Happy Tuesday to you!
Outside the roundhouse was a revelation. Many torches burned in high stands like the flambeau he’d seen on Caribbean holiday beaches, giving the growing dusk a festive air. People milled around chattering excitedly.
The unearthly beating of skin drums cut short the hubbub, the signal sound sending everyone scurrying towards the settlement opening. Aran sensed the restrained excitement around him as he and the other two trotted after Orla who clutched Caitlinn’s hand very firmly with one hand, a lit torch brand in the other. Apart from a sizeable number of young guards who were left at strategic places, everyone followed the drumbeats, surging outside through the zigzag walkway and on towards the training ground. Burning flares at the far end of the field beckoned the crowd.
When they reached the area, the brands he’d seen were markers indicating where the stacks had been laid. He grinned at Brian and Fianna, all of them caught up in the general excitement. It was the same sort of anticipation he always felt when he stood around the local bonfire. He was desperate to see what would happen since this was Guy Fawkes Night with a huge difference.
The swell of people came to an abrupt halt well before they reached the stacked wood; waiting for something. It wasn’t long before the crowd parted to allow someone to pass forward to the stacks.
Tuadh: a splendidly dressed Tuadh whose gold torque gleamed in the flare of his torch brand, the hilt of his sword and his unsheathed axe twinkling below. When the chief got to the first of the bonfires, he raised his arms high above him and began to chant. Though the words were difficult to make out it seemed he was incanting a spell to every bonfire as he approached it. One by one, he lit each stack, flickering them into action as the dry tinder ignited. When each fire was lit, Tuadh cast the marker flare into the flames making the corridor between the fires even wider. Soon eight roaring blazes lit up the darkening blue dusk, four to each side of Tuadh.
To more ceremonial drumbeating, Aran watched the elders of the tribe proceed up the now well-lit walkway towards the chief. Eventually coming to a halt, they arranged themselves alongside or behind Tuadh, a few rows deep, facing the awaiting tribespeople.
The drumbeat changed very slightly.
“Follow me!” Caitlinn in her firm grip, Orla moved through the noisy clutch of people and gradually made her way along the fire corridor, to her hearth-husband.
Aran and the twins towed at her heels, among the many people who now surged through the fire curtain. It seemed to be the turn of important warriors, those of high rank but who had not reached the status of being an elder of the tribe.
Orla whispered to Tuadh on reaching him. After the chief nodded, she turned back to Aran.
Orla was a woman of few words. The twins at his side, he trailed after her and Caitlinn as she went to one end of the row of elders, the bulk of the important tribespeople now clustered alongside the chief.
“Stand next to me, Warrior Aran.”
Another order from the chief’s wife but Aran wasn’t too bothered since the view was good. Fianna stood next to him, Brian on her far side.
Tuadh raised his hand, the torch brand held aloft. He said nothing, yet at his signal, the crowd at the far end quietened till the only sounds to be heard were the spitting and crackling of the fires. They burned brighter and brighter as the flames licked their snaking tongues to the topmost wood. The sparks flew high, and the cracking and popping filled the now deepening dusk. A column of puffing smoke rose majestically from each blaze, since there was no wind to speak of. The wood smells were unmistakable as damp fiery debris floated into the air around their cheery brightness.
Anticipation was palpable, an edgy strain circling all around. Aran just knew something fantastic was about to occur. Then, as though no mortal person started it, a different thrumming rippled around him. From somewhere he couldn’t see, the low beat of the skin drums rumbled through the air – sending an even deeper expectancy over the throng. Eventually, when the tension had become almost unbearable, the faraway crowd silently parted and from out of the inky blue dusk came the strangest, most alarming figure he had ever seen. It walked with the body of a man, though the head was a huge stag with glittering rings adorning the twisted full-grown antlers.
It was fantastic!
It towered over the mass of people who parted to allow the figure to be visible by Tuadh.
Aran shared a quick glance with the twins. Fianna looked beside herself with glee. Brian all but hopped in his enthusiasm, as well. Nobody else grinned around him, though. Whatever was happening was a serious business to the people of Balbath. He suppressed the smirk that wanted to escape; his stomach flutters of pure exhilaration and expectation.
At the far end of the fire corridor, the figure stopped in all its splendour.
Fianna gasped alongside and he felt her trembling fingers clutch at his cloak. Her eyes glittered with sheer excitement. Though it was an unearthly looking figure, he knew it was a real live man underneath the strange helmet. Mapon was long gone, but he’d said his acolyte would remain and what a substitute he was. The figure was magnificent. In the tense hush around him, he truly appreciated the difference between seeing something similar in 3D on a screen, and what he now experienced in real live, seeing, smelling, touching… living.
