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Ogma's Candle

A Tale for Randy Baker's Writer's Challenge

By D. J. ReddallPublished 2 months ago Updated 8 days ago 20 min read
5
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Aislinn envied the sea. It was as strange and beautiful today as it had been when her grandmother was a child, at least in the memories the old woman could see clearly and talk about. Bards sang of Cuchulain’s war with it, but it had no scars, nor had it yielded an inch of its empire. No one argued with the sea, or scolded it to change. It was old and powerful enough to be accepted and honored just as it was. She wondered if she would ever reach that age, or be gazed at with such longing and adoration. Probably not, given what her father had commanded her to do.

She could hear her father’s feet bothering the stones as he walked down the shore, showing his legs who their lord was all the way. She wondered why her mother seemed tired, but vaguely happy, much of the time.

“Aislinn, daughter of mine. Your husband-to-be has behaved himself like the proper fool that he is at the bloody inn. Do you know why our people are vulnerable to the drink?”

She found it funny that so many of her father’s stories about “our people” turned out to be about him and how sacred and justifiable all of his bad habits were. She wondered about his faith, and why she did not share it. His younger faith, at any rate.

“You see daughter, there are other sorts who drink and enjoy themselves, awaken to proportionate suffering, and leave off. There are those who do not enjoy the drink at all. And there we are above them both, laughing. For we know how to enjoy the fun with pagan abandon and endure the suffering with Roman Catholic guilt, and a sense that our suffering is our just desserts for that heedless fun we had. It all falls into place. Your husband, however, thinks that it gives him a license to say anything he likes to anyone he likes at the top of his braying, idiotic voice. Why are you going to marry that man?”

Her father had never lied to her. He was a rare man that way. She thought again of her mother.

“Father, I am sorry he is acting the fool, but I am your loving daughter, and I see in him that which I have seen in you, for good and ill.”

Her father turned a strange color when he got very angry or confused. Certain onions looked that way, when you pulled them from the soil too sharply. Her father had never been buried, as far as she knew. But he had caused his share of burials.

“You don’t understand. If he carries on like this, no one will pay attention to a word I say when night gets involved, and you know what this night could mean.”

He looked at her just the way he looked at men when he had given them an important set of instructions and wanted to be absolutely sure they had understood them. Or when he led others in prayer, or sacrifice, and someone asked for his guidance with regard to some detail. He believed she could understand, but he didn’t take it for granted that she did. He was rather well liked, all things considered. That is why her husband-to-be was well-bred, spoiled and a bit of a girl, really.

“He is a fool much of the time. But he is my fool. Doesn’t every queen need a fool, father?’

She had a smile that pretended she had done no wrong but told him they both knew she had. It had charmed him since she was a child. Every time. She showed him that smile now. He laughed. She wondered how he could have arranged this night, understanding her understanding him. What is betrayal? She had asked herself before. She was debating.

“Oh, very well. Fetch him, will you. Take Conal with you, in case your tongue causes trouble his arms can fix.”

Conal was with the horses. This seemed fitting to her. He did love those animals, and they him—perhaps a little too much for anyone’s comfort. He could swing sharp things or pointy things awfully well, though, bellowing the while like he was doing something with the horses one shouldn’t. That her father had finagled her a daffodil who could read instead, she thought only right.

“Conal!” She enjoyed shouting his name like an insult.

“How may I serve?” He always answered the same way, though it wasn’t clear to her why he did that, and gods knew he had no idea. She wondered if he could say it in horse. He came lumbering over, smelling just like his friends. There was something on his tunic that did not belong there. He had no idea.

“My father wants me to go and collect Fian from yonder den of iniquity. You may have to hurt someone. Ask the horses what they think.” That, certainly, had hit home. He winced a bit, which she liked more than she ought to have done.

“Begging your pardon. I’ll gather my things and we’ll set off right away.” He looked into the air above her head when he said it, as though he were addressing some deity or devil, not a person standing there, listening to him. Daffodils. She would be rolling in them and laughing soon enough. While he became one of the horses.

“Yes, Conal, we will.”

She walked over to Liath, took the reins in her hand and looked into her gargantuan, sad eye. She whispered praise and thanks to that eye. She understood why Conal loved his horses. But why did they love him, and…how? Liath was her friend. Perhaps her only, true friend. Nothing to hide. No one to betray. Being a horse. Just that. All of that. Beautifully.

They rode to the inn.

“I am quite sure that your father is not that oaf yonder with a finer whiskey than he is a man,” said Fian. There is a reason that daffodils leave making music to birds. “But a frog I pulled out of my boot yesterday. You’ve got the same eyes. You’ll see it, though I forgot him at home. I’ll bring him ‘round on the morrow, trust it.”

She heard a howl she knew well.

