Where It All Began


   In a time centuries before the first Catholic priest set his sights on Ireland, the island’s verdant hills were constantly being fertilized with the rich blood of mortals. For the clans that would later be collectively known as the Irish, invasions and wars were an accepted way of life, controlled by capricious but shrewd gods and goddesses. 
    The unbalanced scales of civilization were moving, seeking a new equilibrium. Toward the more populated south, established city-states and grand empires slid into the final stages of decline, while kingdoms bordered by the vast seas of the North fluidly transitioned into a more harmonious and ordered existence. 
    Unbeknownst to the kings, queens, hunters, and tillers of the soil, they had missed the subtle indications that a new era was approaching, one where the gods would no longer be called upon for help and guidance. Shortly, these immortal deities would be replaced, unneeded and all but forgotten, their lives and deeds to become the improbable myths in an evolving world. 
    Danu, the mother goddess, had called an extraordinary council meeting on Beltane’s Eve. Every god and goddess, no matter how minor, was required to be in attendance.
    Staring down at the valley where the night’s curtain had yet to drop, Danu sighed in exasperation. Flaming arrows and numerous campfires illuminated a hazy battlefield. Instead of climbing the hill to take part in the council, the goddesses of war were fervently working both sides of a skirmish that had been raging for years.
    Under a full moon, the evening fog rolled inland from the sea, a stratum that curtained the mountains like a dimly backlit gauze. Dagda’s cauldron glowed and sent flares of light streaming through the mist that illuminated the divine beings as they ascended the steep climb for a meeting of truth and honesty. At least, they believed it was the reason they had been called. 
    As the inferno of war blazed beneath the gathering, into the fray stomped a giant of a man dragging an enormous club behind him. Dagda, the father god, had little patience for anyone who ignored Danu’s call even once. When his ire reached the uncontrollable threshold, Dagda hesitated for only a few seconds in disbelief at the blatant defiance of the lower goddess. He swept into the midst of the fray while soldiers scattered in fear. Cleaving his magical weapon through the dingy moonlight, it connected with the earthen battlefield accompanied by a ferocious roar. A visible wave of energy erupted upon impact, indiscriminately hurling warriors through the air, across the length of the battlefield. 
    In the wake of his assault, Dagda’s voice filled the valley with a thunderous ultimatum. “The three of you will be present now, or so behold my wrath inflicted upon you all! Your attendance at the council is more important than any skirmish, no matter how much you enjoy plotting against one another. Test my patience again, and your war shall end without a victor, the price being paid with the lives of every man, woman and child here tonight!” He turned and strode from the bloodbath, not deigning to wait for a response. His club collided with the ground upon every step, sending tremors across the land as the few uninjured soldiers hauled their mutilated comrades to safety.
    Standing tall amid the carnage, the war goddesses radiated anger, a sharp contrast to the gloomy, corpse-strewn landscape. “We are not done here!” screamed Mórrígan to her sisters. “Council or not, we will remain here until I am victorious Dagda.” Striding to the edge of the conflict to regroup her warriors, she swore at his receding form.
    Macha and Badb moved quickly to the other side of the field, consulting with their battle chiefs to end the day’s confrontation. Despite their fury, they wouldn’t disobey any command of a superior god. Macha grabbed Badb’s arm. “Today is a victory. The battle may be unresolved, but our sister’s allies have deserted her. She is outnumbered and without resources. Given time, you know that her remaining followers can be easily swayed. Let us not anger Dagda further; we cannot ignore Danu’s request.”
    “As you wish,” yelled Badb above the howls of pain and the keening of women lamenting over the corpses of fallen comrades. “We are collecting our armaments and will join the others soon.”        
    Mórrígan stormed into Badb and Macha’s encampment, dispatching anyone foolish enough to treat her presence with aggression. A trail of broken bodies lay strewn in her path as she confronted them, her eyes gleaming with rage. “Gather your protections and hold them close at night, my sisters. You have not won this battle, and your horizon grows dark beneath my shadow. I will wreak havoc upon your allies, and crush you underfoot as my horde vilifies your precious mortals.”
    Her sisters bristled at her vow, gripping their weapons tightly. Metal gleamed in the moonlight while the tension crackled between the triad. A soft rumble rolled down from the mountain, reminding them of Dagda’s nonexistent patience. 
    Macha stepped forward, inches from Mórrígan and held her gaze. “Sister, when we are finished here, a faint shadow will be all that is left of you.” 
    Turning away, the two allied goddesses walked from their camp, leaving Mórrígan seething with fury. They were joined by Donn, god of the underworld, who had been keeping watch over those dispatched to the Next World during the grand battle. He sauntered beside them, basking in the day’s events.
    “You may want to be more careful Macha,” he jibed, “or I may be needing Ankou to come and collect you too.” He laughed slightly, eyeing her for a response.
