The Emerald Key - By Christopher Dinsdale


The Village of Athy, Ireland, 782 A.D.

Tonight would be the end of his universe. For three long years Father Francis had planned for this moment, and for the first time, doubts darkened his thoughts as to whether his audacious plan would actually succeed. Could he cheat the death and destruction that had voraciously consumed his beloved homeland? He was the last of an extinct breed, the only one remaining to fight an unstoppable darkness. Tonight, Father Francis was willing to risk everything for the children who were yet to be born.

As if on cue, through the swirling mist beyond, he could see the unmistakable flickering of a distant torch. The monks at Carlow were sending their one and only warning. The signal confirmed his worst fears; tonight would indeed be the end. He ran down the spiral steps of the tower. Each breath he huffed suddenly seemed precious, as if the air itself was a gift from God. When he reached the bottom of the staircase, he stopped hard in his tracks. The straw bed was empty. The sheets were in disarray on the floor. Where was the young lad who was to sound the alarm? The warning bell still lay next to his bed. At the window, the only way in or out of the round stone tower, a ladder extended down to the ground. The lad must have seen the warning signal and, in a panic, run off.

Picking up the bell, the priest climbed out the window as quickly as his aging joints would allow and clambered down the ladder to the wet ground below. What was he to do now? The warning must be given, yet he also had to complete his vital task or all would be lost. He ran toward the main gates, his footsteps echoing through the now empty chambers of his university. All of the books, artwork, and furniture had been removed, leaving only the lifeless, hollow shell of what once had been a cultural centre of higher education.

As he burst out of the main gates, Father Francis nearly bowled over a young girl with flaming red hair.

“Gracious, child, be careful!”

She looked up at him with large hazel eyes, brushing her hair out of her face.

“I’m sorry, Father. Have you seen my kitten? I’m afraid a fox might have stolen her away while I was sleeping.”

“Kiera Galway,” he cried, gripping her by the shoulders as he realized a way out of his dilemma, “the Lord Himself has sent you to me!”

“Excuse me, Father?”

“I am putting you in charge of a most important task. We will soon be under Viking attack. Ring this bell, first in the monastery and then throughout the village. You must alert everyone to run for safety before it is too late.”

“The warning bell,” Kiera whispered in alarm as she grasped it.

“After you have rung the bell, meet me at Fitzgerald’s stable behind the tannery. Do you understand?”

Kiera nodded, wide-eyed.

“Then go. And may God be with you!”

Kiera ran off to the monastery as fast as her young legs could carry her, ringing the bell loudly above her head. Father Francis hurried away in the opposite direction. After passing the blacksmith shop, he dodged through a dark alley behind the tannery, coming to a halt in front of a large stable. As he pulled the door open, he could hear the town awakening to the ringing of the bell as it continued to clang along the streets. Shouting echoed in the air. Lights flickered. Farm animals stirred restlessly.

Father Francis knew a fleet of huge dragon-headed sailing ships would soon appear on the river. Unlike other visitors, these raiders had no interest in trade with the local population or the higher learning offered by the abbey. They came to this land simply to pillage, kidnap, and destroy. All of the other vital monasteries and universities in Ireland had already been ransacked and looted of their cherished art and golden relics. He frowned as he recalled the many stories of tortured priests, teachers, and students, as they were plied for information as to the location of any hidden treasure among the buildings. Almost all of the books that had been painstakingly written out by hand by dedicated monks were unceremoniously thrown onto massive bonfires. Village men who resisted the assault were lined up and killed while their children were corralled and herded to the boats, destined for a life of slavery. At first, the Vikings were satisfied with raiding only the coastal cities, but