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A Torch Is Lighted


TIS a fine, brave country, Erin—and a grand history is on it. You'll be reading of it in books, and you'll be hearing of it front the lips of old men, and you'll be hairing the song of it in your heart, if there's a bit of Irish in you. And many a tale of heroes there is in it, you may be sure.

There's the wild, galloping days of Sarsfield and the splendid record of the men of O'Niell. There's the fabulous deeds of Finn McCool and the glamorous knighthood of his Fianna. And in the far, misty past, there's the mighty swordings of Cuchulain, and the wise, good kingship of Art mac Art.

But in the midst of Erin's grand history stands Brian—Brian, whom they named Boru, calling to his countrymen to unite and cast forth the reaving foreigner. Through the disappointments of a long life, he called to them. Through their heedlessness and disregard, he called to them. And then, in his graybeard days, at last, he saw his prayers answered at Clontarf, and the power of the Danes and their Viking pirates was ended in Erin, forever. Sure, Erin needed a thousand steadfast Brians, but she got only the one.

* * *

EVENING began to draw down on the sun, and spots of light and shadow fell, like moving leopard cloaks, upon the backs of the little cavalcade.

With untiring pace the horses swept along, nor did the riders stop to feast I their eyes upon the beauty of the columned corridors of the Irish forest about them. For even here, far inland as they were, the invading Danes were still a menace to the peace of Erin, and who could say, if caught benighted in the wood, that his eyes, for sure, would see the dawn, or his lips breathe the cool air of a new day?

So they rode, all eyes alert and every sword loose in its scabbard, for they guarded that which, to them, was of more worth than gold or fine silver —the dark-haired lovely Kathleen, daughter of the king.

Six were the riders, beside the woman, but these were well equipped an fairly mounted. Their leader was a slim, brown-faced lad who, for his youth, had yet about him the bearing of a man. Goll of Leinster, he was called, and he was of royal blood and cousin to Kathleen; and there was fondness between the two of them such as you might see between an indulgent sister and her scamp of a younger brother.

"We will be through the forest soon, Kathleen," the lad said, half-turning in his saddle to address the lady, a length behind him; "and after the forest, 'tis scarce a mile to the monastery and safety for yourself this night."

"'Twas not fear that made me bid you haste, Goll, and well you know it," Kathleen replied, "but I wish to speak with Father Michael before he seeks his bed."

"Sure, I remember now—you had a vision," Goll said, and his eyes twinkled. "But women do be for always having visions and dreaming dreams, and the wonder is the poor priests do have the patience to be listening to them."

But Kathleen answered him not at all. Grave was the expression upon her lovely face, for in her mission, she felt, dwelt the fate of Erin. She must save her father, the King, from himself as well as from his enemies.

Afar, when they emerged from the woods, they could see the ancient monastery of Columbeith bathed in the dying light of the day. Pleasant and peaceful, it was, for all the stout wall that surrounded it. They could see, also, evidences of its one-time greatness. Upon its eastern side there still stood the bothies for students who dwelt there no more, at all, while upon the other were the ruined houses of the husbandmen who, in the old days, had tilled the fields round about. All these things were gone, with the coming of the foreigners, and only a few small patches of ground were cultivated by the monks, now.

When they rode into the courtyard, upturned faces all about bespoke the happy welcome that was in each monastic heart. Father Michael came before them, and his broad face matched the sun for glowing at the joy of their coming, whilst at his elbow leaned Dunnen, the old scribe.

"Get you down, Kathleen, and bless this old earth with your footsteps," said the stout priest. "'Tis long and long since such honor has come to these flagstones."

And they were dismounted and the horses were cared for. Then he led them to the hall where their suppers awaited them, and the long table gleaming in the light of candles.

ABOUT the table there was much good humor and laughter and high talk as the plates went round. Music and singing, with Kathleen at the harp, occupied them for a space. During a lull Kathleen leaned toward Michael, upon her left.

"Father," she whispered, "who is that fair youth who hands the dish adown the table?"

Michael had no need to be scanning the board to know which of the men about had caught the eye of Kathleen and brought the blushes, fair as roses, to her cheeks. For there was one there you would be knowing was no ordinary man, for all his youth. Strong he was, and tall and nobly shaped such as the poets do be saying the ancient gods of Erin were.