Callum’s interactive story was incredible.
He realised that he’d actually forgotten about it being a story, being so drawn into the life at Balbath. Right that moment, he was so glad to be experiencing it.
The druid acolyte carried a strange staff, not unlike Mapon’s, but this one had a shining silvery animal head atop the shaft. Huge twisting antlers made it easy for him to recognise the head as that of a full antlered stag, which matched the figure’s magnificent headdress. The staff-top glittered malevolently in the firelight as the acolyte held it aloft, the weight needing both his hands to hold it high. The billowing robe he wore trailed around as he headed for the fire corridor with long strides.
When the druid’s footfall passed the furthest away fire, a carnyx shrieked its terrifying resonance alongside Aran, notes that lingered in the gloom. The tension amongst the multitude was so powerful, he felt it ripple through him. It wasn’t a frightening feeling: more of an extreme exhilaration. Any of these objects – staff, headdress or carnyx – would be incredible evidence to take back to Callum. How could that happen though?
Without looking down, he became aware of Caitlinn who’d slipped from her mother’s grip. Sneaking in between him and Fianna the little girl bristled with anticipation. Orla nodded her approval when he glanced her way to indicate he was aware of her daughter. When the last resonance of the carnyx could be heard no longer, the acolyte’s voice replaced it from that furthest away fire, carrying mournfully up into the cloudless, now star-studded navy sky.
“Cernunnos, Lord of Darkness…”
Brian nudged Aran in the ribs as he mouthed, “Cernunnos strikes again.” His toothy grin shone white in the flickering firelight.
“Shut up and listen!” Aran whispered in his friend’s ear, wanting to be respectful.
The druid intoned a deep boom across the moonlight.
“Go with thanks. Yet come with blessings. With the mother-earth, Brighde, bring energy to our fires.”
The sounds of his chanting sent creepy shudders through Aran. Fianna dug her nails into his arm, her trembling transferring right through the fabric of his tunic. Caitlinn snuggled in even closer to him when the druid slowly paced his way up through the fire passageway, his eerie incantation increasing in volume as he walked towards them. Lamenting the passing of the dark winter moons his dirge was now addressed to Brighde, the name sounding a bit like the word bride – the name Aran knew to be the mother earth goddess. The acolyte came to a stop in front of the chief and his elders, and thumped the bottom of his staff to the ground.
So close now, Aran could see the mouth and chin of the mask had been cleverly cut away to allow the druid’s voice to be heard clearly. The man’s fierce eyes stared from eye sockets that had also been carved out. A soft hush came from the gathering then they all started to intone very softly in unison after he began to chant again.
“Healing fires. Burn brightly. Burn! Inflame us with your fiery strength. Bring us forth your fruitful blossoms. Let your sun shine brightly on us.”
The chant repeated itself as the trainee druid’s arms opened wide, first pointing dramatically to the right and then to the left. At the far end, the crowd parted. Still chanting, some of them moved off to the left and others to the right behind the fires leaving the far end of the walkway opposite Tuadh totally empty.
Aran looked around him. Everyone chanted quietly with only the smallest of children not joining in. Pretending to know the words Aran mouthed silently. Looking at Fianna and Brian he was thankful to see they tried to do the same. Better not to look too suspicious since it looked like they ought to know the words.
When the tribespeople were all settled well behind the fires, the high ranking warriors of the tribe came out and drove their spears into the ground, purposely set closely together like a barrier, alongside the staff of the druid. The line of weapons made a wall in front of Tuadh.
The people no longer chanted solemnly. Their pace had quickened, the verse growing louder and louder till it became a deafening roar. Yet, again, the sound of the shrieking carnyx stopped its momentum.
Into the immediate and dead silence came another disturbingly strange noise. Through the darkness, from beyond the rise at the far end of the training ground, came the loudest protest of bellowing animals that Aran had ever heard. The yelling of the farmers was impressive as they herded the poor beasts into a long funnel at the far end of the fire passage, a funnel created by a wall of warriors. The animals, clearly terrified of the flames and smoky smells ahead of them, lowed and snorted and bucked as they tried to evade their fate.
Standing in front of his staff, the druid’s voice roared above their din.
“Brighde, mother goddess, giver of life, purify our animals and bring bountiful fruit. Bring your sun’s energy to them through our conflagration.”
The crowd repeated the chant three times, and then stopped. They hushed again and waited for him to finish his entreaty. This time the druid’s voice was different. Not a chant any more as a druid, but the warnings of a concerned, mortal man.
