The tall figure of the cowled religieux was hurrying down the darkened corridor, the soles of his sandals slapping against the granite flagstones with sharp cracking sounds which one might have believed would rouse the entire abbey from its slumbers. The man held a thick stub of tallow candle in front of him, its flame flickering and dancing in the draughty passageways but providing just enough gloomy illumination to light his way. It reflected on his gaunt features, etching them and distorting them to make his face appear like some nightmarish vision of a demon conjured from hell rather than a servant of God.
The figure came to a halt before a stout wooden door and hesitated for a moment. Then he clenched his free hand into a fist and pounded twice upon it before, without waiting for any response, he swung open the round iron latch and entered.
Inside, the room was in darkness, for night’s mantle still shrouded the abbey. He hesitated on the threshold and held up the candle to illuminate the room. In one corner, a recumbent figure lay on a small bed covered in a blanket. The religieux could tell by the continued heavy, regular breathing, that his knocking and abrupt entry had failed to rouse the room’s sole inhabitant.
He moved towards the bed, placing his candle on the bedside table. Then he leant forward and shook the shoulder of the sleeper roughly.
‘Father Abbot!’ he called urgently, his voice almost cracking in suppressed emotion. ‘Father Abbot! You must awake!’
The sleeping man groaned a moment and then came reluctantly awake, eyelids blinking rapidly and trying to focus in the gloom.
‘What … ? Who … ?’ The figure turned and looked up, seeing the tall religieux standing over his bed. The man flung back his cowl in order to be recognised and a frown crossed the hawk-like features of the disturbed sleeper. ‘Brother Madagan. What is it?’ The figure struggled to sit up, his eyes observing the night sky at the window. ‘What is it? Have I overslept?’
The tall monk shook his head in a quick, nervous gesture. His face was grim in the candlelight.
‘No, Father Abbot. It still lacks an hour until the bell tolls the summons for lauds.’
Lauds marked the first day hour of the Church when the brothers of the Abbey of Imleach gathered to sing the psalms of praise which opened the day’s devotions.
Ségdae, abbot and bishop of Imleach, Comarb, or successor to St Ailbe, eased himself up against his pillow with the frown still furrowing his features.
‘Then what is amiss that you should rouse me before the appointed time?’ he demanded petulantly.
Brother Madagan bowed his head at the sharp tone of rebuke in the abbot’s voice.
‘Father Abbot, are you aware what day this is?’
Ségdae gazed at Brother Madagan, his frown of annoyance giving way to bewilderment.
‘What sort of question is this that you must awake me to ask it? It is the feastday of the founder of our abbey, the Blessed Ailbe.’
‘Forgive me, Father Abbot. But, as you know, on this day, following lauds, we take the Holy Relics of the Blessed Ailbe from our chapel to his grave in the abbey grounds where you bless them and we offer thanks for Ailbe’s life and work in converting this corner of the world to the Faith.’
Abbot Ségdae was increasingly impatient. ‘Get to the point, Brother Madagan, or have you awakened me simply to tell me what I already knew?’
by your leave, I will explain.’
‘Do so!’ the abbot snapped irritably. ‘And your explanation better be a good one.’
‘As steward of the abbey, I was making the rounds of the watch. A short while ago I went to the chapel.’ The monk paused as if to give dramatic effect to his words. ‘Father Abbot, the reliquary of the Blessed Ailbe is missing from the recess wherein it was kept!’
Abbot Ségdae became completely alert and swung out of his bed.
‘Missing? What’s this you say?’
‘The reliquary is gone. Vanished.’
‘Yet it was there when we gathered for Vespers. We all saw it.’
‘Indeed, it was. Now it has been removed.’
‘Have you summoned Brother Mochta?’
Brother Madagan drew his brows together as if he did not understand the question. ‘Brother Mochta?’
‘As Keeper of the Holy Relics of the Blessed Ailbe he should have been the first to be summoned,’ pointed out Ségdae, his irritation growing again. ‘Go … no, wait! I’ll come with you.’
He turned and slipped his feet into his sandals and took down his woollen cloak from a peg. ‘Take the candle and precede me to Brother Mochta’s chamber.’
Brother Madagan took up the tallow candle and moved into the corridor, closely followed by the agitated figure of the abbot.
Outside, a wind had started to rise, whispering and moaning around the hill on which the abbey stood. The cold breath of the wind penetrated through the dim corridors of the building and Abbot Ségdae could almost feel the rain it was bringing with it. With a sense born of experience the abbot could tell the wind was sweeping up from the south, bringing up the clouds that had lain across the Ballyhoura Mountains on the previous evening. By dawn it would be raining. The abbot knew it from long experience.