"That is Brian," so he answered her, "brother to Mahoun, chief of the Dalg Cais people. A few years back, his brother sent him here, though I ween he were a better man for the sword than for the monk's hood."

"He is to become a priest?"

"It is in my mind that Mahoun sent him here, in the first place, that he might make sure of his own place in the clan. The lad, Brian, was wondrous popular with the men, and they say he was a rare, good fighter. I'm thinking Mahoun saw in Brian a future rival for the chieftainship. But, child, what flame has lit your interest in this youth?"

"I had a vision, Father, of a torch, and this young Brian's face was in the vision, also..." She said, and said no more, but a slow smiling came upon her face as though, deep in her heart, she planned a secret plan.

Now it seemed to Brian, in his seat amidst the monks, that there arose before his mind's eye, all the life of fighting that a man might be living for the sake of this woman; the going out with a great hosting against the foreign settlements, and the coming home again, with spoil of all sorts to heap in glittering piles at her feet. From out the corner of his eye he gazed at her, and the living beauty of her woke the wild mood in him till his blood beat at his temples like the wind-swept tide will be beating upon a rocky coast. And, without his will, his eyes followed the long, strong lines of her to the rise and fall of her high, firm breasts.

But he wrenched his mind away from her loveliness and the hot emotions that followed at the heels of them, and he got up and strode into the gloom beyond the fire's light. And being there, he strove to cloak his eyes with the darkness, but still they would be turning to her where she sat, the glory of her outshining the glow of the fire.

Black anger rose within him at his own weakness, that he should think to put aside his ambition because of a woman's beauty, and he thrust his way through the dark to the little alcove where was his bed.

WITH Brian's distracting presence removed, Kathleen hastened to tell Father Patrick of her mission.

"It is grave, good Patrick. My father, the king, as you know, was never one to put the foreigners away from him with soft words; but they are with us, and he has become friendly with the Danes and the invaders from the North, and has listened to them. And now the High King comes down from Leinster for the tribute, and my father has promised to go out in the hosting with them against him. Can he not see how these despoilers of Erin lay their black plots against us? Can he not see that the Northmen aid one king against another, not to make Erin strong but to weaken her ? Even now they hold our harbors and seaports. Would they not be weak fools to be stopping until the whole land lies beneath their rule?"

"Before that could happen," growled the old father, "some hero would rise and..."

"Brian!" she breathed, and there was about her an exaltation he had never seen in her being before.

Wise Patrick saw, and understood.

"I fear the Danes know my mission that I go to my uncle in the south to stop my poor, blind father's unholy alliance with them. I had a sense, as we rode here through the woods, that our little band was being followed by unseen pursuers."

As if in reply to her fears, there arose outside a great clamoring.

Brian, too, heard the noise. From beyond the curtains of his cubicle, there came the sound of voices that rose an rose, as the winds would be rising on a winter's night. Brian, like a flash, was leaping through the curtained doorway and standing in the ball beyond.

Wild confusion was all about him. Figures, dim-seen, brushed past him in the dark. Through the room, like glowworms on a bog, glinted and gleamed the polished blades of swords. Before the fire, his figure stark black against its glowing, stood Father Michael, and in his hand was a spear, while from his throat issued a voice that lost the cadence of the chanted prayer and found the stern, harsh vigor of the fighting Gael.

Arrange yourselves by the gate," he shouted, "with a dozen men above it. Let spears and javelins be stacked in stacks, where they can be reached by the men in the high place. Let every man of you have a weapon, and every weapon be ready for use."

Now, Brian came swiftly before him and, catching the sleeve of his robe, besought of him his place in these warlike preparations. Within Brian there arose a great anger and a great fear, for he knew, even as if he'd been told, what treasure the raiders would be coming for.

"To the wall!" commanded Father Patrick.

Brian pulled off his brown robe and in its place put on a kilted woolen shirt and heavy cloak. A good, long sword was in its scabbard at his side; a stout steel cap upon his head. Taking up several javelins, he went out with the others to defend the wall above the gate.

From the high place Brian saw the Danes advancing up the slope, a great broad crescent of armed men, their steel shirts, here and there, catching little shafts of light from the moon and hurling them back again. Goll climbed to a place beside him.

