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I write you in the utmost haste, trusting in God that I will find a safe way to deliver this letter unto your hands. For this very eve, I must leave Rome for an island so far outside the bounds of civilization it has never merited the attention of our dear Republic: the land of the Gaels.
That the Lord has summoned me to this mission, I have no doubt. Yet, as dawn broke and I finished my prayers this morning, I would have sworn on the cross that the day would progress like every other.
I settled at my desk in the chambers of the papal secretary just as the sun's rays began their full celebration of God's good day. Capturing the clarity of the earliest light is as critical to my work as a scrivener
for the Lord as it is to your work overseeing the family land; thus I was alone in the study. I was preparing to record the edicts emanating from a recent council meeting when I heard my name.
I turned toward the sound and, to my surprise, saw a papal page in the doorway. He said, "Brother Decius, you are to follow me to an audience in the chambers of His Holiness Pope Simplicius, bishop of Rome."
The page started off down the long and winding corridors that lead to His Holiness's inner sanctum. I raced after him, wary of losing him in the labyrinthine route connecting the church's official buildings to the palace. I kept his pace, and he left me at the entryway to the pope's own chambers.
A crimson tapestry separated the sacred inner sanctum from the bustle of the rest of the palace. I approached it, and though I pulled the heavy fabric aside with reverence and care, my fingers caught on the pearls and rubies sewn into the silken embroidery. In that moment of disentanglement, I know not why, I hesitated before crossing the threshold.
My body began shaking, as it had never trembled before. Yet I knew I could show no fear. Courage is necessary-nay, mandated-for selection to one of Christ's missions. And somehow I knew that this was the purpose of my summoning.
To expel the devil's own trepidation from my heart and soul, I steeled myself with the image, oft described by you, of our father and mother stoic in the face of the barbarians. If our parents could suffer at their hands and never flinch before the final swing of the crude battle-axe, then, I told myself, I could take the simple step of entering the private chamber of Saint Peter's own representative on this earth.
Peace descended upon me, almost as though our mother and father spoke from heaven. I left the tapestry to swing in my wake and immediately knelt before His Holiness. Or so I believed.
"Rise, Brother Decius," the order sounded out.
I readied myself to confront the intimidating phalanx of aristocratic councillors that accompany His Holiness's every movement, which I had witnessed during my three prior papal audiences. Yet as I rose from my deep genuflection and lifted my eyes, a single figure greeted me. I knew the man only by sight and rumor, as he would never deign to enter the secretary's study: it was Gallienus, a priest and the most senior of the pope's councillors.
I bowed my head in respect, yet could not help but note the comfortable, nearly languorous, manner in which he leaned against the empty papal throne. "Your Eminence," I said.
"The twelfth eagle will soon fly," Gallienus said.
I did not answer at once, uncertain as to his meaning and even more unsure as to the safest response.
"Are you not familiar with the Prophecy of the Twelve Eagles, Brother Decius?" Gallienus asked.
"I am, Your Eminence." Indeed, I guess nearly every Roman citizen has heard the divination that the Republic's supremacy will last twelve centuries only, each one represented by an eagle. Even the masses must have heard it bandied about in the bars and streets of the bustling Aventine Quarter in recent times, as the Visigoths rule Rome in all but name and other hordes conquer more and more of the Roman provinces every day. Oh, but this is old, sad news to us true Romans.
"Then you know that twelve centuries of the Roman Empire's rule as foretold by the twelve eagles are nearly at an end?"
I paused before answering. I hate to speak ill of a fellow Christian, but the elite Gallienus is known for his wiles and I feared that the question was a trap. If I admitted to an awareness of the prophecy and the few years remaining on it, I could well be confessing to giving credence to pagan lore-a punishable confession, since Christianity was proclaimed the state religion almost one hundred years ago, as you know well.
I delivered a measured response. "I do, Your Eminence. Yet I also know that such prophecy is but heretical conjecture spoken by the masses."
Gallienus stared long at me, never blinking but keeping his eyes hooded in shadow such that I could not read his reaction. Then he nodded slowly and said, "That is true, Brother Decius. Still, we must be prepared."
