The bottle of oil rattled against the shelf as Lochru put it away. The Alban Eiler was a high day for the Druids, a time of deep magic and connection with the balance of nature – this day when day and night stood equal in welcome of the spring. It had been a good festival; the gods had granted their blessing on the seeds nestling in the earth and the people had seen the might of the Druids through fire and magic. Still, Lochru’s hands shook as he replaced the ceremonial trappings and tested vials for the upcoming Beltane fire festival.
It was Padraig’s fault that the crowds had been so thin on Tara this vernal equinox. His preaching of the one True Way was stealing Lochru’s people and weakening his influence with King Laoghaire. The Land of Erin could not sustain two religions so violently opposed to one another, yet the king sat by while Padraig’s little group of priests walked the length and breadth of the land for nearly a year – preaching of a god whose only demand was the sacrifice of a human heart in obedience.
Lochru snorted, arranging his mantle about his shoulders. Crom-Cruach and the Goddess demanded blood, the fair price for sins against them. Sometimes animal, sometimes human, if the sin was grievous enough, but always only the fair compensation for the infraction. So Lochru taught his flock and believed himself. This nonsense about a god with no demands for blood was a tale for fools. In the frolicking days of Beltane, such blather would be even more alluring.
The whisper of leather brogans on the stone floor warned him seconds before he heard Lucetmael’s voice.
“The gods were displeased with our gathering.”
Despite himself, Lochru shivered. Lucetmael, Arch-Druid of all Ireland, had a voice roughened from years of breathing the smoke of magic fires and creaky from the multitude of his days. It completed the image of a high priest the people did not dare question. Lochru could only pray that one day he would be accorded the same honor.
“The worshippers were truly zealous and many of them look forward to Beltane to seek the blessing of the Goddess.” Lochru placed the final vial on the shelf before turning to face his superior. “I had no such message of displeasure in my prayers.”
“Perhaps your own zeal has diminished,” Lucetmael hissed. “I have been told by Crom-Cruach that we must double our efforts against this priest, or there will be no Beltane this year.”
“No Beltane?” Lochru’s knees buckled slightly. He stiffened them and tried to keep the blood from draining from his face. “That would mean…”
“Yes,” Lucetmael rapped his staff against the stone floor, the sharp sound echoing in the chamber. “If we do not stop him, this Briton slave calling himself a priest will overthrow all of us by Beltane.”
“That is but forty days hence,” Lochru protested. “He cannot unseat our gods so easily.”
Lucetmael’s ancient eyes narrowed. They were dark, but Lochru had often seen them burn red with the fire of the gods. This was such a time, and Lochru shrank from their hot, piercing gaze. “King Loaghaire is too weak to fight him. We must do it ourselves.” Lucetmael’s staff thudded against the floor again. “Prepare sacrifices for Crom-Cruach. We will ask his aid before venturing against this priest – for he surely carries some deep magic within him.”
“It is the spring, the time of the deepest magic within the earth. We will overthrow him.”
Lucetmael gave him a pitying smile. “Lochru, you have much to learn. When your enemy seems the most innocent and your own powers at their height – that is when you will fail. Have we not already sent men to kill this Padraig? Have we not debated with him in the presence of the king? Have we not been outmaneuvered and made to look foolish by him?”
Lochru’s fingers tightened on his staff. It was true, every contemptible word. “What do you suggest?”
“As you say, this season is one of deep magic. We will entrap this Padraig in some way. Crom-Cruach will show us, I am certain.”
Lucetmael hesitated, then nodded. “If we receive no answer, there is a slave in the dungeons who will appease the god. Come, Lochru, we have work to do.”
Lochru motioned toward the door with his staff, jaw set. “We must not let the sacred fires of Erin be extinguished.”
Historical Note: St. Patrick won a decisive victory over the Druids at their festival of Beltane, which fell on Easter. This blow to the druidic faith came at the height of spring – their most sacred season.
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