Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology

  The Sacrifice (Short Story)

This story first appeared in the Stories of Strength Katrina Relief Anthology in Nov. 2005. Since I retain the rights to my work except one-time anthology rights, I think it's safe to share it on my blog two years later. It fits the time of the year, though it's not my usual sort of story. I hope you enjoy it

Silence wavered around the fire; the men had not resumed their talk after the bard ended his song. Long ago they had ceased to hand around tankards of ale; their bearded faces were haggard, their shoulders sagging. King Brude could almost breathe the hoplessness radiating from the men, and it suffocated him.

The shine of the fire did not reach the wattle and daub huts where the king's chosen warriors lived; they stood as black shapes against a starless sky. But not one of those around the fire wanted to go back to a sleep filled with nightmares.

"Something strange is in the air," a man said and glared at the king.

"Columba says they don't use magic, and I believe him." Brude stirred the fire with a branch so the flames played on his black hair, tinting it with a lustre of burgundy. "I want to believe him." He cast the branch aside with a crisp move and drew his fur lined cloak close. The wind blew cold from the sea, the wooden palisade of the hill fort did not keep it out. And then he heared the sound, faint, carried by the wind, a strange harmony. For a moment, the king could distinguish words of the song in the wind, "God is our hope and strength."

"You hear it?"

Brude nodded. "There is power in their song." He leaned back against the stone carved with salmons and entwining circles that marked the royal seat.

A gust howled and drew sparks from the fire, some landed on the men. King Brude flinched as one hit the snake tattooed on his wrist. Scraps of words fluttered in the air, "... Therefore we will not fear ...." The king pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around them. The stone suddenly felt cold.

The wind increased and its wailing drowned the echoes of the strange hymn. Snow flakes began to float down, lazily at first, but soon they became a dense swirl.

"Where is Broichan, the druid?" one of the men muttered, "He could tell us whether this storm forebodes more cold and a frozen lake, so we'll have to go without fish as well, now the grain is already short and no game to be found in the woods."

Another man lifted his head, staring at Brude. "Those strangers should never have been allowed to settle so near." Further words remained unspoken: the king is weak.

"Loch Ness never freezes," King Brude clenched his hands around his knees; the men's eyes, aglow in the shine of the fire, haunted him. After a while he rose and walked away from the fire, head bowed against the wind, his hair blowing into his face. He touched the stone with his hand in passing.

In his hut, he sank upon the furs and hides covering the bed, and with deliberate movements undid the eagle-shaped silver fibula holding his cloak, the heavy silver chain, the amber-inlaid bracelets: a king who lay aside the ornaments of his regal position for the last time. I will be strong. He drew his sword.

"There will be no need to lay down your life in sacrifice," a voice came from the door, and with it a gust of icy wind.

The king looked up. "Broichan?"

The druid entered the room, his imposing stature seemed to fill it. The tattooes on his bare arms gleamed alive with wetness, and the water running from his deerskin coat formed a puddle on the clay floor. "I will challenge this Columba."

"But it is I who have failed. I should have refused Columba and the other monks a place on my land, no matter that Columba is a descendant of two powerful Irish families. Now they sit in their little wooden church near Inbhir Nis and sing their songs."

Broichan nodded. "And the villagers are fearful of the strangers. They think the monks' singing evokes evil spirits that brought this unusual cold upon us, and the bad dreams."

"I do not think Columba and his monks are hostile, and they too suffer from the cold and the lack of food. But something goes on here I cannot fathom."

"It's that Christian magic." Broichan spat on the floor to avert evil. "But we'll make Columba and his monks leave. They can take their songs back to Eire."

Would Columba's withdrawal give my people food and restore their trust in me? Brude wondered, but aloud he said, "Columba would refuse to fight me. As far as I know his religion, it forbids the use of the sword."

"They have other means," Broichan growled, "but it will be to no avail. This Columba calls himself priest of the King of Heaven, and it falls upon me, the druid of the High King of the Picts, to fight him." His eyes gleamed with pride.

King Brude ran his thumb along the fuller of the sword. "It should be I who fights him," he murmured, "Even if it means my death."

"Victory, not sacrifice and death is what you should seek." Broichan turned and stepped out into the blast.

Brude let the sword sink, the point touching the floor, and stared into nothing.