JUST beyond the long cast of a javelin the crescent of men halted, and it might be seen how the leaders took council together. Then out of the thick of them advanced a tall warrior. Bearded and grim he was, and on his steel cap was a pair of spreading wings. From the hips to the throat of him he was covered with a steel shirt.

"We have no wish to be sacking these poor buildings," he shouted; "nor is it our wish to slay holy men of Erin."

"What would you, then?" questioned Brian's ringing voice.

"Let you surrender up to us the woman of wealth who is within your walls—the daughter of the king—and you may all go free."

At these words, a great wave of red rage swept over Brian so that he pulled up a heavy spear and cast it in a wild fury of strength against the foreigner. The point took the man in his throat.

"Hell's fire consume all of you dogs of the sea!" came the hoarse shouting of Brian.

For a short space the stricken man kept his feet; then the heavy shaft of the weapon dragged him down as a hound at last drags down the stag that it has brought to bay.

Now at that man's falling, there rose a great bellowing from the raiders, and they came forward in a mighty wave, upon the crest of which gleamed swords and axes.

So they came under the wall, and there was a thunder of axes beating upon the gate; yet it held fast.

Then, from above the gate the long spears were plied and the slender javelins cast so that there was a great winnowing of souls among the raiding outlanders, until, at last, some of them drew off and began hurling their own lances against the men of Eire.

Now, when the lances began to come over the wall, Michael called out:

"Shane! Locheen! Do you two go up with your shields and kneel on the wall for the keeping of those javelins."

It was done, and there was no pausing in the fury of that fight, nor was there any rest for those who plied the long spears. Brian felt the sweat starting upon his brow, and his hands ached from the gripping of the heavy weapon; yet still he struck downward upon the axmen, the long point piercing where their necks came out of their mail shirts.

But it was not in the foreign men to endure for long in the face of the long sharp Gaelic spears, and at last they drew off for the making of a new attack.

Thus, when Brian might spare his eyes from looking upon the foreigners, he gazed about him to see what harm had come to the men of the monastery. Beside him lay Murrough, one of Goll's men, and he dead of a deep wound in his chest. A little way off stood Goll himself, dabbling with his cloak-end at a cut across his cheek. And Brian saw others among the defenders that had wounds on them. His own cloak was in tatters from the flying lances, yet no scratch was there upon him.

But his wandering eye missed Michael from their numbers and he turned to Goll, questioning anxiously.

"No harm has been at him," Goll answered. "'Twas Dunnen came out of the hall, and a lance from over the wall cut him cruelly. Losh! You'd have thought the gate was taken, when Michael saw it."

"Let you not be mocking at the love of those two men for each other," Brian said, scowling. "Sure, it's little enough they've gotten out of their long lives of service."

"By the saints, Brian, I'm hushed."

"Where is Michael, now?"

"There, beside the round tower, binding Dunnen's arm," Goll answered, pointing.

Kathleen also was by them there, Brian saw; and for a moment his eye rested fondly upon her, admiring the slender strength of her. Strong, she was, like that round tower. Then he noted the heavy door of oak that was let into the side of the tower, all stoutly built of stone. The thought passed his mind that there they would rally should the gate go down. He turned to find Goll peering out across the slope.

"LOOK, Brian. What do you make of this, now?" Goll said.

A great fire had been lighted at the edge of the wood, and from beyond it came the gleam of axes and the sound of them, chopping at a tall tree. And there was much going about between the tree and the fire, so that the long shadows of the Northmen wheeled out widely away from the flames.

"Saint Bridget protect us, Brian! That tree will be a ram for the battering down of our gate," said Goll, hoarsely.

"Right. 'Tis devil and all we're in for, now."

Brian leaped down and went to summon Michael.

Then stoutly did they arrange their defense against this new menace, yet was there grave misgiving at the hearts of all of them. Soberly and silently, the best marksmen took places closest over the gate. Among those who stood below, here and there a man snicked his knife in and out of his belt or tested his sword point with his thumb.

By this time, the invaders had finished the felling of their tree; branches were lopped off from it, and it was taken up between a long line of them. They came forward, resolutely, in spite of Gaelic javelins falling among them, and no sooner was one man down than another had taken the place of him.

