Atonement of Blood: A New Excerpt

Atonement of Blood by Peter Tremaine is a historical mystery set in 670 AD Ireland, the 24th novel featuring Fidelma and her companion, this time in enemy lands, trying to unravel their king's attempted assassination (available July 22, 2014).

Winter, 670 AD. King Colgú has invited the leading nobles and chieftains of his kingdom to a feast day. Fidelma and her companion Eadulf are finally home for an extended stay, and have promised their son, Alchú, that they’ll be able to spend some time together after months of being on the road, investigating crimes. Fidelma and Eadulf are enjoying the feast when it is interrupted by the entrance of a religieux, who claims he has an important message for the King. He approaches the throne and shouts ‘Remember Liamuin!’ and then stabs King Colgú. The assassin is slain, but does enough damage to take out Colgú’s bodyguard, and to put the king himself on the verge of death.

As King Colgú lies in recovery, Fidelma, Eadulf, and bodyguard Gormán are tasked with discovering who is behind the assassination attempt, and who Liamuin is. They must journey into the territory of their arch-enemies, the Uí Fidgente, to uncover the secrets in the Abbey of Mungairit, and then venture into the threatening mountain territory ruled by a godless tyrant. Danger and violence are their constant companions until the final devastating revelation.

Chapter 1

Eadulf was staring moodily out of the window at the darkening sky above the fortress of Cashel, the stronghold of Colgú, King of Muman. The Kingdom of Muman was the largest and most south-westerly of the Five Kingdoms of Éireann. The air was chill, and all day grey stormclouds had raced across the sky; low and intense, driven by strong and angry winds.

‘It will snow before long,’ he observed, turning to where his companion was seated before a mirror, putting the final touches to the position of a silver circlet which crowned her red-gold hair.

‘Rain is more likely,’ Fidelma replied, continuing to concentrate on her reflection. ‘It is not quite cold enough for snow.’

‘It’s cold enough for me,’ Eadulf muttered with a shiver as he left the window and crossed to where a wood fire was crackling in the hearth. ‘At least, whatever arrives, it should come and go quickly, for the clouds are moving fast with this westerly wind.’

‘It is the month of Cet Gaimrid, the start of winter,’ Fidelma pointed out, rising from her seat. ‘What do you expect but cold weather?’ She turned again to regard herself critically in the mirror. ‘Now, tell me truthfully, how do I look?’ She moved her head from side to side in order for him to inspect her.

Eadulf smiled softly. ‘Even more beautiful than the first time I saw you.’

Fidelma pulled a face at him in mock disapproval but she was not displeased with his response. Having finally left the religious, casting aside the robes of brown woollen homespun, she had now donned the clothes that revealed her as a Princess of the Eóghanacht. Eadulf knew that she only put on such fine clothes when there was an important occasion to be observed; this night was such an occasion.

There was a gentle tap on the door, and in response to Fidelma’s invitation it opened to admit a middle-aged woman of ample proportions with greying, untidy hair. Judging from her weathered skin, she was more used to the open air than the enclosure of the palace. She was dressed in comfortable homespun. Clutching her hand was a young child, about three years of age, with a mop of bright red hair and features that resembled Fidelma’s.

‘I thought you would like to say good night to your little one before you go to the feast, lady,’ the nurse, Muirgen, announced.

Fidelma immediately dropped into a crouch and held out her arms.

The boy ran forward to hug his mother. Then he pulled away from her with an anxious frown. ‘Muimme says you are going to a feast. Are you going away for a long time? When will you come back?’

Fidelma laughed easily and hugged her son again. ‘We are only going down into the great hall, Alchú. You know where that is. We shall be back after our meal.’