‘What can have happened to the Holy Relics?’ Brother Madagan’s voice interrupted his thoughts almost like a wail of despair as they hastened along the corridor. ‘Can some thief have broken into the abbey and stolen them?’
‘Quod avertat Deus
!’ intoned Abbot Ségdae, genuflecting. ‘Let us hope that Brother Mochta was simply early abroad and decided to remove the relics in preparation for the service.’
Even as he spoke the abbot realised that it was a vain hope for everyone knew the order of the service of remembrance for the Blessed Ailbe. The relics remained in the chapel until after lauds and were then taken out, carried by the Keeper of the Holy Relics. They would be followed in procession by the community firstly to the holy well, in the abbey’s grounds, where the abbot would draw fresh water and bless the relics, as Ailbe had once blessed his new abbey over a hundred years ago. The reliquary, and a chalice of the blessed water, would then be carried to the stone cross which marked the grave of the founder of the abbey and there the service of remembrance would be conducted. That being so well known, why would the Keeper of the Holy Relics have removed them from the chapel at such an early hour?
The abbot and the anxious steward halted before a door and Brother Madagan raised his fist to knock. Abbot Ségdae, with a sigh of impatience, pushed him aside and opened the door.
‘Brother Mochta!’ he cried as he entered the small chamber. Then he halted, his eyes widening. He paused for a few moments, while Brother Madagan tried vainly to peer over his shoulder to see what was amiss in the gloom. Without turning, the abbot said in a curiously quiet tone: ‘Hold the candle higher, Brother Madagan.’
The tall steward did so, holding the candle high above the abbot’s shoulder.
The flickering light revealed a tiny cell. It was in total disarray.
Items of clothing lay discarded on the floor. It appeared that the straw mattress had been almost dragged from the tiny wooden cot that provided the bed. A stub of unlit candle lay in a small pool of its own grease on the floor with its wooden holder a short distance away. A few personal toilet items were scattered here and there.
‘What does this mean, Father Abbot?’ whispered Brother Madagan aghast.
Abbot Ségdae did not reply. His eyes narrowed as they fell on the mattress. There appeared to be a discolouration on it that he could not account for. He turned and took the candle from Brother Madagan’s hand and moved forward, bending to examine the stain more closely. Tentatively, he reached forward a finger and touched it. It was still damp. He took his fingertip away and peered at it in the flickering candlelight.
‘Deus misereatur …
,’ he whispered. ‘This is blood.’
Brother Madagan did not hide the shiver that passed abruptly through his body.
Abbot Ségdae stood frozen for several moments. It seemed a long time before he stirred himself.
‘Brother Mochta is not here,’ he said, stating the obvious. ‘Go, Brother Madagan, arouse the abbey. We must start a search immediately. There is blood on his mattress, his cell is in disorder and the Holy Relics of Blessed Ailbe are missing. Go, ring the alarm bell for there is evil stalking this abbey this night!’
The figure of the religieuse paused on the last step, before ascending to the walkway behind the battlements of the fortress, and peered up at the morning sky in disapproval. Her young, attractive features with the rebellious strands of red hair blowing across her forehead, the bright eyes which now mirrored the sombreness of the grey skies, were drawn in an expression of censure as she viewed the morning weather. Then with an almost imperceptible shrug, she took the final step onto the stone walkway which surrounded the interior of the towering walls of the fortress that was also the palace of the Kings of Muman, the largest and most south-westerly kingdom of Eireann.
Cashel rose, almost threateningly, some two hundred feet on a great limestone peak which dominated the plains around it. The only approach to it was by a steep road from the market town which had grown up in its shadow. There were many buildings on the rock as well as the palace of the Kings of Muman. Sharing the rock was a great church, the
or seat of the bishop of Cashel, a tall circular building, for most churches were built in such a fashion, with its connecting corridors to the palace. There was a system of stables, outhouses, hostels for visitors and quarters for the bodyguard of the King as well as a monastic cloister for the religious who served the cathedral.
Sister Fidelma moved with a youthful agility that seemed at odds with her calling in life. Her religious habit did nothing to conceal her tall but well proportioned figure. With an easy gait she moved to the battlement, leaning against it, and continued her study of the skies. She felt a slight shiver catch her as a cold wind gusted across the buildings. It was obvious that it had rained sometime during the night for there was an atmosphere of dampness in the air and there was a slight silver sheen across the more shaded fields below which showed the early morning light sparkling on droplets of water.
The weather was unusual. St Matthew’s Day, which heralded the autumn equinox by the first morning frosts and a drop in night temperature, had not yet arrived. The usually fine daytime weather of the month was chill. The sky was covered in a uniform grey layer
of cloud and there was only a faint brightness as, now and then, the sun tried to penetrate it. It was a troubled sky. The clouds lay thick across the tops of the mountains to the south-west, on the far side of the interceding valley where the broad ribbon of the River Suir twisted its way from north to south.
