“I CAN’T do this anymore.” Cináed MacAlpin covered his face with his hands in a futile attempt to hide from the reality of his dilemma.
“What? Heal people?”
Akir’s voice brought him back to reality. They weren’t alone but having lunch in the monastery’s common refectory. Not that he was hungry after yet another morning full of agonizing decisions.
“No, of course not.” Cináed gave up his brief attempt at ignoring the world and looked up at his boyhood friend and fellow healer priest. Even as close as they’d always been, Cináed had never dared speak to Akir about his doubts. He couldn’t put his best friend’s life in danger like that. The Council of Priests would be certain to send the Inquisition after both of them if they found out about his heretic thoughts. “I’m sorry, I’m just tired.”
“It’s been a long morning.” Akir nodded, but his frown didn’t lessen. “I think we could both do with some fresh air before our afternoon duties.”
“Fresh air?” Cináed wanted to lie down and sleep for a week, not go for a walk. Having to refuse treatment to the “unworthy” had mentally exhausted him. Knowing there was nothing he could do made him furious with helpless anger. He would have preferred to be able to rest before facing his rigorous afternoon warrior training. Blast his father for insisting Cináed didn’t give up that part of the MacAlpin family tradition, even though he was now officially a healer priest. The only part he looked forward to was being able to get out of the stupid robes and don one of his kilts.
“Yes, out in the forest, where it’s nice and quiet.” Akir’s bright blue eyes sparkled as his gaze intensified.
“Fresh air it is.” Cináed smiled. A look like that from Akir meant his friend was planning something.
They finished the meal quickly, Cináed forcing himself to eat at least part of the delicious fresh vegetables on his plate. Deliberately reducing his strength made no sense. They returned their plates and eating utensils to the kitchen and made their way through the bare stone corridors to the exit. Though the guards gave them odd looks, they didn’t dare question the two white-robed healers and let them pass unchallenged.
As soon as the heavy wooden double door closed behind them, Cináed breathed easier. One path led toward the sprawling city with its stone spires and broad alleyways at the foot of the hill, the other toward the wilds of the forest. Tall trees, overgrown by sùbh vines with their year-round red flowers, offered sanctuary from the glaring summer sunshine. The usual cacophony of multicolored birds greeted them as they approached the welcome shade. Soft moss replaced the prickly grass when they passed into the domain of the ancient darach trees.
They walked in silence for a while, making sure there was enough distance from the oppressive environment that had become their home when they’d left their families at age five. Both of them were supposed to have become warriors, but the tests all children had to go through had shown them to have the mental abilities required to work with the Slànach Stones. Since that always took precedence, it had made them wards of the Council of Priests, changing their lives forever.
“So, tell me what it is exactly that you can’t do anymore.” Akir stopped walking and turned toward him.
“I told you that I was just tired.” Cináed wasn’t sure he’d be able to overcome twenty years of indoctrination. Talking about the doubts that had begun to plague him was risky, even though they were alone and nobody could possibly overhear their conversation. Voicing his secret thoughts would somehow make them more real and would make being an obedient believer and servant even more difficult.
“You didn’t really think I’d believe that, did you?” Akir raised his eyebrows.
“Well….” He’d hoped it might be enough.
“Look, I’ve known you ever since we were put into the same student group after passing those tests. Something’s been bothering you since we graduated into full service last summer, and what you said earlier must have expressed whatever it is that’s wrong with you.” Akir looked around and pointed at a fallen tree. “I think it’s pretty serious if it’s got you down this much, and I want to know what it is so that I can help you.”
“There’s nothing you can do.” Cináed followed his friend into the clearing and sat down next to him.
“Aha! So you admit it.” Akir grinned, his white teeth flashing in the semishade.
“Talking about it could get us both into trouble.” Cináed looked down, no longer able to resist the intense curiosity coming from his friend in waves.
“I’ve never seen you this depressed, so it seems to me that not talking about it isn’t working too well either.” Akir put a hand on Cináed’s knee, making him look up in shock. Touching between males was forbidden by the Council of Priests. With that one move, Akir had made himself as vulnerable as if he’d openly spoken out against the religious rulers of Dalriata. “I think it’s time we’re honest with each other.”