When the tree's heavy end crashed against the gate, there was a quivering of wood and a creaking of bent hinges; and, strive as they might, Brian and Goll and those others who wielded the long spears could not reach the nearest of the men who swung it.

The monastery men then formed the half of a circle behind the gate, it already sagging- from the thunderous blows upon it until at last it splintered at its widest part.

Then there were axes that strove to widen the breach beating upon it again. One bold axeman, more impatient than his brother raiders, came twisting through the broken gate and leaped among the defenders; but it was short shrift he had, there among the anxious-flashing Gaelic blades.

But more came on, and more, until they were engaging the full strength of the stout defenders. In that fighting, Brian was as though a spell were on him. As the wild, frightening faces came before him, he would be striking out at them, and them going from before him, endlessly, endlessly.

The fighting consumed the whole of his heart and body, but there was no thought in him for the danger and the pain of wounds. The red spirit, which Is in the born fighting man, bore him up, above the reach of feeling. He was aware that he was bleeding; yet, strangely, in the back of his mind a bit of a song was rising as you might hear upon a summer's night, the roistering song of revelers come marching gayly up a quiet street.

Then through the fog of fighting that was on him, came the awareness of a weird, red glow. It grew about him, and gleamed in the faces and beards of the foreign men, adding glitter to the eyes of them.

Then came the voice of Michael, who fought at his side: "The black curse on these heathen wretches! They tied bits of fire... upon their lances... and cast them on the thatch.... The chapel and the school are burning."

"More power to the dogs!" cried Brian. "The flames shine in their eyes, not ours."

Brian felt the raider's line give way a little as do the angry waters of a river after the first fury of a flood is spent. And he had hope upon him for the routing of them, seeing that the Gaelic line had checked their first assault.

But who could foresee that turning, of the tide that swept the battle to a brutal butchery? Yet, so it was, and the reason of it was yet more piteous still.

Across the courtyard there came a cry, thin and high and quavering, that yet rose above the din of battle as the little screaming of a gull will be rising above the boom of the surf. It was a cry of sorrow and Brian recognized the voice. 'Twas the voice of Father Dunnen.

"My books! My books!" it came. "The cruel fire will burn the books."

Brian well knew what the books meant to the old priest and him a childless man. AH the high pride he had for them, and the great care he lavished upon them. And Brian remembered how the wrinkled kindly face would light with pleasure at the sight of the beautiful pages.

"My books! My books!"

And in answer to that wailing came a shout from Michael, beside Brian.

"Go not into the fire, Dunnen. Go not into the fire!"

Brian knew, in an instant, that Michael no longer was beside him. Instead, confusion was all about him. With Father Michael's going, the Gaelic line was broken. The foreign men were streaming past him. Though he strove with all the wild strength there was in him, it was beyond hope that he might stem the furious rush of them.

Brian, himself, went reeling backward, yet, uncertain as his footing was on the old flagstones, he somehow managed to keep his broad blade swinging. Through the flame-lit courtyard wild figures of fighting men were like leaves of autumn tossed in sport by winter's hurrying winds, which fling them out, to dance in flying twos and leaping threes before sweeping them whirling back again, into tortured, trampled masses.

NOW, Brian found the stout wall of the tower at his back, and there he struck. All about him were the foreigners. One of them rushed at him with upswinging sword. Brian darted beneath the blow. His own point plunged in. Like to a snake's striking for swiftness, it was. Down across the blade hot blood streamed.

Deep had gone that thrusting steel, and even Brian's strength could not release the blade. As he tugged against it, over his head he saw an axe's broad blade, and it gleaming in the lurid light of flames. Stooping sidewise, he heard the angry "whish" of the axe past his ear. Then he was grasping up the sword of the fallen Dane and felling the axeman with one slashing blow.

When he straightened, Brian glanced quickly over the flame-lit courtyard. Broken bodies dotted the old flagstones, and close beside the burning house of books he saw two huddled figures lying, lifeless; and knew them for Dunnen, the good old scribe, and Father Michael.

With a great surging of mighty muscles, the fighting monk broke the ring of the foreigners that closed in about him and began the cutting of his way along the tower wall toward the oaken door. There, he came on one more cruelly beset than he himself was.

