The curragh in which they had come to the fair was pointed up the Blackwater which it parted in long ripples of silver as Ferdiad and Angus pulled at the oars. They were all very proud and happy over the honor Angus had won the night before, and Eileen had hugged and kissed him and begged to hear all about it.
But "There, child," said her father, "I will tell you by and by. We must hurry now to reach Kells, for you know we want to stop there to see the new high-cross they have been putting up, and we must be home by dark, for we cannot sleep in the curragh neither can we camp in the forests; there are too many bears!"
Indeed, for much of their way after leaving Tailltenn the great trees came close to the water's edge and in their deep shadows prowled many dangerous beasts; for a large part of Ireland was still wild and unsettled. Now and then they passed open bog lands with perhaps a glimpse of blue mountain tops in the distance; and sometimes the river led through meadows where cows and sheep were grazing near the homes of their owners. As I have told you, most of the Celtic people lived in the country and their homes, which they called "raths" were much alike. There was always a round or oblong house in the middle of a piece of ground enclosed by a circular wall of earth often planted on top with a prickly hedge to better protect the place from the attack of enemies or wild beasts.
Even the palaces of the kings were built much the same, only larger and finer, and they were called "duns" instead of raths.
But the curragh on the Blackwater had been making good progress and before long they could glimpse through the trees the stone walls of Kells, while clustering about rose the thatched roofs of the round wattled huts where lived the young students.
For Kells was not a town but a monastery where a number of monks lived and studied and taught, and in their spare time made beautiful painted books. There were many such places in Ireland and the Celtic monks had become so famous for their learning that people not only from their own country but even from Britain and Gaul (which we now call England and France), sent their sons to be educated by them. Much of Europe was then very heathenish and ignorant, and had it not been for those Celtic monks, many of whom went as missionaries and started schools in other countries, the world would not be nearly so wise as it is to-day.
As they now drew near Kells, "Shall we go to the monastery landing?" asked Ferdiad.
"No," said Angus, "I see the monks working at the new high-cross on the hill yonder. We will land there and go up and look at it."
In a few minutes they had all climbed to the hill top where the new stone cross had just been put in place. It was very large, more than twice as high as a tall man, and wonderfully carved with scenes from the Bible as it was meant to tell its story to people who had no books of their own. There are to-day more than fifty of these great Celtic crosses standing on the hills of Ireland and artists from many countries copy them because of their beauty.
"Oh, father, isn't it fine!" cried Eileen.
"Yes, indeed!" said Angus; "it is one of the finest I have seen. Who of you made it?" he asked, turning to the monks who were standing by.
One of them was about to answer him when suddenly there came a sharp jangle of bells from a tall round tower of stone near the monastery.
"Hark!" cried the monk, and as they all paused a moment, there came another wild peal of the bells, and crashing through the woods beyond Kells they could see a score or more people from the country round about running frantically for the tower. Some were carrying children in their arms and others driving before them a few cows or sheep, while from the door of the monastery the brown-robed monks were already pouring out, their arms filled with precious books and such sacred things of gold and silver as they had been able to snatch from the monastery church. For everywhere the young students were running about shouting, "The Danes! The Danes!" and everybody knew that those fierce pirate raiders from across the northern sea were heathens who thought no more of stripping a Christian altar than of driving off a herd of cattle and killing their helpless owner.
"Can you see them coming yet?" asked Angus anxiously of the monks.
"No," they said, "they are probably burning the raths they have raided, but they will be here quickly! We must hurry to reach the tower!" For the monks were no fighters, and, moreover, they all knew they would be far outnumbered by the raiders.
Angus at once snatched up Eileen, who was screaming from fright, and bidding Fianna and Ferdiad to follow, they all ran like deer down the hill.
By this time the country folk had given up hope of saving their cattle and sheep and were trying only to save themselves as both they and the monks and their pupils crowded to the foot of the tower and scrambled as fast as they could up a wooden ladder which led to a door high above the ground. For the tower was not only a belfry for the monastery church but also a place of refuge from just such sudden attacks as the Danes were now making. And how often these places of refuge were needed in those wild warring times is proven by the many ancient towers, solitary and deserted, which still rise from innumerable Irish hills and valleys. And very good strongholds they were when every one was inside, the ladder drawn up and the great door barred. If the raiders tried to come too close they were apt to get their heads cracked by a few of the big stones of which there was always a good supply to be dropped from the high windows.
As Angus and the rest now joined the others at the foot of the ladder, Angus saw that Fianna and Eileen got safely in and then telling Ferdiad to climb up too, turned to see if he could help the others. But Ferdiad waited to pick up a child that was lost from its parents and running about crying helplessly. He handed it up to safety, and just then a group of belated country people came screaming that the Danes were at their heels!
At this there was a wild rush for the ladder by those who were still outside. Angus, who supposed Ferdiad had gone in long before, climbed in with the last of the monks he had been helping, and in the struggle to gain the door no one noticed that Ferdiad was pushed off the ladder by a burly countryman wild with terror, and that the lad fell some distance to the ground.
For a few moments he lay stunned, and when he came to himself the ladder was drawn up as out of the forest came rushing a troop of wild Danes. Some wore chain armor and helmets with cows' horns fastened in front making them look like demons, while others were clad in tunics made from the shaggy skins of beasts; but all carried shields and spears and short swords and were shouting in loud fierce voices.
