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Peter Tremayne

Badger's Moon

May no demons, no ill, no calamity or terrifying dreams

Disturb our rest, our willing, prompt repose.

An Evening Prayer, ascribed to St Patrick, 5th century

Chapter One

It seemed as if the great white disc of the moon dominated the sky. Low hanging, remorselessly bright and cold, it filled the heavens with such luminosity that all darkness seemed to vanish. He felt visible and naked before it, standing shivering in its unmerciful icy illumination. Some distant thought registered that it was curious, in spite of a feeling of body coldness, that his head appeared to be on fire, the palms of his hands were sweating, and his breathing was swift and shallow. He felt almost sexually aroused. His heartbeat was throbbing in excitement. His nostrils were filled with the fragrance of the mixed nocturnal scents. He raised his arms towards the giant smudged white disc, stretching forth his fingertips as if he would pluck the moon from the sky, straining forward a little, the muscles rippling in his back and shoulders as he stretched.

His lips drew back from his teeth, snarling a little in his grin of exultation. He felt a thrill of knowledge, an intoxication of superiority over his fellows. He, alone of all people, would dare to speak the forbidden sacred name of the moon because he shared her enlightenment, her secret wisdom. He, alone, dared speak her name while his fellows would call her by myriad euphemisms and epithets because they were too frightened to stand before the unforgiving goddess of the night and utter her true, hallowed identity. They would uneasily refer to her as ‘the brightness’, ‘the radiance’, or ‘the place where knowledge is gathered’, and when sailors went on board a ship they thought they would bring misfortune on themselves unless they simply called her ‘Queen of the Night’. But he knew her true name and only he would dare to utter it.

Only he had the privilege of pronouncing her name, and it was a token of his power, a show of his authority and skill in defining the named. The God of the New Faith would not reveal his own name even to his beloved Moses. Didn’t the priests of the New Faith say that when Moses asked for the name of the deity who was about to use him, the God replied: ‘I am who I am.’ Was it not true that all the gods wanted to declare their divine freedom from any manipulation or control by concealing the knowledge and use of their names? Names and naming imparted power. He held that power. He felt that power now.

He stretched forth his hands again and spread his fingertips as if to caress the stern, smutty face of the moon.

He could feel that stirring, the strange pulsating of the sreang na imleacáin, the umbilical cord, which bound him to her white orb and demanded his unquestioning service and obedience, in return for which he held dominion beneath her rays.

He knew that the time had come once again when he could no longer resist her demands. The compulsion was now irresistible.

He turned from the clearing and moved into the woods with a curious loping gait. He knew where he was going although he had not consciously worked it out. He carried himself with an animal-like ease, moving swiftly along the darkened forest path. He negotiated its impediments without difficulty, his breath soft and not taxed at all by his efforts. The main track was near. The trees were thinning and he could see the dark outlines of the old rath of the chieftain on the hill to his right. He paused at the sight. He observed the flicker of the lanterns that marked the gates of the fortress. He knew that in the shadows behind the lamps there would be at least two warriors on watch. That did not matter. He did not intend to go any closer to the fortress than he was now. That was not his purpose.

The moonlight revealed that the track, which lay alongside the woods, winding its way up to the fortress, was deserted. He glanced up at the orb above him and his lips compressed momentarily into a thin determined line.

Was it too late? Could he have missed the moment? Surely not. The impulse which guided him assured him that all would be right. He had the knowledge. He was omniscient.

There was a movement at the gates of the rath. The squeal of metal hinges disturbed the silence of the night. He could hear voices and someone called in a masculine drawl: ‘Safe home, Ballgel!’ A soft female voice answered cheerfully. Then he heard the rasping sound of the gates shutting.

A shadowy figure began to swing down the hill.

He let out a breath of thanks. He had arrived in time. The slight female figure, apparently carrying a basket on one arm, became visible in the moonlight once away from the dark shadows of the fortress walls. The figure walked with a confident youthful step.

He smiled to himself and drew back a little into the cover of the trees. He could feel the throb of his pulse begin to increase its pressure again, the sweat on the palms of his hands began to itch. Unconsciously he rubbed them up and down on his thighs to dry them and ease the itching sensation.

The figure drew nearer, walking swiftly, unconcerned. The girl drew abreast of him and he moved slightly, causing the undergrowth to rustle gently.

She halted at once and swung in his direction.

‘Who is there?’ she demanded, peering into the darkness, her voice showing no fear.

He hesitated only a moment, peering swiftly around in the shadows to make sure that they were alone, and then stepped forward into the moonlight. She recognised him and visibly relaxed.

‘Oh, so it’s you! What are you doing here?’

He cleared his dry throat and forced a smile. His voice was pitched to that of warm friendliness. ‘I was on my way home, Ballgel. I thought I saw you coming down the track from the rath. Isn’t it late to be going home?’

The girl dismissed the hour with laugh. ‘Becc had many guests this evening. I had to stay to help my uncle in the kitchen. There was a great tidying to do. Isn’t it always the same at the rath every night our chieftain entertains? I am often forced to stay until about this time. I thought you knew that.’

He nodded absently. He did know it. He was counting on it. ‘I’ll walk along the way with you.’

‘Suit yourself,’ she replied. ‘It’s straight home for me. It’s been an exhausting day.’

She turned and recommenced her interrupted walk. She knew that his house lay in the general direction of her own and was not surprised at his offer to accompany her. He fell in step at her side.

He was smiling now. It was a fox-like smile but, in the gloom, she did not see the cunning mould of his features.

‘If you want to get home quickly, then the quicker path lies along the woodland shortcut over the shoulder of the hill. It takes fifteen minutes off the journey by this track where you have to go all round the base of the hill.’

‘Across the Thicket of Pigs at this time of night?’ She laughed again. ‘With wolves and who knows what wild animals along the way? And aren’t you forgetting what has happened in those woods up on the hill?’

He paused and spread his arms as if he would sweep the dangers aside.

‘I am here to protect you, aren’t I?’ he demanded. ‘Neither beast nor man would dare attack two grown adults. Come on. I am in a hurry to get home too and have further to go than you. That path is a full fifteen minutes in the saving of our journey. Surely that’s a good prospect?’

The girl hesitated, reluctantly seeing the logic of his argument.

‘It’s dark along the woodland path,’ she protested, but in a half-hearted fashion.

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