Ireland, 279 BC. A nation at war.
For two boys, it will be gruelling. For Ireland . . . it will be bloody.
When the first raiding skirmishes of a foreign army are crushed and Ireland mourns her dead, one king knows their newfound peace is destined to fail. As Overking of Ailigh, Keeper of the North, he calls for the boys of his Celtic tribes to train as formidable warriors under his command.
For Áed, it begins as a fantastical quest. For Rónán, it helps him escape a cruel chieftain. Together, they must train and grow in strength and might. And when the invading army returns, a nation goes to war, united under one banner.
Meanwhile, Áed’s sister begins her training as a druid, learning the spiritual ways of the earth. And when the goddess Cáer speaks to her in her dreams, she knows that Ireland’s future hangs in the balance.
With Áed skilled in close combat, and Rónán blessed with an archer’s eye, they fight side by side, champions of the Celts. But death is close. And the tides of war are forever in flux.
The Irish Celts know one thing: if the warmongering foreigners aren’t defeated, not even the druids can change the course of destiny.
Targeted Age Group:: 16+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Growing up in Ireland, I heard the ancient tales of Celtic gods and warriors. It was always part of life. When I left Ireland for 20 years, I gave it no more thought, until the day I flew home for good. On the journey from the airport, we passed an ancient hillfort (the very fort where this book is set), and my imagination just burst alive.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
There's a little bit of me in every one of my characters. But in truth, I don't "come up with" my characters… They claw their way inside my head with sharp fingernails and they don't let go until I write them down.
The old druid coughed and the coarse sound of it rattled across the grasses and the herbs outside his home. His tribe, led by their chieftain, came one by one to his bed, whereupon they would touch his hand and he would tell them their truths. For Áed, eight winters old, he assumed he had no hidden truths to tell.
The men of the clan had been off at war since before Beltaine, the fire celebration that marked the beginning of summer, fighting a foreign force that had brought massive warships to their shores. The wives and children that had been left be-hind had heard nothing of the fighting in the east since it had begun.
Áed stamped his feet on the cold ground. It was almost Yule and the sun was weak. A black storm fogged the southern horizon and it was coming in fast.
The line of tribeswomen and children before him stretched beyond the old druid’s garden patch and across the central field in which Ultán would normally perform his ceremonies. But he had been bedridden since Samhain, the festival that celebrated the end of harvest.
He shuffled forward as the line moved, an older woman coming out of the druid’s roundhouse, her face contorted in tears. Áed wondered what her truth had been.
‘What kind of truth makes a woman cry?’ he asked. He clung tightly to the deer-fur cloak that was pinned around his shoulders. He could see his breath on the air before his face.
‘Hush, child,’ his mother said. ‘Show some respect.’
Doirean had kept her children close to her since her husband left for war last year. Áed had been too young for war, but that did not stop his mother from entrusting him to his father’s smithy. Before he went to battle, his father, Airic, had gone to his knee in front of his only son and said, ‘Continue to learn the metals, and look after your sisters. You are the head of my house while I am gone.’
They shuffled forward again.
‘If Ultán knew he was dying,’ Áed whispered, ‘couldn’t he have done it in the summer?’
Grainne, his sister, lowered her head and chuckled into her fist.
Doirean smacked them both on the back of the head, and then she adjusted young Bec in her arms. Her youngest daughter, whose real name was Maebh, was known among the settlement as Bec, meaning small, since the moment that her tiny legs could carry her around and she was capable of crawling through the narrowest gap in a fence or barred doorway.
They could hear Ultán’s cough again as the line of people moved forward another step. Áed was convinced the old man would die before they made it to his doorway. He strayed aside from the queue and kicked a stone, but his mother pulled him back.
When the skies opened and the rain lashed them, nobody moved, respecting the will of the gods. Ultán had served the tribe for more than fifty years and speaking to each of them from his deathbed was an honour that no one would fail to fulfil.
Áed groaned and now even Grainne, a year younger than him, nudged him to silence with her elbow. She was shy and homely for the most part, preferring to learn the arts of weaving from her mother, or picking flowers from the gardens to string into a crown for her mother’s head. Áed, on the other hand, would much rather tumble in the fields, chasing the sheep as though he was a mighty warrior destined for greatness.
All boys had the same dream: to fight in a great war and re-turn home the victor, rich in property and land. Since Áed was old enough to walk, he would brandish a wooden sword and shield and he would fight against his friends, each desperate to outmatch the other.
The grasses, browned from the winter, flattened against the wind and the line moved again.
When they had reached the old druid’s door, they waited to be called inside. A much younger druid, who had come to the tribe’s sept at the request of Ultán to act as his aid in his failing health, opened the door and asked that they enter.
Doirean pushed her children ahead of her, like herding drunken dogs.
From the darkness within, Áed’s eyes took a moment to ad-just. A single candle lit the old man’s face as he lay on his pallet bed, covered by thick furs. The roundhouse’s central hearth burned red embers.
Ultán raised his hand and beckoned them forward.
Áed tried to breathe through his mouth; the smell of the druid’s herbs and potions accosted him, a pungent odour that permeated his very flesh. It was a stench that he would re-member for the rest of his life.
Doirean knelt at the druid’s side and Ultán reached to take her hand. She lowered her forehead to his fingers. ‘The gods see you well,’ she said.
Ultán’s laugh became a cough and he could not speak for some time. The younger druid, Odhran, came to his side with a cup of water and the old man sipped from it, wetting his thin lips and his chin. Odhran mopped his face.
‘Your husband,’ Ultán said, and Doirean leaned closer to hear him. Áed stood at the foot of the bed to listen. ‘The war has been brutal in the east, but our men fight hard and brave.’
Doirean nodded. ‘We have had no word, Ultán. Does Airic live?’
Ultán closed his eyes for a moment, and then he looked at her. ‘I am sure that he lives.’
‘Hush, now,’ the old man said. ‘The men will be home soon, and the war will be over for a time.’
‘You are a mouth for the gods,’ Doirean said.
The old man reached out and touched young Bec’s cheek. ‘A happy child will be marred,’ he said, but he did not explain his words.
Doirean kissed his hand and then stood, nudging Grainne to kneel before the druid.
Grainne’s eyes were wide. She was reluctant to touch the druid, and the old man could sense it. ‘Water,’ he said, and when Odhran came to offer him a drink, he waved the young man away. He looked at Grainne. ‘Water,’ he said.
Grainne took the cup from Odhran and, with a hesitancy she was trying to hide, she held the cup to the old man’s lips, catching the spills with a fabric cloth under his chin.
Ultán leaned back on his straw mattress. ‘You are the earth,’ he said, and Áed had to lean closer at the foot of the bed to hear him. Grainne lowered her eyes to the painted floor that had been mostly softened with fur rugs that helped keep the chill of winter at bay. ‘You have the earth in you,’ Ultán said now. He took her hand as if to inspect her fingers, and he turned it so that her palm faced upward towards him.
Doirean, sensing her daughter’s unease, placed a hand on her shoulder to calm her.
Ultán said, ‘As a druid, you could do great work, little one.’
Grainne pulled back from him, just a little.
Ultán took Odhran’s hand and made him clasp the girl’s fingers. He coughed again before speaking. ‘Bring her to the archdruid. He will know how to help her.’
Doirean tightened her grip on her daughter’s shoulder. ‘She is just a girl.’
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