Ferdiad's heart quaked and he crouched back at the foot of the tower where he had fallen and where, luckily, some bushes made a fairly good screen.
When the raiders came nearer and found there was nobody to fight, part of them began swarming into the monastery and church and huts of the pupils looking for anything on which they might lay hands, while others started driving off the flocks of the country folks, and still others quarreled among themselves over the booty they had brought from the raths they had afterward destroyed.
Ferdiad, who had all the while been looking sharply about, all at once fairly held his breath as his gaze fell on a sheltered nook in the monastery wall. The Danes being for the time busy elsewhere none of them saw as did Ferdiad that a monk, clutching his robe as if trying to hide something beneath it, had seemingly crawled out of the wall and was creeping through the bushes in the direction of the tower. Ferdiad guessed at once that he had come out of the underground chambers; and sure enough, the tangle of bushes hid a hole in the wall just big enough for a man's body. This hole was the opening of a secret passage leading from the bee-hive shaped stone chambers such as were built under most monasteries and important houses as a place to hide valuables or the people themselves if attacked too suddenly for them to reach the nearest round tower.
Now this monk of Kells, Brother Giles, had been with the last of those fleeing from the monastery when all at once he had remembered the most precious thing in all Kells and which no one else had thought to try to save. This was the marvelous angel book of Saint Columkille of which Ferdiad had told Conn the monks said there was no other like it in all the world! That it could for a moment have been forgotten would seem unbelievable were it not that every one knows that when people are frightened and must pick out what they most care for, as at a fire, they often bring away very silly things and leave the best behind.
At any rate, the moment the monk thought of the book he rushed back and snatched it from the drawer where it was kept, then, finding the Danes were already coming toward the door of the monastery, he hurried down the winding stair to the undergroung chambers, hoping to hide there. But in a few moments the Danes discovered the stair and he could hear them groping their way down, for it was very dark there. At this he began stealthily to feel his way to the secret passage, and because of the darkness he managed to escape from the raiders who were poking in corners for what plunder they could find. The monk, hiding the precious book in its golden case, had just come out of the passage when Ferdiad saw him.
As the boy looked, suddenly Brother Giles straightened up and made a dash for the tower hoping to reach it before the Danes saw him.
Forgetting his own danger, Ferdiad tried to call to him that the ladder was up, but could not make him hear. But the poor monk had scarcely run half way till with a fierce shout one of the raiders started in pursuit. Ferdiad's eyes grew wide with horror as the monk sprang forward desperately only to sink lifeless on the ground beneath the sharp thrust of a Danish sword. As the man paused a moment Ferdiad could see his wild cruel face and red-scarred forehead, then suddenly as the dead monk's robe fell apart the Dane caught the gleam of the golden case which held the painted book, and snatching it up greedily ran off with it before Ferdiad's strained gaze could make out just what the object was.
Ferdiad's eyes grew wide with horror.
In a little while the other raiders came out of the monastery, having stripped it of every bit of gold and silver they could find, and as they could not set fire to the stone buildings they had to content themselves with burning the thatched huts of the students. While these were still smoldering they took themselves off toward the seacoast, driving before them the sheep and cows they had stolen from the country folk.
As soon as they were sure it was all over, the people one by one crept down from the tower, the country folk going sadly back to try patiently to rebuild their desolate homes while the monks began to set things in order about Kells.
Everybody was amazed and delighted to find Ferdiad had escaped with his life, though of course no one had known he was not safe in the tower. The body of Brother Giles was borne sorrowfully into the monastery; and then, when they began to bring back the gold and silver things they had saved and to take stock of what the Danes had stolen, first of all the Abbot discovered that Saint Columkille's book was gone. He was filled with dismay and remorse that he had forgotten it, and kept muttering despairingly "The angel book of the blessed Saint Columkille! May all the saints forgive me!"
The monks, too, looked at each other white and terrified, fearing a curse on Kells because of their unbelievable carelessness. For none of them knew that Brother Giles had given his life in the vain effort to save the beautiful book, and they felt sure that the Celtic people would blame them when it was known the precious volume was lost, for it was even then famous in Ireland.
As Ferdiad heard them lamenting, presently an idea occurred to him. "Reverend Father," he said to the Abbot, "perhaps it was Saint Columkille's book that Brother Giles was carrying when the Dane struck him. I saw the man take something from his robe as he lay on the ground, but could only get a flash of gold. I couldn't see just what it was, as the Dane turned from me when he picked it up and he ran off right away."
The Abbot listened gravely, but only said, "Perhaps, boy. But it might have been a golden candlestick you saw; we had many such. And even if it was the book, the Dane will care for nothing but the gold of its case and will surely destroy it when he rejoins his people and looks at it; they have burned countless precious volumes before this!" and the Abbot sighed bitterly.
But, somehow, Ferdiad got it into his head that the book the angels had made would not be destroyed, and he wished more than anything else that someday he might find it.
Meantime, Angus, seeing there was really nothing he could do to help restore order at the monastery, had brought down the curragh and he and Ferdiad had moored it at their landing. Fortunately their rath, being on the other side of the river from Kells, had escaped harm.