    “My sister, I fear not. You would do well to remember your place as one who benefits from my efforts.” She increased her pace, leaving her antagonist behind. Badb matched her speed. No words needed to be spoken between them as they crested the hilltop and joined the assembly.
    When at last Donn ambled smugly into the throng, Danu took a head count. It is as I expected. They are not all here. I must use this time to solidify my alliances and assess my resources. Is there more than one traitor in our midst? Or, has Mórrígan already taken all of the weaker ones with her? 
    A hush descended when Babd, the war goddess, rose. Revered for her abilities, the seeress had a solemn presence tonight that stirred unrest in the others. Earlier in the day when she had discussed a disturbing vision with Danu, they had agreed she should share it at the council. Her vision was a sign to Danu that it was time to take the next step in the Master’s plan. Facing her siblings and peers, her silhouette glowed against a backdrop of flames. 
    “I had a vision and its meaning was clear. The age of the gods has passed. The time of living with mead aplenty in the bountiful fields and forests, seasons of magic, and superior powers will be no more. Our dominion is bestowed upon us by the respect and adoration of mortals. The day is approaching when our wisdom, strength, and authority will no longer be needed or wanted. The Master will send a man, Patrick, who will bring to our people a different set of beliefs, and they will flock to him as chicks to a mother hen,” she told the group. “Far beyond Patrick’s touch, our time will again come when we can walk these lands freely, with the respect that we deserve. Our journey path will not be without great peril, but those of us who endure will one day return to this most sacred spot in honored glory. This I have seen.” 
    Badb rejoined her sister, tightening a wrap about her shoulders. In the smoke-filled air, the gods and goddesses waited quietly, allowing their garments to become saturated, an ancient ritual for protection. 
    Stepping forward into Badb’s spot, Danu addressed her children. “As we are directed by the Master’s plan, the time to disperse is upon us. The coming morning is the perfect day to depart, a celebration when old fires die and new sparks ignite. When the dawn arrives, we will all enter the portal. In our new homeland, we will be as powerless as the humans we reign over now. Each one of you must never forget that we are the lifeblood of this realm, its true foundation and the keepers of mankind’s future. Be patient my children. Remain among the people as one of them and wait for my call to return to the sacred place.” 
    Clearly, this was not what they had expected to discuss when summoned to the council. Tuirenn and Neit huddled with the other deities, whispering and arguing. The debate continued until they chose a spokesperson to present a collective viewpoint. 
    Lugh, the sun god, a golden-haired man whose luminescent skin glowed, stepped forward. “We have disagreements that are yet to be settled,” he told Danu. Soft rays of gold danced across the ground around him as he moved towards the cauldron. “There have been no discussions, no compromises, no resolutions. Are we to walk away without an agreement?” 
    Before Danu could talk, Badb again stepped to the forefront. “My brothers and sisters, the message of my dream cannot be ignored. To stay is to perish and to resist this omen is to court chaos.” She prowled into the light emanated by Lugh’s movements. “I do not wish to force the actions of my fellow deities, but a fate worse than death approaches, one of inconceivable proportions. The maw that will consume our manifestation is black as midnight and as fathomless as the heavens above.”
    Suddenly Danu sensed a nexus of sinister energy looming at the entry to the summit. Clearly the others shared this perception.
The crowd parted to reveal the third goddess of war who strategically situated herself between her sisters and the other gods.
    Tuirenn, the god of thunder, eyed Mórrígan suspiciously before drawing his own conclusion. “This is nothing more than a ploy for control in the eternal battle between you three! Why should we pay the consequences of your personal feud?” Murmurs and grumbles of reluctant agreement arose from some of the minor deities.
    Despite her children’s anger and confusion, Danu knew that when it came to the plans of a more powerful god such as The Master, she was required to comply and command the lesser gods and goddesses to follow her lead. Refusing to let her wayward child’s presence interfere with progress, she turned to the hulking deity who had cast doubt on Badb’s message.
    “My beloved children,” Danu intoned in a soft, firm voice, “you must trust that I would not send you on a path that I am not also willing to travel. On the morrow, Badb and I will be at your side to enter the portal. In due time, we will return to our rightful places and the truce you are seeking will come to pass; this I know.” She could sense the unrest in the assembly, but also knew their minds had been swayed sufficiently to cooperate.
    I cannot tell them the entire truth of the Master’s plan, she thought with resignation. While mortal, they will be vulnerable. As people of free will, their individual decisions and alliances will determine whether they will be alive when called to return. I will pray daily for their safety.
    Although their manner was respectful compliance, Danu could see by the looks on their faces that they remained unconvinced she had made a wise decision.  
    It doesn’t matter at this point, she thought. They will obey me. Their only other choice leads to premature death. At least this way, we have hope that we will live long enough to reestablish our dominion. 
    Mórrígan had clearly reached a similar conclusion. With a contemptuous grimace, she vanished into the night. Neither her lack of contribution to their discourse or her actions were lost on the assembled gods. Typically a vocal creature, her detachment was unsettling. For once, Danu felt a twinge of uncertainty but would remain true to her goals. After Mórrígan’s essence faded away entirely, Macha and Badb visibly relaxed, as did many of the other gods. Danu smiled, confident that they had passed a vital juncture.