Young Goll, it was, and the steel cap was gone from his dark head. Blood flowed freely down from a great gash in his scalp, darkening all the sight of him so that he struggled blindly amid thirsty foreign blades.

"This way, Goll! To the tower," Brian screamed; then, seeing Goll paid him no heed, he thrust the wounded youth along with his left shoulder to the tower door. He leaped before Goll, and his steel made a ring about the both of them.

"Reach behind you, Goll; and get you through the door!"

Yet young Goll stood there swaying on his feet, as sways a broken twig upon a limb. He spoke not, heard not, saw not; only breathed and swayed upon his feet.

Brian's great spirit groaned within him. He could see there was no need to be shouting the rallying cry, for there would be none to heed it. And he felt the powers of darkness crowding all about, more numerous, even, than his living enemies.

With his free arm he opened the door for the putting of poor Goll through it; but, then, amazement was upon him, for it was not the stout oak planks his fingers touched, but warm young flesh. Knowledge came to him that 'twas Kathleen was in it, and she reaching out for fainting Goll, and his heart was proud for the brave pity of her.

Yet when the raiders saw the vision of her beauty, they were like hounds that sight, at last, the long-sought quarry, and they came at failing Brian in one great mass. Their weapons were bristling all about his head, some of them were thrusting past him at the door.

Brian heard a gasping cry from the doorway behind him, and he thought it was young Goll and his spirit leaving him. Calling up the last reserve of his great strength, Brian burst upon them as the final gust of a storm strikes upon a forest. Bare of breast, mad light in blood-encrusted eyes, reddened hands on dented sword, he burst upon them and sent them reeling back.

Then, in that moment's grace, he sprang aside and leaped back through the door and set his weight to it so that it came crashing shut. While his laboring breast leaned against it, he dropped the heavy bar.

Darkness and silence rang in his head more loudly than the shouting and bitter blows and flaming light that was beyond the door. After that last great prodigal spending of strength, the weakness took him and he came down upon the floor with a great crash, all the long length of him, and he lay there as one dead....

THEN slowly, as his wandering wits returned to him, he heard a sound of murmuring like to the surf that beats upon a distant coast, and he knew it for the voices of Goll and Kathleen, and they talking together.

"Rest you now, Goll, your wounds will be bleeding and you should not speak."

"The time for resting is long past, dear cousin. 'Tis the green fields of Tir nan Og I'll rest in this night, Kathleen."

Then there burst a great groan from the poor lad, and thereafter a gentle sobbing shook the air.

But suddenly, out of the dark, the voice of Goll came rolling again, strong and clear. It was as though he had cast his pain and his weakness from him and had on him once again all his fine young youth and fire and gaiety.

"Bring me the horses, Lugh, the fine, black, long-maned horses, them that do be running over the ground as do the winter clouds before the storm winds. Bring me the horses, I say, for I ride home to Leinster."

And Kathleen's voice came faltering through the dark, and all the pitying sorrow of her heart was in it.

"Oh, Goll, that you should die because of me."

The words ended on a sob that changed to gasping sighs of pain and the sure knowledge came upon Brian that she, herself, was wounded.

He tried to rise, but sank back again into that murmuring surf of sound. It seemed they were again in the dining hall where the bright fire burned. There in the great carven chair sat Father Michael, beside him Kathleen, just as they had been that sundown. Young Goll laughed and talked again with the soldiers and the monks.

Then into the mellow light was brought a great, tall harp.

"It would please us greatly, Kathleen," said Michael, "to hear you put your music on the harp. There's hardly a man in the land has not heard of the wonder of your playing."

So she sat to the harp, playing again the song; and she struck the strings and set them quivering with little flames of golden sound that mounted higher and ever higher into a great burning and then died away again to whispering embers. Then in a high, clear voice she sang the song.

Wild chanting music it was, like a war song, and it filled the long hall, and went marching, marching about the seated listeners. Up to Brian it marched, and it possessed him. And the monks and the soldiers, and Goll and Brian took up the singing; and the rafters echoed back the rolling thunder of that chant.

Now Brian saw himself, in his seat amidst the monks, quivering as a harp string quivers when the note is struck, and he could not turn his eyes away from the fair face of Kathleen. And the wild, mad pleasure of the song filled him, for he drank deep of it, so that you might have thought him blind to all the world except one song and one face. She spoke to him no word, yet it was as if she had summoned him to her cause, and he knew he would serve her blindly, whatever that cause might be.