Eadulf tried to conceal the emotion he felt. During the first three years of little Alchú’s life it seemed that they had barely spent any time with the boy. They were always travelling on some errand, either on behalf of Fidelma’s brother, the King, or on behalf of the clergy. Eadulf had seen what effect it had on the child, and he felt that it was time they settled into a more stable way of life. Their son was always nervous when there was any hint of them leaving. Eadulf’s one abiding image of Alchú was of the boy, standing in the cobbled courtyard, clutching at his nurse’s hand and trying not to give way to tears as he watched them ride out from Cashel.

‘We are not going anywhere, Alchú,’ he declared firmly, scooping the little lad in his arms and giving him a mock throw into the air.

The boy chuckled as he came down and clung to his father’s shoulder, his blue-green eyes gleaming.

‘Take me riding tomorrow, athair?’ he asked.

‘I’ll take you, little hound,’ said Fidelma, giving the literal meaning of his name.

‘We’ll both take you,’ Eadulf promised, and set him down. Fidelma raised an eyebrow and smiled slightly, for she knew that Eadulf was not a natural horseman like she was and preferred to walk rather than ride. ‘Now you run off to bed like a good boy. We’ll look in on our way back from the feast and we’ll expect you to be asleep.’

‘Goodnight, mathair, goodnight, athair,’ the boy said solemnly. Then he turned to his nurse with a skip. ‘I am going riding tomorrow, muimme!’ he shouted.

The elderly woman reached out a hand to take his. She acknowledged Fidelma and Eadulf with a quick nod before leading the boy from the room.

For a moment or two, Eadulf stared at the closed door. One thing he could never get used to in this adopted language of his was the fact that he and Fidelma were addressed by the formal athair and mathair, Mother and Father, while the intimate forms of muimme and aite, Mummy and Daddy, were reserved for foster-parents. He had heard the explanation many times but could never really understand it.

The clan society of the Five Kingdoms was also based on a fosterage system. When boys and girls reached the age of seven years old, they were sent away for their education in what was known as fosterage. It was practised by persons of all classes, but especially by nobles. Nobles fostered other nobles’ children; kings fostered other kings’ and nobles’ children. There were two kinds of fosterage – for affection or for payment. Among the nobles it was usually for affection. In this manner, the closest of ties were developed between the ruling families and the relationship was regarded as a sacred bond, as if it was a blood tie. In such a deeply based kin-society it was a sure way of preventing conflict and warfare.

In many ways, Eadulf felt it was a laudable system. It was just that the closeness of the fosterage system seemed to have caused a change in language whereby the blood parents were addressed in formal terms while the foster-parents were addressed in intimate terms.

‘What are you thinking about?’ Fidelma’s voice cut into his thoughts.

Eadulf turned and gave her a quick smile. ‘I was wondering what the reason was for this special feast that your brother has called for this evening?’

‘It is held in memory of a great poet and churchman of our people who died seventy years ago,’ she replied. ‘His name was Colmán mac Lénine.’

‘And are his poems worthy of such a celebration?’

‘Some would appear to think so,’ she said. ‘He was acclaimed as the royal poet of Muman. However, it is his services to the Faith that the abbots and bishops of Muman feel should be celebrated. He left the service of the King of Cashel and decided to travel through the kingdom preaching the New Faith. He finally established his own abbey at Cluain Uamha.’

‘The meadow of the cave?’ translated Eadulf. ‘Isn’t that an abbey to the south-west of here?’

‘Your knowledge is very good.’

‘So I suppose Abbot Ségdae of Imleach will be attending this feast?’

‘No. The Feast of Colmán keeps him in Imleach. One of Colmán’s achievements was to find the lost shrine of the Blessed Ailbe of Imleach, who brought the Faith to our kingdom. The ancients who buried Ailbe had kept his shrine a secret for fear it would be molested. The time came when no one left alive knew the secret. It was Colmán who solved the mystery and so he is blessed at Imleach and remembered there each year accordingly.’

Eadulf wondered aloud, ‘So does tonight’s feast commemorate the religieux or the poet?’

‘This feast celebrates the whole man,’ Fidelma replied.