“This Beltane must be different, people of Balbath. Let your animals be sacrificed again rather than yourselves.”
The crowd’s low moan was eerie. All around them Aran and the twins could feel the alarm of the people of Balbath…though they could also see determination in their faces. Were the animals going to be sacrificed on these fires? Aran felt Caitlinn burrow in closer to his leg.
“Are they going to burn these poor cows, Aran?” Fianna whispered in his ear.
Aran’s head shaking was her only reply as the druid returned to his prayers. In actual fact, he hadn’t a clue what was about to happen.
“Let these healthy animals aid us to fight our foe as they did last Lughnasadh.” After the druid warned another time, he walked to one end of the spears and gestured to the people ranged behind the fires on that side, his arms waving towards the sky in a wide circular movement.
His silent signal didn’t make any sense to Aran. It still made no sense when the druid walked to the opposite end of the spears and made the same gestures.
Returning to his staff, his arms and stag’s head rose skywards in open supplication. His voice reached epic strength as he bawled a prayer to the heavens.
“Oh, mighty Taranis, from your realm above, give our animals your blessing!”
On the last word, the corral of warriors holding back the cows began to split open. The first of the animals was lashed into movement, forced to launch itself down the avenue of fire towards the druid. The thwacking of birch switches, and the cries of farmers alongside the terrified beast, kept it in motion as it howled and screeched through the fire corridor. The rest of the animals surged forwards into the walkway on the hooves of the first. Running alongside the lowing beasts, to keep them in order, the farmers kept up their hollers.
|I just wish I could draw.... but you can get the idea.|
It was like a mini-earthquake as the cows thudded their way up the glowing orange and red channel. Aran watched the people of Balbath kneel down at their place behind the fires as the beasts proceeded through the fire corridor. The tribespeople touched both hands to the earth below them to feel the pounding of the beasts. Women pulled down some now screaming and howling infants as the great charging of hooves rocked the soil beneath them, the reverberations rippling below the whole arena.
Aran felt Caitlinn tug him down, Fianna and Brian following suit mimicking the tribespeople, since the elders alongside him had knelt to the ground as well.
The terrified cattle reached Tuadh’s end of the fire corridor. One by one, they hurtled themselves right or left when they were confronted by the line of spears. Once they had turned, they loped away from the crowds to disappear out into the darkness, where other warriors waited ready to quieten them.
Now Aran understood the significance of the druid’s arm gestures. The acolyte had been ensuring the space was cleared for the beasts’ exit. When rounded up, the terrified cattle would be taken back to their enclosures.
As the last few animals started their charge, a huge and totally deafening roar went up from the crowd, drowning out the thunder of the cows as the people heralded the end of their cleansing ceremony. The few cows that remained bucked and swerved, here and there, trying to run off but were completely distracted by the human clamour around them. One bewildered animal escaped the handlers and swivelled between the last two fires instead of completing the journey along the whole fire corridor. Terrified shrieks rent the air as the beast trampled over two men in the front row, pounding them into the ground, smashing limbs to pulp as the creature blasted headlong for the darkness beyond the kneeling people. Panic set in as the throng scattered in all directions away from the snorting and crazy beast. Not knowing which way to go in its headlong flight, it constantly changed direction.
“Flee!” Orla cried as the beast whirled towards them.
Aran felt his cloak yanked back as he leapt to his feet, the warrior behind him dragging him away. Brian’s shout indicated much the same was happening to him as he, too, cried out.
Caitlinn whimpered in front of Fianna, too transfixed to even get to her feet. Scooping her up by the shoulders Fianna whirled the little girl out of the animal’s path, throwing her aside like a Frisbee and straight into the arms of a warrior who rushed to help them.
Her back now to the animal, Fianna began to run but she’d only taken a couple of steps when its head pounded into her, pitching her high into the air like a rag doll before it charged off into the now cleared space around her.
Fianna thumped to the ground.
I hope that whetted your appetite for The Taexali Game and made you want to read more of the novel. Here are a few reviews for The Taexali Game:
“…this was one of the most original approaches to (time travel), by using developing technology we can all relate to.”
“The Taexali Game takes the idea of Time Travel and sets it in a computer game thereby making the concept wholly believable. I thoroughly bought into the idea.”
“As usual, Nancy Jardine's characterisation is fantastic and the action never stops. You are gripped and have to read the next chapter.”
It's available from Amazon in eBook & paperback. Paperbacks can be ordered from bookstores and from major online retailers like Waterstones.com.