“What are you doing, Akir?” Cináed was well aware of his own forbidden urges, his longing to touch another man. But he’d never thought of Akir that way—and he was almost certain his friend didn’t see him like that either. What was going on?
“I’m trying to make you see that we’re both on the same side.” Akir withdrew his hand and sighed. “We’ve always trusted each other, and yet we can’t seem to talk about things like we used to. Something is obviously bothering you, but you can’t, or won’t, talk to me about it. I think this religious indoctrination we’ve gone through has gotten between us, and I hate that.”
“You do? You never said anything.” As the words came out of his mouth, Cináed realized how stupid they were. “Of course you didn’t. It would’ve been too dangerous, with the way everyone spies on everyone else.”
“That, and the fact that there never seemed to be any need. You seemed fine.” Akir tilted his head. “But that’s changed, hasn’t it?”
“It’s been gradual.” How was he going to explain this to his friend? He’d only fairly recently begun to understand it himself. “Have you ever wondered why we’re only supposed to heal the ‘worthy’?”
“No, not really. After all, the Slànach Stones are limited in number. Their energy gets used up over time, and until we find new ones, we’ll have to be careful about how we use them.” Akir frowned. “At least that’s the official line.”
“And that’s only part of what’s got me worried.” But it was the easier one to focus on, so he would start there. “What I want to know is why there aren’t any more of them when the history books tell us they’ve always been plentiful. From what I was able to find out by digging in the library records once I had access to them after entering full service, the supply came to a sudden and unexplained stop about a thousand years ago.”
“That was when the last major wave of fugitives from Earth came through the Eye of Scota.” Akir scratched his head. “You think the two events are connected?”
“I don’t know. I don’t have any proof, but I think it’s odd that the Stones stopped being found right around the time that those fugitives brought the Crìosdaidh religion and the English language we still use today with them. It looks like something about those events or their consequences interfered with the supply. Equally puzzling is that those with the mental abilities to use the Stones seem to be fewer in each generation.” Cináed had done some careful checking of the numbers, and had been shocked when he’d found out that healers had once been very numerous.
“You’re sure?” Akir narrowed his eyes. “Just because there’ve been fewer acolytes each year doesn’t mean there’s a big problem.”
“This annual reduction in numbers has been going on for at least nine hundred years. Healers apparently used to make up about a quarter of the population.” Cináed sighed. “I can’t help but think that the spread of this new belief system has something to do with all those changes.”
“That would explain why the Council of Priests keeps such tight control over who can be healed and who can’t. Since they’re in charge of the spiritual and physical health of the population, they had to find a system of rationing the dwindling quantity of Stones and for dealing with the reduction in the number of healers.” Akir nodded.
“This is exactly where my problem starts. Since they’re in control of the decisions, they get to decide who’s ‘worthy.’ That leads to them favoring those who can help them remain in power. Not those who really need our help.” He’d had to turn away so many people who really needed him because they weren’t members of the upper clans and didn’t have the money to pay the fees. Using money was the only way someone with a lower status had access to the healers’ services.
“So that’s what you meant when you said you can’t do this anymore.” Akir looked thoughtful.
“Exactly. It’s been bugging me ever since I started full service last year and received the guidelines as to who can and who can’t be treated. Those criteria seemed arbitrary to me, wrong in principle and in what they make me do on a daily basis. Turning sick people away can’t be right, especially when they’re the ones who need our help most. That’s when I started digging into the history books and discovered this mess.” Sometimes he wished he hadn’t, because even though he knew the reasons, there was still nothing he could do to right this wrong.
Not being able to come up with a solution, Cináed decided it was time to go back. At least Akir was aware of the problem now, and hopefully, between the two of them, they’d be able to come up with some new ideas.
When they emerged from the forest’s shade, one of the special guards was waiting for them. His uniform wasn’t the simple black of the normal guards but decorated with gold tassels and buttons. He looked purposely intimidating. Cináed suddenly wished he’d taken his sword with him when they left the monastery. Not that he could fight this guard unless he wanted to risk severe punishment, but carrying his weapon might have made him feel less exposed.