He saw it plainly, now, saw it as the strength that was upon him, instead of weakness, as he had first thought. Her cause was his cause!

Kathleen called his name and beckoned him to sit beside herself—but he was waking now—waking...

SOMEHOW, in the newer agony of conscious thought, Brian got to his staggering feet and went blundering across the empty dark to where she lay.

"Oh, Kathleen! Kathleen!" he cried. "Is there no end to the evil these foreigners work upon us? For Goll and the monastery men I can grieve without pain, for 'tis a man's place to be fighting, but I thought we might have saved yourself, at least."

"Och, Brian, let you not be grieving," 'Twas Kathleen's voice, yet the hand he held was cold. "Let you not be grieving, Brian. 'Tis you are chosen to save this land of ours. I know...

"Only this morning I had a vision, and I walking upon the hills. 'Twas in the sky I saw it—a great torch, Brian, a torch wondrous worked and carven, but unlighted and cold. And out of nowhere came a voice that said: ‘It is for you to light the torch, Kathleen 1' And at the words, it seemed, the torch drew nearer, and I saw that it was carved with the face of a young man.

"And by this token, I know it for a true vision;—the face was the face of you, Brian."

A great sob tore through Brian's body and the roots of his tongue were like red-hot coals in his throat.

"Ah, Kathleen, that a vision and myself in it should bring you to this pass."

A great numbness overcame him, and the darkness about him was no darker than the blackness of his soul. And then the darkness became luminous with a queer light and he wondered upon it and looked up.

There were two figures before him, and they strangely shining. They had the likeness of his father, Cinnetag and of his grandfather, Lorcan. And it seemed they spoke to each other an spoke of him.

"The descendants of Cormac Cas know how to die," said Lorcan.

"The men of the Dalg Cais will never be stopping short of death, and it s fighting is in it," said Cinnetag.

"Sure, no son of Lorcan and Cinnetag is going to take an axe in the head and him not fighting back," they said together.

"We can't help your sword arm any, lad, but we'll be bearing you up on each side with a hand under the shoulder."

NOW the dawn came upon Erin, and the first long rays took the old monastery of Columbeith and came peering over the walls of it. And oh! the sad sight was in it, what with the burned buildings and the scattered battle-torn bodies.

Near the round tower there was a great heap of the dead, they mostly foreign men and before them there was a giant body crowned with golden hair and it bore many wounds. At the side of this great form lay the still figure of a woman, dark of hair and gloriously beautiful.

Now the sun searched long upon the golden haired one, till at last, slowly as if breaking from the grave, Brian moved as to avoid the searching rays. So he awoke to life again. His eyes swung slowly round the scene, and understanding once again returned. Painfully, he sat upright and gripped his pulsing temples with his hands.

For long he was gazing at the still form of Kathleen beside him, and then he rose shakily to his feet. Then he took his bloody claymore, that had served himself so well, and he pressed the point of it into the earth between the flagstones until it stood upright like to a cross. Sinking down on his knees, to rest his aching head upon his bloody hands over the cross-barred hilt, he prayed a prayer.

"Oh, dear Lord and the good Saints, Merciful Masters, never let me know the pleasant quietness, the sweet peace of mind, the happy restfulness of spirit, until, out of this island that is home to me, the foreign invaders are forever cast and all their power utterly destroyed. Here do I vow never to cease from struggling to this end until it is accomplished or I am no more. Let you now give me strength to keep this vow."

Then he took up the sword out of the ground and belted it beside him and he turned once more to the courtyard.

"Let you not be thinking hard of me, old friends, if I'm leaving you now with only the birds and the bees to be holding the wake over you. Sure, it's water I'll be needing soon, and a few herbs and simples, belike, for you see, I'll have to take care with this life that's been given back to me. So, let you not be thinking hard of me, now."

He faced the gate then, and took a step toward it, but turning back again raised his arms in a piteous, empty gesture.

"Kathleen! Kathleen!" he cried.

But there was no answer to that crying, and so, with grieving heart but steadfast soul, he passed out through the shattered gate and went his way into the south toward Cashel.