Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Light and Dark (05/21/09)
TITLE: Be Thou My Vision...
By Sharon Kane
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“I could just bank it, hide the coals under a mound of earth. No one would know...”
She wavers. Every year her people practise this ancient ritual in honour of Belenos. All fires are extinguished on this holy night. The chief priests kindle a new flame on the sacred hill of Tara, seat of the High King. Thus commences the network of beacons that soon outline the habitations of men. Before the night is out every family is feasting with unreserved gaiety around a new fire; every soul revelling in the anticipation of new life. Anyone discovered to have betrayed the tribe in not smothering the old year's fire faces certain death.
Fear suffocates her. Of what use is this ritual if the capricious god they seek to honour should decide to turn against them, to hide his face and leave them in blackness? Why extinguish the warmth-bestowing, life-sustaining fire and leave themselves at the mercy of the land-wasting, death-dealing Darkness? Even thinking of such horrors leaves Niamh feeling choked as if by fierce black talons. But then she shudders at the thought of the all-powerful Druidic priests whose word determines a man's destiny and whose wrath knows no mercy.
“Do it now! The others have already left for the hilltop...” Coaxing strength into her faltering spirit she douses the hot coals, spreading them until the final amber flicker dies to cold, grey ash.
She hurries outside. Overhead the sky is heavy pewter. The first swollen drops of freezing rain sting her cheeks. She recalls only one occasion, way back in her childhood, when it rained on the night of the Beltane festival. “The firewood was damp... no flame came... a sacrifice was offered in the desperate hope of soothing the ire of Belenos. The harvest was dismal. Many starved. What if it should be that way tonight?”
Reluctantly Niamh trudges along the path winding up the hill. “Left...Right... No... Light... Stars... dark... Moon... hides... Life... Ends... Left... Right...”
She staggers on towards her clan, gathered in tight family knots at the top of the sacred Hill of Gathering. One glance around the drawn faces of her kin tells her she is not alone in reading into the harsh, cold darkness a terrible omen of doom.
The priests mutter their mysterious incantations. The young men take turns to whirl the spindle sitting in a deep groove in a dead oak branch. Harder, faster they tug on the ropes. Back and forth they fall into a frenetic rhythm, muscles straining, grunts issuing from dry throats. Raindrops mix with sweat on their naked torsos. Louder now the priests chant, willing the kindling to catch in the last moments before the gathering storm extinguishes all possibility of success. The spindle is a drill, boring into the wood, driving down, down, down. The rain lashes the earth, soaking man, beast, forest, grassy plain...
No longer able to bear the crushing sense that Darkness has prevailed, Niamh turns away.
“No! It can't be?” She peers earnestly through the raging storm. “Yes! There, to the south! A glow! Someone has lit a fire! How did they...? In this foul weather...? And who would dare...?”
Her mind a maelstrom of emotions, she tugs at her sister's sleeve. “Look! Fire! Someone has lit a fire! We are saved.”
A hush falls on the hilltop. Every face turns to the south. The chanting stops. A hurried council is conducted in whispers between the high king Loegaire and his druid advisers. Horses are mounted. Riders gallop to the Hill of Slane. Who is the traitor who dares challenge Belenos and the high king? He must die!
Even as she watches the blackness swallow the king's stallions, Niamh's spirit leaps in joyous anticipation. Some audacious soul has realised her long-held dream. Someone has defied the Darkness. Some bold person has refused to lie down and die under the weight of meaningless tradition and ritual. Someone has kindled a Light; a Light that will fill the land. In her heart Niamh silently pledges allegiance to whichever king commands the Light now blazing forth across the valley.
Footnote: There is an ancient tradition that St Patrick lit a bonfire on the hilltop of Slane, just south of Tara, residence of the High King of Ireland, in around 432 AD. Defying the Celtic pagan Beltane traditions, he lit 'the first Easter fire'. Through his faith and obedience and by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Light of Christ blazed across the dark island. It has never since been extinguished.
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