“His Holiness the High Priest Makolm wishes to see you immediately, Cináed MacAlpin.” The guard scowled. “I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes. You’ve made him wait because you left the monastery, and now you’re most definitely in trouble. Don’t think he’ll be lenient just because you’re a healer. You’re insignificant compared to His Holiness.”
Oh shit. Being called into the High Priest’s chambers couldn’t be good. Had the High Priest somehow found out about Cináed’s treacherous thoughts? Was the Inquisition going to get him for daring to challenge those in power?
CINÁED LEFT Akir behind; his friend was not the one Makolm wanted to see. While Cináed wasn’t looking forward to facing the spiritual leader of Dalriata on his own, he was grateful that whatever trouble he was in didn’t seem to affect Akir.
Entering the ostentatious chambers of the High Priest was an experience. He’d only been invited inside twice before, and both times had been routine, not a special situation like now. Cináed didn’t remember much about the first visit; he’d only been five and mainly worried about leaving his brothers, sisters, and parents behind. The second time had been just under a year ago, after he’d passed the exams and became an official healer priest.
The High Priest had informed him that his duties as a warrior would continue, despite his new status. It had surprised Cináed and clearly annoyed Makolm. Cináed hadn’t been given an explanation but had figured it was due to his father’s influence as the chief of one of the five most powerful clans on the planet. Why his father had wanted this was totally beyond him, and it wasn’t as if he could go and ask him. Cináed hadn’t seen him since he’d left home, his only points of contact the occasional letter from his mother or what he heard in the sparse news reports that made it into the isolation of the monastery. Contact with the outside world was discouraged.
The first sign that they were approaching the High Priest’s chambers was the appearance of rugs on the stone floors and the occasional painting on the walls. As they progressed through the corridors, the rugs grew softer and the paintings more colorful. Decorations started appearing on the columns framing the doors leading off to the left and right, and soon the ceiling turned from the natural gray of the stone to a brilliant, painted white. Finally they reached the double darach doors to the main chamber. The doors had gold decorations and jeweled inlays, announcing the importance of the person behind them.
The second of the special guards stood at the entrance, and upon seeing Cináed, he grinned maliciously and knocked on one of the doors. A loud “Come in” gave the guards permission to open the doors, and it took both of them to accomplish the task. They motioned him inside, and the door was pulled closed with an echoing bang.
The inner chamber was lavishly decorated, white marble and gold the predominant elements. High Priest Makolm sat behind an ornate desk of precious mahogany, staring at some papers and making notes with an old-fashioned quill. Not a modern pen in sight. Living simply was one of the ways in which the religious leadership tried to set themselves apart from the rest of the population.
Cináed walked up to the desk and stood quietly, as protocol demanded. Makolm pretended not to notice him, and anger burned within Cináed at the deliberate show of power. The High Priest had requested his urgent attendance. What was the point in Makolm making him wait, other than showing his superiority?
When the High Priest finally looked up, his blazing blue eyes were as alert as ever. He might have been over eighty years old, but you would never be able to tell from looking at him. His hair was white and wavy, he had hardly a wrinkle on his face, and he held himself upright like a man twenty years his junior.
“Ah, Cináed, how kind of you to drop by.” Makolm’s lips twisted into a cruel smile. “My guards told me you had wandered off into the woods with your friend, and I can’t help but wonder what the two of you were up to?”
“We were talking, Your Holiness.” Cináed’s knees had gone weak. Makolm was clearly not pleased, and this situation could easily turn into a disaster.
“Never mind, that’s a minor matter not worth our attention right now.” Makolm waved a hand dismissively.
Huh? If that was a minor matter, he’d hate to find out what trouble he was really in.
“Please, have a seat.” Makolm pointed at one of the gilded visitor chairs. “We have much to discuss.”
The High Priest offered him a seat? That was unusual. The whole situation was way outside Cináed’s expectations. He quietly sat down and hoped he’d find out what was going on before he collapsed from the tension.
“What do you know about the Eye of Scota?” Makolm leaned back in his seat, putting his elbows onto the cushioned armrests and steepling his fingers.
“It’s the stone circle that has periodically transported fugitives from Earth to Dalriata over the centuries that we’ve been living on this planet.” Was this a trap to find out how much he really knew?