"Of course, Your Eminence." Wary of this man, I was apprehensive of accusations that I had discounted the empire's military might with my answer. So I said, "Though the empire maintains a vast army."
"We cannot leave the fate of the Roman Christian Church to Emperor Anthemius's troops, can we, Brother Decius?"
Understanding that Gallienus's question brooked no response other than agreement, I said, "No, Your Eminence. We cannot leave the fate of the Roman Christian Church to the Roman army."
"I am glad we are of like mind, Brother Decius. Heartily glad."
I watched Gallienus saunter around the pope's chamber as if it belonged to him, pausing to touch the gilt arms of the papal throne and the intricate wall mosaic of birds in flight. As he gazed out between columns to the surging metropolis below, still crowded with marble temples and colonnaded forums dedicated to the pagan gods, despite the edict banning their worship, I waited for my mission.
"We must secure the land of the Gaels, Brother Decius," Gallienus pronounced without turning back toward me.
"The desolate isle beyond Britannia, Your Eminence?" My brother, I regretted the question the moment it slipped from my tongue. I knew, of course, where the Gaelic land lay, but I could not believe that the church would trouble itself with the unimportant, rocky outcropping on the precipice of the known world, an island so inconsequential that Rome did not bother to colonize it even in the Republic's prime. Not to mention that with Gael's lack of a central ruler, subduing its countless chieftains would have required more than fifty thousand troops, which Rome could ill afford due to mounting pressures on nearly all other frontiers. But I did not want the man to think I was a fool or, worse, an insubordinate in need of punishment.
"The very same," Gallenius answered, without rebuke or surprise at my response. He faced me. "Rumors are surfacing that its chieftains are uniting in power under the newly formed Christian monasteries. This news would be hailed-indeed, we always embrace new sheep in our flock- but for the reports that the Gaelic brand of Christianity is rife with heresy. We would not want Gael to unify under a Pelagian Christianity, now, would we? We must determine whether these reports bear truth."
Gallienus did not continue with any details, though, of course, I had long heard rumblings about Pelagius, the rebel monk from Britannia who had maintained that original sin does not exist and that man has free will, a belief condemned by the church's Council of Ephesus in 431.
"Would Bishop Patrick not be able to serve in this regard?" The Roman Christian Church had sent Patrick to Gael as a missionary some years before, in an unprecedented posting. The church had never before assigned a missionary to an uncolonized land, but Patrick had made constant, persuasive arguments about God calling him to convert the people who had once enslaved him.
"Inexplicably, Bishop Patrick is too enamored with the Gaelic people to report upon them objectively." Gallienus then made a broad gesture toward me.
I finished for him, as he clearly wished: "You would like me to make this appraisal, Your Eminence."
"Yes, Brother Decius. I wish you to study a particular abbey that grows in power, the Abbey of Kildare which is run by a woman, Brigid, no less." He paused and then asked, "Do you understand the critical importance of this work?"
"I welcome Your Eminence's wisdom." I felt the need to remain guarded in my responses, though I had begun to intuit his designs.
"If, in fact, the Gaelic monasteries and churches preach heresy as charged, we must stamp out the leaders of this profanation and replace them with our own. Only then can we unite this disjointed, backward land under the true Christian faith and present it as a tribute to the emperor. To help him bolster the empire and . . ." He left the sentence unfinished.
"And, in turn, bolster the church, Your Eminence?" He seemed to want me to say this aloud.
"You do see, Brother Decius. I am well pleased."
And see I did, when he put it so plainly. The Roman Church stands on increasingly unsteady ground as the Roman government falters. It needs to shore itself against the barbarian onslaught by routing out all heresy. Efforts to keep the remote island fully Roman Catholic could prevent it from becoming barbarian-and create a fitting honorarium for the Roman emperor in the process.
Gallienus sidled up near me, drawing so close that, despite the early hours, I could smell his sour, wine-laden breath. "Do you wonder at your selection for this task?"
I lowered my head, away from his probing stare and his stench. "I trust in the sagacity of God, Pope Simplicius, and his learned councillors, Your Eminence."
