Extract from Patrick: Son of Ireland

 

ULTAN WATCHES ME with wary eyes. He is afraid. The others are no less fearful, but they are older, so hide it better. I do not berate them nor belittle their lack of faith. Their fear is well founded. High King Loegair has decreed that to strike a fire on this Beltane night is certain death to him who strikes it. And here on the hill of Cathair Ban we are about to kindle a beacon that will be seen from one end of this dark island to the other.

I do what I can to calm them. "Brothers," I say, "I pose a question. Answer if you can. Which is greater, a salmon or a whelk?"

"The salmon, king of fish, is obviously greater," answers the trusting Fergal.

"Beyond all doubt?"

"Beyond any doubt whatever," he replies; the others nod and murmur in agreement.

"Then tell me this: Which is greater, a salmon or a man?"

"Not difficult, that," replies Fergal. "A man is certainly greater."

"And is God then greater than a man?"

"Infinitely so, lord."

Then why do we stand here with long faces?" I say. "Kindle the flame and light the bonfire. King Loegair—for all his warriors and weapons, horses, chariots, and strongholds—is but a whelk upon a rock that is about to be overturned by the hand of God."

They laugh uneasily at this.

To demonstrate the power I proclaim, I make a motion in the air with my staff and speak the quickening words. The damp air shimmers, and a sudden warmth streams around us. Raising the staff, I touch the topmost branch on the heap we have labored all day to raise. A red spear of flame leaps from staff tip to sodden branch. "Great of Light," I cry, "honor your servant with a sign of your approval!"

The dull red flame flickers, clinging to life. High in the unseen sky above, there is a rush of wind, and brightness falls from heaven; fingers of light trickle downward through the thick tangle of wet wood we have erected. Down, down it seeps. The sodden branches sizzle and crack.

The red flame fades and appears to die. The men hold their breath.

As darkness closes around us, I shout, "Behold! The rising sun has come to us from heaven to shine on those living in the darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet along the paths of peace!" I stretch out my hand to my companions. "Brothers, you are all Sons of the Light. You do not belong to the night. Therefore darkness can have no dominion over you."

A flash of fire strikes up through the heart of the pyre. Blue sparks rush into the air in a fountain of dazzling light. The good brothers fall back as tongues of flame seize the rain-damp fuel. Instantly the great heap kindles to blazing warmth, scattering the shadows and illuminating the hilltop.

The brothers fall on their faces in reverent awe, but in my mind is kindled the memory of another night, long ago. And another fire.

 

Chapter One

Concessa Lavinia lived in fear of thieves carrying off her spoons. They were fine spoons. Each teardrop-shaped bowl was a masterpiece of smithery balanced on a long, elegant handle capped by a tiny Corinthian finial: eight in all, and older than Elijah. Our silver—the spoons and matching plate, an enormous bowl, and two large ewers—was old and costly; it had come from Rome sometime in the dusty past, handed mother to daughter longer than anyone could remember.

My mother's treasured silver held pride of place on the black walnut table in the banqueting hall: a large, handsome room with a vaulted ceiling and a floor that featured a mosaic depicting Bellerophon riding the winged horse Pegasus and killing the Chimera with a flaming spear. This scene occupied the center of the room and was surrounded by a circular braidwork border picked out in red, black, white, and brown tesserae and, in each corner of the room, a likeness of one of the Four Seasons.

On frigid winter evenings I would lie on my stomach on that wonderful mosaic and feel the delicious warmth seeping up from the hypocaust beneath. The floor above the hall was given to sleeping rooms for ourselves and those few servants my mother would suffer to abide in the house.

Our villa was called Favere Mundi, an apt name for one of the most pleasant places in the whole of our island realm. It was built in the traditional manner: a low, hollow square with a red-tiled roof surrounding a central courtyard that contained a pear tree, a fountain, and a statue of Jupiter in repose. As a child I thought the statue bore the likeness of my grandfather. Scarcely a day went by that I did not run to greet the image. "Hail, Potitus!" I would cry and smack the carved marble limbs with my hands to make him take note of me. But the frozen, sightless gaze remained fixed on higher things, perpetually beyond heed of the merely mortal and mundane.

Two long wings on either side of the enclosed square contained the workrooms: one each for wood, leather, and cloth and one where our candles, lamps, and rushlights were made. Between the wings rose the main section of the house, comprising two floors; the lower floor was given almost entirely to the great hall, and the upper opened onto a roofed gallery which overlooked the court.

Like my father before me, I was born in my grandfather's house. We were wealthy people, noble Britons, and our villa near Bannavem Taburniae lacked for nothing. Sixty families lived on our estate and worked our lands. We grew grain to sell in the markets of Maridunum, Corinium, and Londinium; we raised cattle and sold to the northern garrisons—Eboracum and beyond; we bred horses for the ala, the mounted auxiliary of the legions. Harvests were bountiful; the land prospered; our labor was rewarded a hundredfold.

Wine from Aquitania, woven cloth from Thracia, Neapolitan glass, Macedonian olives, pepper, oil-all these things and very much more were ours. We lived well. No senator born in sight of the Palatine Hill lived better. It is but one of the many follies of luxury which lead men to believe that plenty now is abundance always and fortune is everlasting. Pure folly.

