all manner of pots, jars, bowls and drying plants lined the perimeter. Vessels set upon a long oak table revealed the work he must have been doing before the journey to Dungannon.
A heavy stone mortar and pestle rested upon the workbench. I picked up the instrument, grinding the contents within it as I continued to tour the room.
Cian grinned as he watched me wander. When finally I came to stand beside him, he gently pried the instrument from my fingers, placing it on the table, then folded my hands to rest within his.
"You are welcome in this space whenever you have need or want of it." He cupped my chin, lifting my head so that I stared into his endless eyes. "The world stops at that door, Ceana. Time will stand still for you here."
Cian’s patience and generosity continued to amaze me. My heart melted at his understanding of my need for something familiar. I wanted to dive headlong into his warrior arms and lose myself forever, but I couldn’t bear to begin a journey that would know no fulfillment.
I attempted retreat, but his hands tightened on mine.
“Stay… please,” he whispered.
Before I could think, he had closed the distance, his hand gliding along the back of my shoulder and neck, leisurely edging my lips closer to his. Cian’s breath, warm, sweet, and ragged rushed across my cheek. I wanted to run, but anticipation locked my feet into place. I was his prisoner, eagerly awaiting my sentence.
Cian gently ran his fingers through my hair as his lips trailed diminutive kisses from my cheek to the hollow of my neck. The combination of the rigors of the evening and the wine had control of my senses. I slid my hand around his neck, guiding him toward my waiting mouth, longing for him to take me as he had before.
“Why must you torture me so?” I whispered as he moved ever so slowly to the satisfaction of my desires.
“I assure you, Ceana, it is you who tortures me.”
His lips tenderly closed over mine, his tongue playing a game of cat and mouse, stoking an inferno of passion I could not contain.
My hands clutched tightly at the fabric of his léine, wanting, needing to bring him into the very depths of my soul to quench the fire he had started.
Cian moaned low in his throat, his hands encircling my waist, effortlessly pulling me flush to his hardened body. I could feel his manhood swelling beneath his trews, pressing hard and insistent against the silky material of my gown. Close… so close to the place I desired him to explore.
Footsteps outside along the gravel pathway disrupted our pleasure. I pulled away slightly from his embrace, my breath coming in labored gasps. A rap sounded upon the door demanding attention.
“Cian! My boy, you monopolize the attention of my granddaughter. Come back to the hall,” Chullain yelled through the barrier.
"Aye." Cian shot back. "We will follow you presently."
His eyes fixed on mine, an expression unfamiliar to me painted his features. Yearning, hunger, and desire all at once. Cian met my lips with soft, gentle pecks as his free hand moved to the small of my back, pressing me against his urgent need.
I wanted to stay within, but knew our absence from the hall would not be tolerated much longer. “We must return. It is my responsibility to meet as many of my kin as possible before my training begins.”
Cian ceased his advances, lowering his head as he sighed deeply. “Aye.”
After extinguishing the last burning candle in the herbarium, Cian held out his hand to me. As we strolled back to the hall to partake in the revelry, I cursed myself for opening the door to this romantic folly. Somehow I would need to find a way to close off such distraction before it was too late.
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