Fidelma turned from her examination and, as she did so, espied an elderly man standing a short distance from her. He, too, was apparently meditating on the morning sky. With a smile of greeting, she walked to where the old man stood.
‘Brother Conchobar! You wear a mournful look this day,’ she exclaimed brightly, for Fidelma was not one to let the weather dictate her moods.
The old religieux raised his long face to Fidelma and grimaced sadly.
‘Well I might. It is not an auspicious day today.’
‘A cold one, I grant you, Brother,’ she replied. ‘Yet the clouds may clear for there is a south-westerly wind, albeit a chill one.’
The old man shook his head, not responding to her bright tone.
‘It is not the clouds that tell me that we should beware this day.’
‘Have you been examining your charts of the heavens, Conchobar?’ chided Fidelma, for she knew that Brother Conchobar was not only the physician at Cashel, whose apothecary stood in the shadow of the royal chapel, he was also an adept at making speculations from the patterns of the stars and spent long, lonely hours in contemplation of the heavens. Indeed, medicine and astrology were often twins in the practice of the physician’s art.
‘Don’t I examine the charts each day?’ replied the old man, his voice still kept to a mournful monotone.
‘As I do recall even from my childhood,’ affirmed Fidelma solemnly.
‘Indeed. I once tried to teach you the art of charting the heavens,’ sighed the old man. ‘You would have made an excellent interpreter of the portents.’
Fidelma grimaced good-naturedly. ‘I doubt it, Conchobar.’
‘Trust me. Did I not study under Mo Chuaróc mac Neth Sémon, the greatest astrologer that Cashel has ever produced?’
‘So you have told me many times, Conchobar. Tell me now, why is this day not an auspicious one?’
‘I fear that evil is abroad this day, Fidelma of Cashel.’
The old man never addressed her by her religious style but always referred to her in the manner denoting that she was the daughter of a king and the sister of a king.
‘Can you identify the evil, Conchobar?’ asked Fidelma with sudden
interest. While she placed no great reliance on astrologers, for it was a science which seemed to rely solely on the ability of the individual, she accepted that much might be learnt from the wisest of them. The study of the heavens,
was an ancient art and most who could afford to do so, had a chart cast for the moment of their children’s birth which was called
‘I cannot be specific, alas. Do you know where the moon is today?’
In a society living so close to nature it would be an ignorant person or a complete fool who did not know the position of the moon.
‘We are on a waning moon, Conchobar. She stands in the house of The Goat.’
‘Indeed, for the moon squares Mercury, conjuncts Saturn and sextiles Jupiter. And where is the sun?’
‘Easy enough, the sun’s in the house of The Virgin.’
‘And is opposed by the moon’s north node. The sun is squared by Mars. And while Saturn is conjunct the moon in Capricorn it is squared by Mercury. And while Jupiter is conjunct the midheaven, Jupiter is squared by Venus.’
‘But what does this mean?’ pressed Fidelma, intrigued, and trying to follow what he was saying from her meagre knowledge of the art.
‘It means that no good will come of this day.’
‘Has your brother, Colgú, left the castle yet?’
‘My brother?’ frowned Fidelma in surprise. ‘He left before first light to meet the Prince of the Uí Fidgente, at the Well of Ara as arranged, in order to escort him here. Do you see danger for my brother?’ She was suddenly anxious.
‘I cannot say.’ The old man spread his arms in a negative gesture.
‘I am not sure. The danger may apply to your brother, although, if this be so, and harm approaches him, whoever causes that harm will not be triumphant in the end. That is all I can say.’
Fidelma looked at him in disapproval.
‘You say too much or too little, Brother. It is wrong to stir up someone’s anxieties but not tell them sufficient in order to act to dispel that anxiety.’
‘Ah, Fidelma, isn’t there a saying that a silent mouth is most melodious? It is easier for me not to say anything and let the stars follow their courses rather than try to wrest their secrets from them.’
‘You have vexed me, Brother Conchobar. Now I shall worry until my brother’s safe return.’
‘I am sorry that I have put this worry before you, Fidelma of Cashel. I pray that I am entirely wrong.’
‘Time will tell us that, Brother.’
‘By time is everything revealed,’ agreed Conchobar quietly, quoting an ancient proverb.
He inclined his head in a gesture of farewell and turned to make his careful way from the battlements, his back bent, leaning on a thick blackthorn staff for his support. Fidelma stood staring after him with her sudden feeling of unease not dispelled. She had known old Brother Conchobar since her birth thirty years ago. In fact, he had assisted at her birth. He appeared to have dwelt at the ancient palace of Cashel for ever. He had served her father, King Failbe Fland mac Aedo, whom Fidelma could not really remember for he had died in the very year of her birth. He had also served her three cousins who had succeeded to the kingship in their turn. Now he served her own brother, Colgú, who had been proclaimed as King of Muman hardly a year previously. Brother Conchobar was considered one of the most learned of those who studied the heavens and made maps of the stars and their courses.
