Chapter 3: The Claiming of Mirren
They lined the path leading out of the village, each person held a torch, and the light snaked its way down through the dark tree line, like a fiery caterpillar, or snake, depending on your outlook. One omen meant her new life was about to bloom and become beautiful, devoting her life to the Gods, and the other, that she were being swallowed up and smothered alive for the Gods. Mirren’s father smiled at her, and this made her look back at him, at his crinkled eyes which were aglow with pride.
‘If only your mother could see you now,’ his eyes were watering. She hoped he wouldn’t cry. The fact that she’d probably never see him again was almost breaking her in two. ‘I know she’d be proud of you.’
‘Thank you, father, she would be proud of how you raised me. The druids will give me a good life.’
Faces watched them from beyond the hut’s doorway. Skral was there, his bony face and ferrety eyes just visible from his raggedy hood. Skral would take her to the western isles, where she would begin her training as a Druid. The Elders has seen potential in her, and said she had been marked by the Gods. They had called the Druid here. She had been Claimed.
‘Here, I want you to have this, to remember me by,’ he took a folded cloth out from behind a loose rock in the wall and unfurled it. Inside was beaten discs of copper bound together with braided reed. He slipped it over her head, and stood back to take a look. ‘Make sure they don’t see that, Mirren. Druids won’t let you take any possessions from home.’ Mirren hid it beneath her cloak and gave her father one last hug, before turning and leaving her house for the last time in her life. She wanted to turn back, to say goodbye, but it just wasn’t in her.
The crowd watched as she followed Skral down through the village. They had a long trek ahead of them, and the druid made no attempt to ease the pace for her. People bowed their heads and touched their fingers to their foreheads as Skral passed; all were painted with mud and ashes, all had been making offerings and performing the usual ceremonies for the Gods for the past two moons. It had been many lifetimes since the Druids had claimed someone from their village, for the Druids were a reclusive people, and everyone had told Mirren had proud they were of her. But she didn’t feel pride, only resentment. Why did she have to be uprooted from her home, from the last bit of family she had left, and taken to the distant strange land of the druids? Everyone knew that outside of the village was only danger, she wasn’t even that clever, besides being able to make poultices for any injured villagers, something her mother had taught her.
So why her?
Skral gave her no chance to ask any of these questions. He had his head bent low and marched down the hill with wide steps. The man was as high and thin as a loop-pole. Even if she did ask him, Druids were known for their lack of generosity when it came to their motivations. The people and her village were quickly left behind. Mirren had fought the urge to look back, because she knew if she did, her father would be there in the doorway, and she wouldn’t be able to take another step. So she put her head down, looked at her hide boots slogging through the mud, and fought back the stinging tears in her eyes. She followed the druid toward her new life, and they headed south, to the Isles of the Druids.
At dusk, Skral told her to gather materials to make a shelter, and after she had gathered them and built the shelter, he told her to make fire. All the while he simply stood beneath a tree, avoiding the rain that soaked through Mirren’s thin clothes and flattened her hair to her skull. She set the materials inside of the shelter, and her hands shook as she rolled the stick between her palms. Her palms were red and sore from the cold, wet and grating bark. She took the dry wood shavings previously gathered and placed them beside the growing embers. Her hands shook as she warmed them by the taking flames. The druid, Skral, walked into the shelter then and stamped on the fire, extinguishing the taking tinder.
‘What are you doing!’ she screamed, standing up and almost whacking him with the stick.
He looked down at her, his black lips parting, revealing his sharpened teeth. ‘You forgot to thank the Brigit for her warmth.’
‘Do it again. Thank the God of Fire when she grants you her flame.’
Mirren had to uncurl her fist from the stick; it wouldn’t do to begin her new life as a Druid in training by braining this bastard. She simply nodded, then began again. Once the fire was lit, and the Gods justified, they sat by it and warmed themselves.
Skral caught Mirren looking at him and seemed to sense the question in her eyes. ‘Do you wish to ask me something? I will answer one question.’