“And?” Makolm raised his eyebrows, clearly expecting more.
“Nobody has ever been able to explain how it works, but it seems to be a gateway between the two worlds that appears when the need for safety is greatest.” Cináed frowned. “The other side of the circle is said to have appeared on Earth whenever the inhabitants of Scotland were threatened by various invading forces, offering the oppressed refuge and safety from persecution. But the one at this end has always been stationary, in the land of Bunádh.”
“Very good. That understanding is an excellent starting point for your mission.” Makolm lowered his hands, folding them across his belly. “What I’m about to tell you is not general knowledge and will require the utmost discretion on your part.”
“Of course, Your Holiness.” Cináed didn’t feel half as confident as he sounded. Being drawn into the High Priest’s confidence was not a good thing. Makolm clearly wanted something from him, but what would happen once he had completed his task? If this knowledge was dangerous, there was no guarantee that he’d survive.
“Very good.” Makolm nodded. “What isn’t generally known is that the Eye of Scota is also the source of the Slànach Stones. However, the supply seems to have dried up several years ago, and we now need to return to the Eye to obtain more.”
Cináed took a calming breath, focusing on not moving a muscle. Letting Makolm know that he’d figured this out himself wasn’t a good idea. And quite clearly the High Priest didn’t want him to know the whole truth—admitting to the lack of new Stones for “several years” was quite different from what Cináed knew to be true, based on his research.
“The Council of Priests has accepted my recommendation that you be the one to travel to the land of Bunádh to retrieve more Stones for us.” Makolm smiled benignly. “That is quite an honor, young man, and I’ll have you know that I expect you to keep the interests of the Council of Priests at heart at all times. You well know the punishment for disobedience.”
And there it was: the thinly veiled threat of what would happen if he disobeyed. It wasn’t clear to him at this point what form such disobedience could take, but that didn’t stop him from almost panicking.
“Why me?” Cináed focused on keeping his voice even. “I know how to use the Stones, but I have no idea how to retrieve more.”
“Then you will figure it out.” Makolm had stopped smiling. “You’re an able healer and a warrior to boot, so you are the ideal person for this mission. Do not make me ask you twice.”
“Surely there are better warriors than me.” Cináed was curious about the outside world, but the price of not being able to fulfill the High Priest’s expectations was a little high for him.
“There may be better warriors, but their allegiance is not with the Council of Priests, is it?” Makolm’s smile turned cunning. “So far we’ve been dependent on the Warrior Council to select one of theirs to attempt finding more Stones. The nature of the mission demands someone who is able to travel long distances through sometimes dangerous areas. Now that we have you, a priest who is also a warrior, we can finally keep control of everything within the Council of Priests.”
That was not going to go down well with the Warrior Council. On top of which, it set Cináed up to be the person both sides would blame if anything went wrong. Shit! He’d ended up right in the middle of a major battle for power. He had to find a way out of this before it was too late.
“The fact that you are also a descendant of the powerful MacAlpin clan will silence any potential disagreement from the Warrior Council.” Makolm grinned. “I expect them to argue against sending a priest. They will want to keep trying to gain control over the Stones themselves. Having you on our side will nullify their arguments.”
Cináed wasn’t going to say anything to contradict High Priest Makolm, but he doubted it would be that easy. If what he knew about his father was anything to go by, the Warrior Council wasn’t going to accept this lying down.
“YOU’VE GOT no right to accept this mission.” Cináed’s elder brother Gordan’s face was red, his brown eyes sparking with anger.
“It isn’t my choice to make.” Cináed had wondered what a reunion with his family would be like. He’d never imagined a scene like this.
His father and elder brother had come to the monastery on the evening before the big intercouncil meeting. They’d said they wanted to talk some sense into him before it was too late, but so far Gordan had only yelled at him. His father hadn’t even spoken yet, his face dispassionate, but his body language clearly disapproving.
“Nonsense. All you need to do is refuse to go. Even you should be able to do that.” Gordan got up from the uncomfortable wooden bench on the opposite side of the small table. They were in one of the visitor rooms set aside for the reception of outside guests. Gordan started pacing, throwing the odd disapproving glance at Cináed.