Conal was off his horse and through the door the moment the daffodil sounded in jeopardy. Had a horse shown any sign of distress, she was quite sure Conal would have gone mad, perhaps setting himself on fire, or the inn, or both. He was quick, but he was calm, and his sword stayed put.

What he saw pleased Conal in a way of which he was quite ashamed. He wondered if he would have to confess it, he liked it so well. The shame actually made it more…savory? Yes, that was it. The ponce was on the floor and Armeisce was at work on his teeth. They were wealthy, well-fed teeth. But Armeisce had the fists of a poor farmer, blessed by drink. Fian would not live the night if Conal stood there enjoying the sight of this popinjay being thrashed. He shouldn’t…savor it.

He hurt Armeisce’s arm quite badly. He carried the fresh smile out of the inn and put him on her horse. He mustn’t look at her if he could help it. He might never be able to stop. She would know. Everyone would know. If he had to look, he would try not to see. It would be…unsavory. Yes, quite sure this time. Unsavory.

“Whom have you hurt this time, Conal?” She sounded as though she had caught him urinating on some daisies.

“Armeisce was injured, you see. Your husband-to-be was not resisting, so I did so on his behalf. Armeisce is strong, but he is slow, if you’ll allow me. I will inform your father straight away. He’ll be fit to turn up this evening, I’m quite sure. No real trouble.” He adjusted his tunic. A bird, he wasn’t sure which sort but he was happy to see it, waved at him. They often did that. His faith was strong. She wanted him to look. He would not.

“What’s afoot this evening then?” Asked some of the beer in her daffodil. “I am not privy to any dark dealings that are to take place this evening. Conal, you must tell me. I’m soon to be your prince. Spill.”

He regretted hurting Armeisce. He wished he had been Armeisce.

“M’lord, begging your pardon, but I simply meant that her ladyship has planned a splendid feast for this evening, and I should hate to think how it would have been ruined should any real harm have befallen thee.” Conal could imagine the feeling of punching this ponce. He often did. The horses understood.

“No real harm, you say? Is that right, Conal? Will the horses chew my supper for me this evening? Will you?” Fian actually bounced one of his dislodged teeth off of Conal’s forehead just then. He had to get out of here, with or without the pretty girl. These people stank. What they ate—he could scarcely believe it. Most could barely read. He couldn’t wait to tell his father. His father would probably be furious. Not at him, of course. Change is welcome.

She watched the daffodil’s tooth dance into the dirt. “Conal, shall we return to the hall now, to tell my father of your wild adventure? Hmm? I think we shall.” She whispered something to Laith she knew she liked. It was a trick her father had taught her. It was old. Older than the new faith’s fathers. Old as the sea. Laith eased under her. Many would.

They rode back to the hall. It was a hall, not a fortress or a castle. There was time. Good sails and a good wind. She could wait.

Conal went to talk with her father with the same expression he wore to confession. The daffodil made a great many noises to which she paid no heed. When Conal was through, they talked with her father. The daffodil seemed mollified and wandered off.

“Tell me again, father?” she looked at him with fierce determination. He would know who she was while he made this come about. She would not let him forget. “What will happen to me?”

“Look at me, daughter,” he said.

She did. He was her father. He was greater of midriff than before. But he was her father.

“You see that winter is there, in my poor hair? That is because it rules my mind. The apples at harvest are the sweeter because they are the last until the next harvest. There will only be so many harvests, daughter. You will see many more than I.” He was not trying to deceive her. She knew it. She always had. That did not sweeten this.

“You are my father. Your faith is my faith. I will honor you. I want to know what that will mean tonight.”

His daughter. How clever she was. How well she knew it. He had tried to teach her some Greek. She had begun to teach him. They read what Aristotle they could, and she taught him things he had missed. It was mostly gibberish, really, but the man knew how to decide when decisions had to be made. He had shown her older things. Secret things, unknown to the new priests and their new lord. She understood a few words in a tongue they would not have recognized. Not even their fathers would have understood it. He understood the leaves before a storm, once in a while.

“You will take the candle and the Sgian Dubh under the mound. We will watch over you until the dawn. You will emerge with Ogma’s blessing, which you will bestow upon me, your father, lord of this manor and these many mouths that need feeding and from whom I need to fend off blood and ruin. What you give me will allow me to make other men heed me, with care. We will sort things out, and our family will never know fear or hunger again. Your children will not have to seek fine marriages. Fine marriages will beg for their attention.” He smiled at her, then. She knew that smile. She had seen it when she and Laith had bested everyone in that ridiculous race at the fair. How they had gossiped! She knew his sign for pride.

“Yes, father. But under the mound. What waits for your daughter there?” She felt afraid and let him see it, which she was not accustomed to doing all that often. It was a risk. He admired her strength, which was why he had long ago begun to tell her the truth, even when it was jagged.