This caught her off guard. Since his arrival in her village days ago, the Druid had barely spoken to anyone, except for the claim he made to her father. Now that he was offering her a chance, she didn’t know which question to ask. ‘What’s it like, where the Druids live?’ She thought it might be best to start off simple.
‘It is a sacred place. It’s hard, cold, but fair. The main temple was made when the Gods used to walk among us. One God came to the isles and made the first temple. His name you will learn in time. We do not reveal sacred secrets to the Un-blooded. Since the fall of the Gods, and the time of the Dark Ones, we strive to keep the knowledge bestowed upon us to ourselves. It is a place of wonder, the isles, and you do not know how lucky you are to have been allowed to live there.’
‘Tell that to my father,’ she grumbled.
‘I understand your pain, Mirren. I was but a boy when the Druids claimed me, far younger than you. I, like you, hated them for it. But now I realize how fortunate I was, a life outside of the Druid ways is a life of ignorance. Men live in the mountains like animals, or in villages, afraid of the outside. Lost, they are, unfit for the life of devotion.’
’And what makes me so great? I’ve spent most of my life just like that!’
‘Great? No, you are not great. But you could be. A chief, you would not likely become, you do not have the strength or violent nature. But a Druid, a Druid you might become, and be great, yes.’
‘How do you know how violent I am? I could be very violent. I could slit your throat in your sleep and run away, have you thought about that?’
Skral laughed. ‘Maybe I was wrong about strength.’
It was the first bit of life the Druid shown since his arrival. But he spoke no more, just ignored any further questions, and he turned his back to her. Mirren lay down in the cold and hard ground, and tried not to think of her father.
They set out before the sun had risen, the ramshackle shelter already leaking, and her thin cloak was soaked through. At the first village they came to, they took food and water, mostly ignored out of fear by the villagers, and after refreshing themselves, they headed east. By the following day villages had begun to grow further apart, and as night loomed, Skral guided them to a wooden squat tower built on a hill. Mirren hadn’t even noticed it until the Druid knocked on the door. It squatted on the rocky hill, overlooking the surrounding area of low hills and tree lines. Mirren slept unsoundly in an insect infested pallet. By the next day the land began to grow jagged, the air was filled with the smell of what Skral told her was salt. Mounds of rock and dead trees loomed in the mist like sinister beasts. Skral climbed a small rise, and stopped, shielding his eyes. Mirren joined him. They stared out over a sloping descent; it was covered in reeds, but beyond the tangle, visible beneath the canopy of mist, was sand and sea. At water’s edge was a wide platform, a small boat was lashed to it. As they approached an old man stood up and wiped sleep from his eyes, stood as well as he could with such a crooked back, and greeted Skral.
‘Is this the girl, then?’ asked the old man.
‘Good. I guess you want to go to the island?’
‘That is why I’m here.’
‘You Druids can’t leave an old man in peace,’ he moaned, before sitting down and taking up two oars in his weathered hands. Mirren followed Skral onto the boat, and the druid unlashed the rope and pushed them away from the platform. The water bobbed them up and down, and the further away they got from shore, the more the land became shadow. The sun was high, but did little to penetrate the gloom. Moments stretched out into a world filled with splashing and wind. A high tower broke through the mist; torches were bracketed onto it up high. As they passed it, she could see the tall stone structures on the island, now appearing in the mist. More torches flickered on the island in places, and figures scuttled around beneath the stones that she could make out. As they hit land and waded through the water, two figures approached them. One was a woman; she had braided hair and green pigments worked onto her skin in swirls. She was stark naked, as was the man. He was younger than the woman, his body had been burned, and the marks left on his skin were rune-like.
‘Go now, this is no place for you,’ said the woman. The old man pushed his boat back out and rowed away. Skral had been talking to the two naked people, and he walked past them without looking back at her, and headed up the hill. The woman walked over to Mirren. ‘Hello, I am Aird. Please come with us and we will prepare you for the ritual.’
‘Ritual, what ritual?’ Mirren heard the panic in her voice. ‘Skral never mentioned a ritual.’