My grandfather was still alive when I was born. I remember white-haired Potitus, tall and straight, towering in his dark robes, striding with a face like thunder down the oak-lined avenue leading from our gate. He was a presbyter, a priest of the church—not well liked, it must be said, for his stern demeanor frightened far more than it comforted, and he was not above smiting obstinate members of his flock with his silver-topped staff.

That aside, he was not overstrict in his observances, and no one ever complained about the length of his services. Unlike the tedious priests of Mithras and Minerva—so careful, so exact, so smug in the enactment of their obscure rituals—old Potitus saw no need to weary heaven with ceaseless ceremony or meaningless repetition. "God knows the cry of our hearts," he would say, "before it ever reaches our lips. So speak it out and have done with it. Then get about your business."

My father, Calpurnius, did just that. He got on with business. In this he displayed the remarkable good sense of his British mother and refused to follow his father into the priesthood. Industrious, ambitious, aggressive, and determined—a man of little tolerance and less patience—hard-charging Calpurnius would have made a miserable cleric. Instead he married a highborn woman named Concessa Lavinia and enlarged our holdings exceedingly. Owing to his diligence and tireless labor, the increase in our family fortunes year by year was little short of miraculous. With wealth came responsibility, as he never ceased reminding me. He became a decurion, one of the chief councilmen for our little town-a position which only served to increase his fortunes all the more, and this despite the taxes which rose higher and ever higher.

Invariably, after depositing his taxes in the town treasury, he would come home complaining. "Do we need so many servants?" he would say. "They eat more than cattle. What do they do all day?"

"Certainly we need them, you silly man," my mother would chide. "Since you insist on spending dawn to dusk with your blessed council, who else does any work around here?"

There were perhaps only a dozen servants in all, but it was my mother's entire occupation to protect them from the sin of idleness. In this she excelled. Lavinia had all the natural gifts of a military commander, save gender alone. Had she been born a man, she might have conquered Africa.

Her sole weakness was myself. No doubt because I was the third of three infants and the only one to survive beyond the first year, she found it impossible to deny me anything. With her, to ask was to have. And I never tired of asking. I beseeched her day and night for one favor, one trinket, one pleasure after another. My days as a child were a veritable shower of indulgence. It never ceased.

Of course, Calpurnius did not approve. As I grew older, he insisted I should apply myself to books and such in order to improve my mind and build a steady character. But inasmuch as my father was ever seen only through a blurred haze of busyness, it fell to my doting mother to arrange for my education.

Here, if only here, little Bannavem showed its provincial meanness. The mild green hills, fertile fields, and sweet-flowing rivers of my homeland might have been blessed with nine separate aspects of paradise, but a decent school was not one of them. The nearest of any repute was at Guentonia Urbs, and it was a pitiful thing—full of horny-handed farmers' sons and mewling merchant boys united in the singular misfortune of being taught by witless drudges too indolent to secure better employment elsewhere.

Be that as it may, the fault lay not in Guentonia's deficiency but in my own. I was never destined to wear a scholar's cope. Difficult to say in those early years just what my destiny might be. Nor, as I came of age, did the augury improve. Old Potitus ceaselessly assured me I was going straight to hell by the swiftest means available. My father despaired of making his spendthrift son a prudent man of business. My own dear mother could only cluck and shake her head and gaze at me with her large, doleful eyes. "Succat, there is more to life than revel and games," she would say, sighing. "One day you will wish you had made some account of your lessons."

"Fair Lavinia," I would reply, taking her hands and spinning her around, "the sun is high, the breeze is warm, and the birds sing sweetly in the trees. Who but a dullard would spend such a day scratching chicken tracks in wax when there are cups to be drunk, girls to be kissed, and silver to be wagered?"

With a carefree peck of her matronly cheek, I would be off to the village, where I would meet Julian, Rufus, and Scipio. Together we would ride to Lycanum, a market town and the nearest proper civitas with a garrison. Wherever there were troops, there was gambling and drinking and whoring aplenty.

My friends, like myself, were sons of noblemen. Julian's father was a magistrate, and Scipio's family owned the tax-gathering warrant for the town and outlying region. It was, of course, a source of deep embarrassment to my grandfather the priest that I should be openly consorting with tax collectors.

But what could he say? "One of our blessed Lord Jesu's best friends was a tax collector," I would tell him, "and he became an apostle. Who knows? Maybe I shall become an apostle, too!" Then off I would go to some fresh excess, some greater, more debauched dissipation, as fast as my feet could carry me.

Usually we would hie to the Old Black Wolf, a public house serving indifferent meals and rude lodging to unwary travelers, but also beer to the local population of sots and soldiers—marvelous beer which they cellared in oaken casks in underground vaults so it became cool and dark and frothy and vastly superior to the thin, tepid brew made at home. Like the town and the garrison it served, the poor decrepit Wolf was now much reduced from its former glory. It was ill thatched and filthy with smoke from the half-collapsed chimney, and the floorboards sagged and creaked; the perpetually muddy yard stank of stale beer and urine, and the presence of soldiers meant it was always hot and crowded, reeking of sweat and garlic, and deafeningly loud.

To us it was a palace.

Many a night we plumbed the depths of youthful bacchanalia—nights of roister and revel which will forever live in my memory. It was there I lost my virginity—the same night I lost my purse in my first game of dice. It was there I discovered the ways of the world and men in the talk around the Wolf's bare boards. It was a haven, a sanctuary. We were there on the night I was taken, and even now I cannot help but wonder what might have happened if I had stayed.