Gallienus smiled. "Always cautious, Brother Decius. Almost as cautious as myself. It will serve you well." The smile vanished, leaving an unpleasant grimace on his lips. "We chose you not for your ardent faith or your private hatred of the barbarians, though you have both of these excellent qualities in abundance. We chose you because we need a scribe."
My dear brother, the light fades, and the horses assemble for the long journey. I have not the time to complete the description of my encounter with Gallienus or my mission to the Gaelic land, though I suspect you would reel at the notion of your pious, careful younger brother, whom you always protected as you dashed off on some adventure of your own design, heading off into the dark unknown. I pray with fervence to our Lord that He will deliver unto me the means to transport this letter to you. Until then, I will be in His hands. Pray for me, brother, as I pray for you.
brigid: a life
Brigid readies her sword. She sizes up her competitor and fashions a fresh strategy. The call to battle sounds, and they rush at each other headlong.
The metallic shriek of their locked swords overtakes the battlefield. Brigid begins with a thrust and parry so they will seem even matched. But she knows her combatant well, and her standard swordplay serves as a trap. The rhythmic clash of their blades lulls him into thinking he commands the lead and wipes any strategy from his overconfident mind. She lures him to the edge of a ditch bordering the field and prepares her final strike.
An almost imperceptible tremor passes through the watching soldiers. Brigid averts her gaze momentarily and sees that her father has arrived. A faint smile curls on her lips as she thinks about the fortune of having her father watch her victory. She shifts her weight to muster all her force for the winning thrust.
But her competitor marks her fleeting distraction and subtly changes his position. When Brigid swings forward with all her might, she stumbles to the ground in pain and embarrassment. It is her opponent who delivers the ultimate blow-not Brigid.
She rises under her own strength, pushing aside her competitor's outstretched hand. If she must fall to another's sword, she will prove to her father that she can shrug off a blow as easily as his fiercest warriors. Brushing away a servant's attempt to dress her shoulder wound, Brigid passes her blade back into the scabbard hanging from a loop off her metal belt. She unrolls the hem of her long robe, which she had tucked into her belt, and strides off the field as if she had won.
Brigid glances in her father's direction. She hopes he has observed her stoicism, if not her victory. But he is gone, leaving her to wonder just what he witnessed.
She curses to herself as the crowd dissipates. Her overeagerness had caused her fatal misstep, one only a rank beginner would commit. She is furious with herself.
"Ach, don't beat yourself up about it, Brigid. Everyone knows you've got better sword skills than me."
She turns toward the voice. It is her opponent, her foster brother, Oengus, who has been sheltered by her family since the age of seven, according to Gaelic custom. He will return to his own family at seventeen, taking the newly made bond with him as a tie to his own family. "Easy for you to say. You just won to a warrior's crowd of a hundred, with my father at the center."
Oengus does not respond. Wisely, Brigid thinks. For she knows-and he knows-that she is right, that her father expects her to dominate in every respect. Even on the battlefield against a man. For her father is Dubtach, king of the Fothairt people of southern Gael, and he demands nothing less of his only natural child.
The long walk across the crop fields to the stone cashel ringing the royal homestead lessens her inner anger. As they pass the cattle and sheep fields, she forgets her troubles for a moment and unconsciously counts the animals' heads: they are the measure of her father's power, along with the slaves captured by raiding parties. By the time they cross the rampart over the ditch encircling the inner wall of the cashel, Brigid has even mustered a laugh at Oengus's imitation of their instructor, an aging warrior of her father's. Oengus alone can make her laugh. At their approach to the two vast earthen mounds used by Dubtach for his ceremonies, she is able to pretend that she has forgotten about her humiliation. But she never really forgets.
Brigid and Oengus near the large heather-thatched building used for their studies. Though they are well ahead of their appointed time, they notice a number of unfamiliar people entering the structure. Brigid picks up her pace, pushes open the heavy oak door, and enters with Oengus hard at her heels.
"Fresh from the battlefield, I see?"
Brigid's eyes adjust slowly from the bright spring light to the dim interior. She does not need to see the face to recognize the speaker. It is her mother, Broicsech, queen of the Fothairt people, and from her tone, Brigid understands that she is fuming.