‘Nothing to worry about, my child, it’s the will of the Gods,’ smiled the man. Mirren kept her eyes averted. She might be nervous about the ritual, but the fact that she’d never seen a naked man before didn’t help the situation, either. The girls in the village had laughed at her, a woman grown and never having been with a man.
‘Pit, go see to the phial please.’
‘Yes Aird.’ The man turned and followed Skral up the hill.
‘I know this must seem odd, but do not fear. For the ritual all must be bare to the Gods.’
‘Wait, what do you mean bare?’
‘Come, we will make you ready.’
‘No. No, I don’t think so. Wait,’ she called out to the boatman, but he stayed rowing back out to sea.
‘Come, you have journeyed this far.’
Mirren was hesitant, but the woman was quite strong, and she took Mirren by the arm and led her up the hill. Stakes of wood were covered with charms of all kinds. Bone, metal, fabric. More torches were being lit in various places up on the stone buildings, that closer seemed to be one large building made of stone, with towers in various places, and as Mirren neared the buildings, she saw that symbols and runes had been scraped into the stonework, and painted into others. Large standing stones had been chipped and worked into symbols and artworks, and the light from the torches danced on their surfaces. As they passed into a tunnel, the ground dipped downwards through the earthworks. They came to and climbed steps of stone, and then came out onto a raised platform, surrounded by rows upon rows of carved stone benches, which were filled with people chanting or drumming or giving out bowls of who knew what. All of the people were naked.
Logs of wood had been stacked one atop the other, placed on stilted beams of wood; it stood three or four times as tall as Mirren. Two women joined them on the platform. Aird and the women lifted a screen, and placed it around Mirren for privacy. The women told her to drink a liquid in a clay bowl; it was a pasty green colour and smelled of ash and bitter berries. Aird nodded for her to drink, and Mirren managed in getting the vile stuff down in four mouthfuls. It was lumpy, and was cold at first taste, but burned going down. After they had stripped her, they began daubing on many coloured dyes over her body. Green dyes on her chest, blue on her legs and yellow on her arms. She recognised one of the runes being drawn onto her stomach; it was the symbol for the God of Life and Luck, being daubed in red, which looked strangely like blood. They then painted blue swirls around it, which swept out from the rune and covered her breasts, which she noticed to her embarrassment were perking up. More were being done on her back, arms, face, legs; eventually every part of her had been covered. As this was being done, the fire had been lit, and sparks crackled and sparkled above her, making her smile. She smelled the sweet aroma of wood-smoke and felt the heat on her flesh. The smoke swirled and danced in the air, and shadows moved around on the screen, as bodies danced around them.
The drums and chanting began to play louder. And the shadows seemed to swell then, and she could feel the heat coming through the fire intensify. The burning in her stomach seemed to swell; it spread through her body, through her blood. She could almost feel a presence within the fire above her. Her stomach turned then, and she fell. Well she would have, but the women caught her.
‘Do not fight it, the Gods are in you now,’ Aird whispered into her ear.
As she stood up, the screen was dropped, and the heat seemed to wrap itself around her. She sucked in sweet air, inhaled the smoke. It caressed her. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she felt like falling again, but the hands held her steady. The heat beat against her naked flesh. The drums beat all the louder, but she couldn’t tell if her heart beat with it, or if the drums were her heart. Her mouth felt dry, her stomach burned as hot as the flames which licked out towards her. The women left the platform then, and only Aird stood with her now, holding her hand. Mirren’s head was spinning. She was shivering. The naked man had appeared on the far side of the fire, and he was watching her. He had been painted also, and his eyes were aglow, literally glowing, and not from the fire. They burned a bright green that she could not look away from.
‘Go to him, you are in the hands of the gods now, my child.’ Aird gently pushed Mirren towards the man. She felt no fear, and walked towards the man stood tall, who also stepped towards beneath the flames. They met beneath the presence of the Gods, and as he took her and feasted on her flesh, she fed the fire with all her soul.