He could remember watching her small surrender to sleep in his arms, when she was but a new moon out of her mother. How she fought. To remain among waking minds: to be and to do and to see and to know. How thrilled she was to grow, in every direction, as quick as her bloody cats. His daughter. Aislinn. That had given him the appetite for a crown. No army would be large enough to protect his daughter as she ought to be protected. He would not fail her. Never.

“That is Ogma’s will, as are we, daughter. You will have the candle and the blade. No harm can come to you with Him. I am your father. He is your one, true lord, and mine. Have you understood me, my daughter?” He could see her thinking. It made him grin with pride.

“Yes, father.” She turned from him to enter the hall. The doors were tall and strong and expertly carved. Hers would be grander, she thought.

II

Killing and eating things was important to men. She knew this, but she saw hunting as an ugly necessity and found the rituals and customs of the hall tedious, for the most part. Her father was clever and charming and the other men were clearly glad to enjoy his hospitality, though some were rivals she watched carefully. One young priest of the Roman Church looked terrified in their midst, though they had been praying and singing and carrying on in the right way for more than a generation. Two thirds of the eminences in the hall could speak to him in Latin, though when they did, he looked amazed, as if a dog had put on breeches on command.

She noted Ulchabhán talking with one of the bards, close to the high table. He was a wily old druid who would be sure to accompany she and her father to the mound when the revels ended. He made priests uneasy, and Conal looked apprehensively in his direction from time to time. He was skittish, and may have whinnied, though nervous laughter was his chief contribution to conversations he did not really understand. She had to confess that he had grown more handsome. He was no longer a whelp with feet too great for his skinny legs. He would not look at her. She could smell the boar, like a heretic on a pyre.

Ulchabhán smiled and nodded at the priest. He smelled like a goat staked out for the wolves to the old druid’s wise nose.

“Good evening, Father,” Ulchabhán growled this warm salutation at the young man, who twitched as though he had touched an adder.

“Good evening, my son. Are you enjoying the feast?”

“Yes, Father.” Ulchabhán had small clothes older than this pup. He stroked his long, dark beard and stepped closer to the priest, who seemed to tremble at his approach. His black eyes swept the room and lighted on a scarlet cheeked maid tending to the roast boar. He gestured to her and whispered to the priest, “Bronagh there told me you had a difficult ride to the hall, Father.” He reached into one of the folds of his grey robe and withdrew a small, dark sachet of herbs. “This will set you right. Brew a tea; take it before you sleep. Two or three nights, your saddle won’t trouble you.” He grinned and winked.

“Thank you, my son.” He accepted the sachet. The dreams would drive him mad. “May the Lord bless and keep thee.” Ulchabhán smiled and recalled a riddle he must tell the bard. He was tall and lean, and moved through the crowd like a rumor.

The druid made Conal nervous. He had seen him do strange things, some of which worked much too well. Aislinn swore the old man could take the shape of an owl or a bear on a whim. Conal did not trust anyone who would not become a horse, given a chance. Lord Dáithí, who had clearly been swimming in ale, touched Conal’s elbow and said, “Conal, my lad. I remember when you were mucking stables! Look at you now: tall as a good oak. Do you think you are fit for a kern, if your lord’s ambitions grow?” He winked. His breath made Conal wonder if there was any ale left in the hall.

“Lord Dáithí, you honor our hall! I believe my lord wishes only to confer with eminent minds like your own. Who wants war, if we can settle our squabbles by reason?” Conal had rehearsed that many times, anticipating queries like this one. Horses did not drink. Another sign that he had good taste in friends.

Lord Dáithí belched loudly. “Easy, my lad, easy. Many a chieftain here tonight, and no mistake. Serious talk on the morrow, eh? Your lord had better have a tongue made of silver if he has dreams of being named High King by all and sundry.” He broke wind with theatrical aplomb. Conal winced.

“My lord’s ambitions are his own to know, Lord Dáithí. I am honored to serve him.”

Lord Dáithí laughed. “Your lord’s ambitions are written on his forehead for all to read, my lad. I hope he isn’t listening to too many of that druid’s whispers. ‘Tis the Roman Church that has its hand on our tiller now, yes? I’d sooner ask your graceful young mare for counsel.” Conal’s chest expanded a bit at the mention of Orla. She was the strongest, fairest mare in his herd. Lord Dáithí could have drunk the sea, but he had a subtle eye for horses.

“Orla will bear many a strong stallion for my lord’s men to ride, wherever they are bound,” Conal smiled and patted Lord Dáithí’s shoulder.

“Aye, lad. Let us hope she has the time.” He grinned and moved toward the ale.

III

She was startled by the screams of the young priest, followed by the laughter of Ulchabhán as he and her father entered her chambers. She wore a simple shift under her brown robe. Ulchabhán handed her the Sgian Dubh, dark as ink and old, but sharp as her grandmother’s insults. She slipped it into her belt.