The morning dawned cold and clear and an icy wind with a tinge of salt blew from the sea. The men rode down a grassy slope, huddled in their woollen cloaks, chilled fingers grasping stiff leather reins, their breath forming tiny clouds. Shock and disbelief struck them as they beheld the montionless surface of Loch Ness reflecting the light in a way the dark water never did.

"Ice," a man whispered.

King Brude blinked back a tear the wind had driven forth, and with one hand clasped the silver chain, the insignia of his position. It felt cold on his skin through the coarse linen smock. He spurred his horse and the men rode on.

A few people in the village watched them pass, apathetic, faces gaunt with deep-sunk eyes. An old man murmured a curse. The king reined his horse and looked at the man who held his gaze. You are weak. You have failed us.

Broichan guided his pony to the king's side and glared at the man, who took a step back.

Brude lifted his hand. "Not by fear does the king rule," he said to the druid, his voice stern. He put his hand on the hilt of his sword. I am still strong enough to die for the land.

The man's eyes widened in understanding.

Loch Ness

They rode past more disheveled villagers staring at them, passed the rickety palisade that encircled the settlement, and trotted towards the church. A bell tolled, the sound echoed in the clear air.

Columba met them in front of the wooden door, carved with some crude images of figures wearing long mantles, and, in the center, a naked man nailed to a cross.

Broichan dismounted and stepped in front of Columba. "You have put evil magic upon the country."

"It is not I; it is God who is great above all, and who has deemed it fit to send bad weather to remind us of our sins - you and me, and both our people." Columba's voice was soft and clear, but yet it resounded with a hidden power that made it carry far into the mountains.

King Brude clenched the reins of his prancing horse, his hands wet with sweat.

"I challenge you and your god," Broichan said. His voice sounded uncouth after Columba's gentle speech.

"I am a servant of the One Who Is Above Us, and it is by His grace I live and die." Columba turned to Brude. "Do you agree to this?"

The king dismounted. "Yes. Our gods have abandoned us, and my people suffer." He petted the neck of his pony, trying to get rid of the layer of cold sweat on his hands.

"I understand." Columba ordered two monks to build a large fire in the place in front of the church.

Broichan stared at the king. "Our gods have not turned away, they will lend me strength," he hissed.

"Drive the cold away and give my people food is all I ask." Brude avoided the druid's gaze and instead watched as the men in their coarse brown habits hurried to and fro, while other monks stood near the door, murmuring prayers in a language unknown to Brude. He remembered the songs of last night, and their secret power. He should have stepped forth and taken the task upon himself, giving his life for his people by entering the sacred pyre. But some invisible power held him back.

When the fire burned brightly in the cold morning air, Broichan cast his coat off and stepped into the blaze with his tattooed chest bare, while the bard played the harp he had brought with him. The music sounded oddly subdued.

After a short moment, the druid jumped out of the pyre, mouth agape, but no scream came forth. He threw himself onto the ground, rolling around in an attempt to quench the flames. The men stepped back in horror.

Brude ran towards him, but Columba's arm, the strong arm of a warrior, intercepted his passage. "Wait."

The sound of the harp died, a last note vibrating in the silence.

Columba ascended the pyre, and the prayers of the monks became louder, an intricate song of intertwining voices. The melodious sound of Columba's voice dominated them, singing in Gaelic.

"God is our hope and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,

A wail cut the air. It took Brude a moment to realise it came from Broichan. His men stood huddled together near the druid, but none dared to approach him. The king remained on the other side of the pyre, spellbound by Columba's song.

And though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea.
The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge."

Columba stood in the midst of the soaring flames, unharmed.

King Brude threw his cloak back, unsheathed his sword and sank to one knee close to the fire. He offered it to Columba on both hands, inhaling sharply as his bare arms met with the flames, but there was no pain. "If my death pleases your god, take my life." He felt calm, almost serene.

Columba took the sword and stepped out of the fire. When Brude withdrew his arms the skin was pure and unblemished, the tattooes had disappeared. He stared at his arms.

"Accept it as a sign," Columba said.

"But why has Broichan been burnt, and I have been purified?" Brude said, his voice low with astonishment and awe.

"Because Broichan acted out of ambition, and you out of the desire to save your people. God knows the mind of men. But there is no need to sacrify your life like your people have done in times past. Jesus has already died for all of us." Columba handed the sword back to Brude. "Rise, you are High King of the Picts. I am no more than a humble monk."