    After marking their foreheads with white ash for protection, she embraced her beloved children, sending them to rest. She was not one to question the Master’s wisdom. Nonetheless, her mother’s heart carried the burden of understanding the high cost of success.  
    Danu remained on the Hill of Tara between her sovereign druid and her most learned, formidable guardian. She reappraised her choices. Amergin, tall and lean, wore the markings of wisdom on his brow. Ogma, muscular as well as tall, was a wise battle-honed warrior.
    Strong winds whipped her dress and cloak. Through misty eyes, the goddess memorized the landscape of her homeland, knowing it would be centuries, if at all, when she would be able to return. Her voice, though strong, could barely be heard above the screaming gusts. Fires still blazed in the valley below where Mórrígan was attempting to rally her forces. Without her sisters leading the opposition, her warriors were exterminating the enemy’s incapacitated men on the battlefield. Danu’s eyes narrowed, concern furrowing her wizened brow.
    “My steadfast guardian,” she said, “I don’t trust my daughter. She is known to be gathering those who have little caution for a walk on obliteration’s path. You are to take with you the treasured box and the Master’s gifts. Be on guard during the coming epochs when our lives and history will become little more than a tale of lore for the human race.” 
    Beside Danu, the staunch warrior nodded to her druid. He pressed his hand against the leather armor covering his heart, then his fingertips to touch Danu’s. His pulse was strong as it merged with hers. “Without reservation, I vow to stand as the guardian of the treasured gifts. I will see you in the world beyond the portal.” 
    She turned to her other companion, “You, my wisest counselor,” Danu said to the druid, “shall wait here for the children I will send. Young and inexperienced in the ways of the world, they will need to be trained, protected, and fed.” 
    The druid replicated the guardian’s motions, his robe’s angled sleeves afloat like wind-filled sails. “I reaffirm my pledge to follow The Master. I will wait - standing guard over the Stone of Destiny until you return to assume your rightful place.” 
    Together on the hilltop, the trio remained during the night hours until the fire dwindled to a pile of smoldering charcoal, their thoughts and concerns still unvoiced when Beltane dawned.  
    When the sky’s pink hue gave the first hint of the sun’s impending arrival, they slowly made their way down from the Hill of Tara. A soft humming seeped across the earth, flowing from the active portal. The morning dew droplets  hanging on the barren tree branches vibrated from the energy spiraling out of the portal’s opening. It was strong enough to evaporate the moisture and left the scent of ozone lingering in the air. All present observed the portal warily, conscious of its raw power. The invisible tension amongst the gods made the portal’s low-frequency noise even more prominent. Upon Danu’s approach, they turned to face her when she joined the crowd. 
    Taking control in a firm but compassionate voice that echoed off the portal’s rocks, Danu appeared calmer than she felt. “It is time to trust The Master and follow his direction. As part of our duties, we have been called upon to ensure that peace and prosperity will be preserved for future generations. It is not our place to question the wisdom of The Master. You will enter the portal as you please, either single or in groups. My beloved children, I wish you safe travels.”
    She removed herself from the group, standing with Amergin and Ogma as the gods and goddesses entered the portal under her watchful gaze. Some lingered, sparing her a glance before disappearing into the void. At the capstone, Mórrígan and her followers waited until Badb and Macha had gone.     
    Mórrígan turned to Danu. “Relinquishing our powers for The Master is a grave mistake. Those we leave behind will be no better off without us.”
    The mother goddess chased the vexation from her heart. This troublemaker had always been the cause of much unhappiness and was merely veiling her own motives with a faux concern for the humans. “My daughter, I will pray that during our exile from this time, you will develop compassion for your brethren, and come to understand the selfless goodness of The Master. Go now, before you are forced to leave.”
    Motioning to her followers, Mórrígan disappeared into the chamber, her voice echoing as she passed. “Mother, I pray you live long enough to regret your actions. You have lost the purpose inherent in your own creation, as have those who emulate your actions. I decide my own life’s path - not you. Sooner than you would like to believe, the day will come when I command your destiny.” Her voice was soon swallowed within the confines of the portal until only a whisper floated from the chamber.
    When she was certain that everyone had gone, Ogma, laden with the treasured box and the Master’s gifts, walked proudly into the shimmering chamber.
    Danu gave him a few minutes. Again, she turned to gaze on her beloved land. Although there were no visible tears, her spirit was melancholy. There are times, she thought, when only faith can be one’s guide. I pray that I have made the right decision and that the Master’s plan will prevail.     
    Pausing at a hawthorn bush long enough to collect a handful of dew, she washed her face before entering the sacred portal herself, sealing her fate to time’s embrace.




        

Available March 17, 2015

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Celtic Portal Receptor is published by 
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