Fidelma knew enough of Conchobar to realise that one didn’t take the old man’s prognostications lightly.
She gazed up at the melancholy sky and shivered before turning down from the battlements into one of the many courtyards of the large palace complex which rose on the rock of limestone peak. Interspersed here and there were tiny courtyards and even smaller gardens. The entire network of buildings was surrounded by the high defensive walls.
Fidelma began to walk across the paved courtyard towards the large entrance of the royal chapel. The sound of children’s playing caused her to glance up as she walked. She smiled as she saw some young boys using the chapel wall to play a game called
the ‘wheel-feat’. It had been a favourite game of her brother’s when they were young because it was the one game that Colgú knew he could beat her at. It was a game that relied on the strength of the arm because it consisted of throwing a heavy, circular disc up a tall wall. Whoever managed to cast the disc up farthest was the winner. According to ancient legend, the great warrior Cúchullain hurled a disc up so high that it went up beyond the wall and roof of the building.
There was a scream of delight from the children as one of their number made a particularly good cast with the disc. A grizzled hostler passing near the children stopped to reprimand them.
‘A silent mouth sounds sweetly,’ he admonished, wagging his finger and using almost the same proverb that Brother Conchobar had just quoted to her. The servant turned and, observing Fidelma, saluted. Behind him, Fidelma saw a couple of the young boys
pulling faces at his back but pretended that she had not observed them.
‘Ah, my lady Fidelma, these young ones,’ sighed the elderly servant, deferring to her royal status, as did everyone in Cashel. ‘Truly, my lady, their noise pierces the tranquillity of the hour.’
‘Yet they are merely children at play, Oslóir,’ she returned gravely. Fidelma liked to know the names of all the servants at her brother’s palace. ‘A great Greek philosopher once said, “Play so that you may become serious”. So let them play while they are young. There are plenty of years ahead of them in which to be serious.’
‘Surely silence is the ideal state?’ protested the hostler.
‘That depends. Too much silence can be painful. There can be a surfeit in all things, even honey.’
Smiling at the children, she turned towards the doors of the royal chapel and was about to ascend the steps when one of the doors swung open and a young religieux in a brown woollen homespun habit emerged. He was a thickset young man whose abundance of curly brown hair was cut into the
the circular tonsure of St Peter of Rome. His dark brown eyes carried a humorous twinkle and were set in pleasant and almost handsome features.
‘Eadulf!’ Fidelma greeted him, ‘I was just coming to find you.’ Brother Eadulf of Seaxmund’s Ham, in the kingdom of the South Folk, had been sent as an emissary to the King of Cashel by no less a dignitary than Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury. He grimaced pleasantly in salutation.
‘I was expecting to find you at the services this morning, Fidelma.’ Fidelma grinned, one of her rare mischievous grins. ‘Do I hear a criticism in your voice?’
‘Surely one of the first duties of a religieuse is to attend the Sabbath morning service.’ The Irish Church held to Saturday as the Sabbath day.
‘Indeed, I attended lauds first thing this morning,’ rejoined Fidelma waspishly. ‘That was before first light when, so I was told, you were still sleeping.’
Eadulf flushed slightly.
Fidelma immediately felt contrite and reached out a hand to touch his sleeve.
‘I should have warned you that on the feastday of Saint Ailbe, it is the custom of our house to attend lauds in order to give special thanks for his life. Besides that, my brother had to leave Cashel before first light to ride to the Well of Ara. We were early abroad.’
Eadulf was not mollified but he fell in step with Fidelma as they
turned to walk back across the courtyard towards the entrance to the Great Hall of Cashel.
‘Why is this feastday so special?’ he asked, somewhat peeved. ‘Everyone is giving praise for St Ailbe, though, I freely confess, I know nothing of his life nor work.’
‘No reason why a stranger to this land would know about him,’ observed Fidelma. ‘He is our patron saint, the holy protector of the kingdom of Muman. This is the day when the Law of Ailbe is proclaimed to our people.’
‘I see,’ acknowledged Eadulf. ‘I understand why this day is made special. Tell me, why he is regarded as the protector of Muman and what is this Law of Ailbe?’
They walked together through the palatial reception room, across the Great Hall of the palace building which, at this hour of the morning, was almost deserted. Only a few servants moved discreetly about, laying fires in the great hearth or cleaning the chamber, sweeping the paved stone floors with brushes of twigs.
‘Ailbe was a man of Muman, born in the north-west of the kingdom in the household of Crónán, a chief of the people of Cliach.’