"You are more. You are a great mage and druid."

"No," Columba said with a gentle smile, "I am but a servant. And what was at work here was no magic, but a miracle."

"I don't understand."

"You will, within time."

King Brude rose and walked to Broichan, who still writhed in the mud in screaming agony, his skin red, blistered and oozing fluid. Brude knelt down and, caressing Broichan's forehead, looked up at Columba. "He has served me well for so long a time. Can't you heal him?"

Columba took a plain iron cross off his neck and handed it to Brude. "You can do it yourself."

"But I don't know your ... miracles."

Again, Columba gave him that gentle smile and said in his suave voice, "Act upon what your heart tells you."

The king grasped the cross. It felt heavy and warm in his hand. He laid it upon Broichan's chest and murmured a line of the song, a line he remembered, though he did not understand its meaning. "God is our hope and strength, a very present help in trouble."

The druid's skin began to heal, the blisters closed. He gazed at his king with a confused look. "What happened?"

"You have lost the challenge." Brude decided to explain later. There was more to it than a lost challenge; it might well be the end of the time they knew. And he felt both afraid and hopeful.

He turned to Columba. "Will you and your brothers accept the hospitality of my seat and tell me about your god?"

Columba inclined his head. "We will be honoured."

When they passed through Inbhir Nis, the warriors leading their ponies to keep step with the monks, the wind grew warmer and the ice on the lake began to creak. Brude caught the glance of the old man. I was wrong, you are a strong king after all.

Columba began to sing. Brude hummed a few tones he heard the night before, "Therefore we will not fear ...."
Fascinating blog, I'm glad I found it. I've always been interested in the Roman Empire and just started writing some speculative fiction stories set in its waning days. I can't wait to wander through your posts.
Thank you, scriptorius rex, welcome to my blog. I hope you'll find some interesting information here. Good luck with your stories.
Comments copied from my other blog:

IanT said...
Hm -- interesting and intriguing. I'll have to go and read up on Columba, now, just to find out a bit more about it all.

Even more effective because it's freezing here, and so the cold comes over well. :-D
12/22/2007 7:31 AM

Carla said...
A very interesting take on the old story! Is this just as it appeared in the anthology?
12/22/2007 7:42 AM

Gabriele C. said...
Thank you, Ian.
I came across Columba when I researched the Picts. There are several legends about him and King Brude, so I merged them somewhat.

Carla, thank you. Yes, it's exactly as it appeared in the anthology. I had a word limit of 2000, managed to come out with 2050 (and said maybe the editor would find 50 words to cut because I didn't, lol*), and then the editor asked me to add a few lines.

*That worked because it was a charity anthology and specifically open for 'beginning' writers. Though they got some great names like Orson Scott Card as well.
12/22/2007 9:42 AM

Kirsten Campbell said...
A great take on Columba, Brude and Broichan! Really felt cold reading this. (huddles with hot water bottle)
12/22/2007 10:03 AM

Gabriele C. said...
Thank you, Kirsten.
Yeah, this winter shows us he's not done with the global warming yet. :)
12/22/2007 11:29 AM

hank_F_M said...

Very well done.

Merry Christmas.
12/22/2007 12:20 PM

Joy Renee said...
very nice. this reads much like the kind of tales i was raised on. familiar and yet much more attention given to the experience of the five senses so that you feel it.
12/22/2007 5:00 PM

Bri said...
I'm reading a book called "The Terror" about an arctic venture to find the Northwest Passage - the sense of cold in that book is incredibly intense - but reading your snippet actually made me shiver.

I love the image of the sparks from the fire landing on the men and the snowflakes drifting down - very surreal.
12/22/2007 10:38 PM

Gabriele C. said...
*hands out Glühwein to her readers*

Thank you, Hank, Joy and Bri. I had no idea the feeling of cold comes across so well, lol, but I've done something right then. :)
12/23/2007 10:39 AM

cherylp said...
I can't imagine how I missed this snippet, because I looked for it. Anyway, I liked it very much. It reminded me of the epic confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal.
12/27/2007 10:05 PM

Gabriele C. said...
Thank you, Cheryl. I aimed for a somewhat epic tone here. I wrote if for fun and then found out about the anthology and just submitted without being so very serious about it. And then it got accepted, lol.
12/28/2007 5:33 PM
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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK and other places, with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)