“You’re wrong. I can’t refuse this mission.” Cináed closed his eyes for a minute to calm himself down. Why wouldn’t these people, his family, listen to him? “I’m a healer priest, and I have to obey my superior’s orders. The High Priest has made it very clear that he expects me to take this assignment and be successful.”
“You’re also a warrior.” His father’s deep voice rang out in the small room, almost making Cináed flinch. Lornell MacAlpin was still an imposing figure, even though he was in his late fifties. There wasn’t a gray hair in sight, and he looked as physically fit as ever. “Or have you forgotten?”
“No, Father, I haven’t forgotten.” On the contrary, based on the lack of contact, his father had forgotten him all these years. Family visits to those training as priests were restricted, but they weren’t impossible. Despite that, his father hadn’t been to see Cináed once in twenty years. “After all, it was you who insisted that I keep up the warrior training, much to everyone’s disapproval. I still don’t understand how you were able to make the Council of Priests agree to that stipulation.”
“Politics, my son.” His father’s grin grew almost evil. “Something you might not understand, having grown up behind these walls, but essential to our family’s and our clan’s survival.”
“Politics, my ass. I’m sure you blackmailed them into it.” Gordan had stopped his pacing and glared at their father.
“Gordan! I won’t have you speak to me like this.” His father hadn’t moved a muscle, but the threat was clear in his voice. “I’m still head of our family and chief of the MacAlpin clan, and we have certain standards to maintain.”
Gordan didn’t react and instead moved to stand next to Cináed, towering over him in a very transparent attempt at intimidation. It looked like his brother had yet to learn the finer art of politics.
“Look, the MacAlpin clan has been chosen for this attempt at retrieving the Stones, as per the decision of last week’s Warrior Council meeting. That means I, as the eldest son, have the duty and honor to represent the clan.” Gordan’s attempt at being reasonable was short-lived. He hit the wooden table with a fist. “Don’t you understand anything?”
“I understand that High Priest Makolm has chosen me to go on the mission. I also understand that I can’t refuse his orders.” Cináed swallowed. Having both his elder brother and his father against him was hard. “What I don’t understand is your reference to ‘this attempt at retrieving more Stones.’ Have there been others?”
“What? They haven’t told you?” Gordan stepped back, his mouth open.
“Told me what?” Cináed glanced at his father, hoping the older man would tell him what was going on.
“That’s just typical!” His father shook his head. “Trying to withhold information to make people do what they want. The Council of Priests has no honor whatsoever. What your High Priest clearly neglected to tell you is that this shortage of Stones has been going on for a long time. There has been a mission like this about every ten years for the last few hundred years. None of the warriors sent ever returned, not even to report that there are no longer any Stones or that the Eye of Scota has vanished.”
“What are you saying?” Cináed refused to believe that the High Priest was sending him on what was starting to sound like a hopeless mission.
“You heard what Father said.” Gordan smirked. “None of the last however many missions have been successful. You’re not likely to change that. Hell, you’re not even a full warrior!”
“What makes you think that you would be successful where so many have already failed?” Cináed snorted. Gordan was certainly arrogant enough to become a clan leader.
“They’ve never asked a MacAlpin before.” Gordan sat down.
“Really?” Cináed almost rolled his eyes at his brother’s belief in his own superiority.
“Really.” Gordan crossed his massive arms over his chest.
“If this is true, I should be as able to fulfill this mission as you are. After all, I’m no less a MacAlpin than you.” Cináed suppressed his grin with an effort.
Gordan’s eyes widened, and he opened his mouth but nothing came out.
“Well said!” Their father grinned.
“What? Are you taking his side now?” Gordan turned toward the older MacAlpin, expression incredulous.
“No, I’m not taking anyone’s side. All I’m saying is that Cináed made a good point. He is, after all, also a MacAlpin.”
“But—but he’s a healer! He can’t possibly succeed where so many warriors have failed.” Gordan slumped in his seat.
“I think there’s a very easy way to determine who will go on the mission. It’s a method steeped in tradition and proven successful across the centuries.” Their father rose and stood so that he could look at both of them at the same time. “This is no longer a matter for the Warrior Council to decide, since it only involves our family.”
