She held him close, savoring the scent of fresh linen and evening air that rose from his dampened hair. As they pulled under a streetlight, she lifted the saturated cloth momentarily to check his wound. It looked as if someone had taken a fireplace poker and plunged it through his shoulder. She wondered if he’d ever be able to use his arm again.
“I’ll be fine, Cait.” His voice was faint, barely about a whisper. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell ye earlier.”
“It doesn’t matter.” She brushed the dark hair off his forehead. “I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.” She leaned down and kissed him, deeply, passionately. For a moment, he responded, but then as he lifted his arm to embrace her, he gasped in agony.
“Ciarán!” A bolt of fear shot through her, for he had turned a sickly shade of gray.
“I’m all right. ’Tis just . . . I’m not feeling all that well.”
Caitlin glanced down at the dishcloth he was holding to his shoulder. The white material was now wet with his blood, as was the entire right side of his sweater. He began to shiver, and Caitlin wrapped Steve’s bloodstained jacket around him. Though he smiled, she could see it wasn’t much help.
“Steve, I think he’s going into shock. The bleeding won’t stop.”
Steve hesitated a moment before answering. “We should be there in a few minutes. Just keep the pressure on the wounds as best you can and try to keep him warm. There should be a blanket on the seat next to you.”
Now Caitlin really was worried. Steve was always so decisive. Why had he hesitated? She took the blanket from the seat and wrapped it around Ciarán. He seemed to be drifting away, oblivious to what was going on around him. Fear and panic caused a wave of nausea to rise from her stomach. Quelling the sensation, she called his name, softly at first, then louder, but still he didn’t respond. Her heart raced against her chest, and a sickly heat engulfed her body.
She was losing him, and there was nothing she could do. In desperation, she slapped his face, hoping that would bring him back to her, but even that was of little help. His eyes were glazed and distant as they pulled up to the hospital, and his skin had become cold and clammy, yet at the same time he was sweating profusely. Her nerves stretched to the breaking point, Caitlin wiped her handkerchief across his forehead, but all he could manage was a feeble smile just before slipping into complete unconsciousness.
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.