Ciarán rested his head back against the car seat and stared out the window. It had been fifteen hundred years since he last saw his homeland, and so far nothing bore the slightest resemblance to the land of his youth. Gone were the rambling paths of his younger days, the dirt-covered tracks that passed through forests and ran alongside babbling brooks. Instead, black tar roads encroached on thin patches of grass, and iron-like rails ran intermittently along their route. Though there were trees off in the distance, none formed anything that resembled a sacred grove. In fact, they could barely be called trees at all, being closer to clumps of straggly bushes. A lump rose in his throat as he remembered the green dales and shimmering streams that had surrounded his local village.
The last year in New York had prepared him to a certain extent, but deep down he’d hoped the Ériu of his childhood had somehow escaped the harsh progression of time. He let out a long sigh. Apparently, it had not.
“Are you all right?” Caitlin shot a glance in his direction before returning her attention to the road. “Did you see something familiar?”
“Not likely.” Though he huffed the words to himself, he shook his head and flashed a smile in a feeble attempt to ease her concern.
“I’m sorry,” Caitlin said, the hurt clear in her voice. “I am trying not to push too much.”
Had he actually spoken out loud? “No, I didn’t mean to be so short with ye. ’Tis just all a bit frustrating.” He could hear his brother’s voice echoing in his head. This would be a lot easier if you’d just tell her the truth. Aodhán always had been the sensible one.
Caitlin reached over and squeezed Ciarán’s hand. “It’s okay. I know it must be hard not being able to remember anything, but we’ll do it together.” She bit her lip, hesitating before speaking. “From what I understand, the Donnelys are mainly from Donegal. What if we check in at the dig and then head up there for a day or two? I’m sure the professor won’t mind.”
Donegal! Mayo was his home. Why on earth would he want to go to Donegal? The only reason he’d even adopted a last name was because people in this century seemed to have one. But then, she didn’t know that, did she?
Ciarán stumbled along beneath the twisted canopy of blackthorn shrubs, their prickly branches entwining with those of the hawthorn to form a mystical passageway. Though only a dim grey light pierced its knotwork, intermittent flashes of lightning broke through the tangled vines to sketch eerie patterns across the moss-covered path. His robe caught on the spiny bramble, and he stopped for a moment to free his sleeve, but a sharp shove from behind thrust him forward once more, the sudden movement ripping a jagged hole in his fine linen robe.
His temper flared, and he turned to object, though it did no good. Another quick jab to his shoulder spun him back around and thrust him out into the lakeside clearing. Slender stone columns stood in a semi-circle around its perimeter, each one facing the sacrificial altar. He rested his hand against the one to his side, steadying himself as the reality of the situation washed over him in a wave of nausea. There would be no escape.
As if in agreement, a bolt of lightning ripped across the horizon, followed by a crash of thunder so loud it caused the breath to catch in his throat. The goddess was angry.
Out of nowhere, thick grey clouds had formed to conceal the morning sun and cast ominous shadows over the secluded enclosure. The urge to fall prostrate before his goddess mother gripped his innards, tearing at his stomach with a fiery knife, but he could not find it within his heart to do so. A black-robed cleric propelled him further into the temple confines, forcing him to his knees beside another of the slender gray columns. The decision to kneel had been made for him, though it was an empty gesture on his part.
Trying to retain his composure, he gazed around the quiet glade. Towering thorn bushes encircled the clearing, concealing the sanctuary from the outside world and providing a perfect setting for worshipping the goddess of their tuath. The bile rose in his throat, for he knew the requirements for admission all too well. Entry to its sacred confines was only granted to those within the priesthood — and those about to die.