“What are you saying, Father?” Gordan sat up.
Cináed felt his heart stutter. He was pretty sure he knew what was coming.
“I’m saying that the decision as to who will go on the mission will be made based on who can best the other in a sword fight.” His father looked triumphant.
Cináed just shook his head. He didn’t know much about his brother, but he’d certainly had more training than Cináed over the years. He also had his doubts whether the High Priest was going to accept this challenge to his authority. But then, this was apparently politics, and different rules might apply.
“Well, I can certainly live with that decision.” Gordan looked smug. “Can you, little brother?”
“Sure.” Considering the fact that Cináed didn’t really want to go in the first place, this looked like a good way out of his predicament. All he needed to do was lose the sword fight—that should not be difficult to do—and his problem was solved. Well, almost. There was still the matter of High Priest Makolm’s reaction to all this.
TWO DAYS later Cináed stood in the center of the city’s largest arena and wondered how he’d gotten there. High Priest Makolm hadn’t been happy about Gordan’s challenge, nor did he agree with the terms of making the decision. But there hadn’t been anything he could do about it, because the law confirmed that this was a family matter, and Lornell MacAlpin had the right to set the conditions.
To Cináed’s horror, his father had also made this a major public event, wanting to draw as much benefit from the situation as possible. Sword fights were an important part of their heritage but had become very rare; they were now usually only enactments of historical events. Having the opportunity to watch a real one had drawn thousands of people to the city’s largest arena, despite the short notice.
The tension was palpable. Sweat beaded on Cináed’s brow and ran down his naked back in small rivulets. It was early afternoon, and for the first time he was grateful that his trainers had insisted on practicing in difficult situations like this. He still felt totally out of his depth.
Only his kilt and favorite sword were familiar. Gordan was an unknown opponent who was determined to win.
Within minutes of the signal for them to start, Cináed was too busy fighting to keep thinking. His brother’s blows kept Cináed on his toes; Gordan was obviously determined to get this over with as quickly as possible. He had strength on his side and was pushing Cináed toward the edge of the fighting area.
With his back to the metaphorical wall, something snapped inside Cináed.
There was no reason he couldn’t fight back. He might not have wanted to go on the mission, but there was no point in sending a hothead like Gordan. And there must have been a reason for High Priest Makolm to choose him. Maybe it was the fact that no healer had ever attempted to retrieve the Stones. Maybe it was the fact that Cináed combined the abilities of a healer with those of a warrior that gave the High Priest hope for success.
And maybe he just didn’t want to lose the fight in front of his father, the rest of his family, and most of the city’s inhabitants.
Decision made, Cináed started watching for a weakness he could use. Gordan’s temper and certainty that he was the superior fighter were a disadvantage his brother wasn’t even aware of. Watching Gordan train had made Cináed realize that he was a lot faster than his bigger and more muscular brother.
Cináed started getting little stabs in here and there, moving too fast for his brother to follow. His best strategy was probably to let Gordan tire himself out, then somehow disarm him.
Half an hour later, Cináed was beginning to question the wisdom of his decision. Even though his brother was clearly getting tired, Cináed was nearing the end of his endurance as well. The sun beat down on them mercilessly, and he was ready to give up, when his brother suddenly stumbled. Gordan quickly righted himself, but this was a clear sign that his strength was beginning to run out.
Cináed followed with a few quick blows too fast for Gordan to avoid. Slowly but surely, he beat his brother back. With a last desperate lunge, he made him step outside the fighting area.
Gordan sank to his knees, lowering his head in the classic gesture of surrender. Cináed touched Gordan’s neck with the flat side of his sword in ritual acknowledgment, and stepped back to the applause of the huge crowd. The audience didn’t know why they’d fought or what was at stake. Like any crowd out for a sensation, all they’d wanted was entertainment.
Cináed had delivered.
But this was only the first stage. The biggest fight was yet to come. Cináed’s chances for success were much smaller than they’d been for the sword fight, but he was no longer going to worry about that. He had a mission, and he was going to do his best to fulfill it. They urgently needed more Stones, and he would do his best to retrieve them. After all, if there were enough Stones, he wouldn’t have to turn sick people away anymore.
That was a cause truly worth fighting for.