“I’ll give you His candle when we arrive at the mound, daughter. Are you ready?”

She nodded. Her father looked worried. His brow was as furrowed as a freshly tilled field.

“Give no thought to that whelp from Rome, m’lord,” said the druid. He clapped her father firmly on his back. “His dreams will keep him occupied.” His laughter sounded like the bones clattering to the floor during the feast. She had never liked him, but she knew he had powerful secrets woven into that beard.

They moved quietly through the sleeping hall and rode to the mound. Laith was clearly aware of the old spirits of this place. She stamped and protested when they drew near, but Aislinn calmed her with the same trick as before. She studied the moon. It seemed to remember something she regretted.

Her father pulled the candle from his satchel. It had the same weight of days long past as the dark dagger in her belt. Its base was carved with sinewy, twining tongues. Ulchabhán whispered over it and a flame appeared. The aroma reminded her of the dusty books under her father’s bed, and there was an herbal note she did not entirely recognize—witch hazel, blackberry, something warm and coppery—blood?

“Good, daughter. You are the loveliest boon the gods have bestowed upon me. Trust in Ogma. Do as he bids you. Return to us and bestow his blessing upon me, and our fields will be sown with golden seeds.” He embraced her tightly. Her hair smelled fresh. It was brown and lustrous like her mother’s. They approached the low, dark entrance of the mound.

“Slowly, child,” said Ulchabhán, “Ogma has the patience of those who do not die. Listen and obey, then return to us when He has quit the mound.” He whispered a blessing over her in the old tongue. Then he and her father produced stout shillelaghs and stood shoulder to shoulder at the entrance with their backs to Aislinn. She crept into the mound, holding the candle before her.

The mound smelled like a grave. The candle was a single, faint star in the subterranean black. She did not trust her feet, and shuffled along as her grandmother might. Her mind had rubbed the word betrayal smooth.

The narrow tunnel led her to a chamber. Stark, without ornament or device. She raised the candle and studied the walls, the dirt floor, the low, rough-hewn ceiling. There was a series of marks on the naked, earthen wall to her right. She had seen the Ogham before, runic foundation of her people’s tongue, though she could not make out the meaning of these venerable characters. She closed her eyes and spoke His name in her mind.

“You are welcome, Aislinn.”

She had swum in the sea by moonlight now and then. Beneath the surface, time and light seemed to bend and become soft and slow, languid as the speech of the drunks at the feast. The air seemed to grow dense, thickening so as to resemble the night swum sea, in the low chamber. She turned. There was a golden maned warrior standing in the modest glow of the candle. His beard was ornately braided. His locks were arrayed about his head like the rays of the sun. He smiled, and her knees gave way. His eyes had the dawn in them.

“Eloquence was my gift to your kind, Aislinn. No bard hunts in vain for rhymes when he has my name written on his heart. Your father’s spine is true as a spear, like your own. The old owl with him is cunning. Watch him. Accept my blessing, and the stones will understand you and the stars will be moved by the verses your tongue weaves.”

Then the god kissed her.

There were tongues everywhere upon her and within her for a moment. Most were terribly rude. Two were poets. One, she would have married instead of the daffodil, and he had studied French. She could read the marks on the wall. They spelled her name. Music, ancient and soft as the voice of the sea, surged through her bones. He smiled and vanished.

She returned to her father and the druid. Her father realized that her eyes had changed. They were flecked with gold.

“You have his blessing, daughter?” His voice trembled with awe. The druid frowned.

“He blessed me.” Her smile was ageless.

Ulchabhán began an incantation. She whispered to the Sgian Dubh. It flew from her hand and shaved the druid clean as a stone in a blink. It hovered near his jugular.

“What if I keep it, father—His blessing?”

He could not be wrathful. He smiled proudly at her.

“For every queen, a fool,” he said.

Fantasy
5

About the Creator

D. J. Reddall

I write because my time is limited and my imagination is not.

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Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

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Comments (5)

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  • Christy Munson30 days ago

    I love your last line most of all! “For every queen, a fool." Congratulations on earning second place!

  • Suze Kayabout a month ago

    This is such a cool world you've built, D.J.! I loved that Ogma wasn't so scary, and I loved so many lines of this piece - "he could have drunk the ocean," "her father's feet bothering the stones," every mention of the Daffodil. Really lovely work.

  • Hannah Mooreabout a month ago

    Ah, I wondered, betrayal and aspiration were built into her! Very enjoyable read, I can see this on TV in my mind, like, I got a lot of mental imagery going on.

  • I liked Conal the most! You did so brilliantly for this challenge! This story was so fast-paced and I loved all 3 parts!

  • ROCK 2 months ago

    Impressive! Randy will be delighted with this one for sure!

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