The chamber was suddenly lit by a flash of white light, followed within a split second by a crash of thunder. The echo rumbled in the distance, then died away. There was a moment of silence, then a sound like pebbles being scattered on stone. They could see the urgent flurry of lumps of water-ice landing on the window-ledge. Eadulf peered out, through the hailstones, to the dim outline of the town below. A moment later, the hail gave way to heavy rain.

‘You are right, Fidelma. Rain, it is. But let us hope that I am also right and this is no more than a passing rainstorm.’

A short while later, the couple made their way towards the great hall where the young warrior Gormán, of King Colgú’s élite bodyguard, the Nasc Niadh, stood sentinel at the doors. He grinned as they approached, for he had shared many adventures with them.

‘Are you not joining the feast tonight?’ Eadulf greeted him as they came up.

The young man shook his head. ‘Tonight I have drawn the short straw for guard duty here. No matter.’ He opened the doors of the feasting hall to allow them to pass inside.

The great hall was a long, narrow room. Along each wall were the tables, leading to another placed broadside on at the head of the chamber and raised on a dais. This was where the King and his personal retinue would sit. On the walls behind the benches were hooks from which shields or pennants, depending on the rank of the guests, were hung. Seated at the tables were some of the lords of the territories of the kingdom, each attended by their shield-bearers. With them were their wives. No one sat opposite one another; only one side of the table was occupied, that being the side next to the wall. Fidelma did not need to examine their shields or pennants to recognise them all. She also knew that each guest had been seated by the steward of the household according to a known priority, thus avoiding any unseemly dispute.

On the dais, Fidelma’s cousin Finguine, the young heir apparent to the kingdom, was already in his position to the right of the empty chair designated for the King. To the right of Finguine were the Chief Brehon, Áedo, and his deputy, Aillín. The commander of the King’s bodyguard, Caol, the only man allowed to carry his sword into the feasting hall, stood behind the empty chair. To the left were others of the King’s household and their ladies. Acknowledging greetings, Fidelma and Eadulf made their way to their appointed seats on the left. In all, it seemed that there were about forty people gathered for the feast.

In one corner, behind the top table, stood a fear-stuic, a trumpeter who, at some secret signal, raised this instrument to his lips and let forth three short blasts.

There was a movement of the curtain behind the King’s chair and through this hidden entrance came the rotund figure of Beccan, King Colgú’s newly appointed rechtaire, the steward of the palace, with his staff of office. He took his position at the side of Caol and thumped the end of his staff three times on the floor. The assembly rose to their feet. There was a moment of silence before Beccan cleared his throat and announced the presence of the King.

Colgú came pushing through the curtain behind his chair, seemingly embarrassed by the official attention. With his red hair and features, there was no mistaking him for other than brother to Fidelma. Beccan was banging his staff again and starting to intone in a loud voice: ‘Give welcome to Colgú, son of Failbhe Flann son of Áedo Dubh…’

Colgú slumped in his chair and raised a hand as if to silence his steward.

‘Thank you, Beccan,’ he said gruffly. ‘I am sure that all here will know my ancestry.’

Beccan blinked and a hurt look came over his features.

‘But protocol dictates…’ he began to protest.

‘We are among friends tonight, Beccan,’ smiled Colgú. ‘We may dispense with the protocol. There are times to stand on ceremony and times when we can relax among those who know us well.’ He motioned to one of the attendants who was waiting patiently with a pitcher of wine. The young man came forward dutifully and poured the liquid into the King’s goblet. Then Colgú rose and raised his goblet to the assembly.

‘My friends, it is I who bid you welcome this night. Health to the men and may the women live forever!’

It was an ancient toast and the assembly rose and responded in kind.

As the guests settled back, the side doors opened and a line of attendants came forward bringing in the freshly cooked dishes of roasted boar, venison and even mutton. Each dish was attended by the dáilemain, the carver, whose job it was to carve the meat for the guests, and the deoghbhaire or cupbearer, whose task was to keep the guests supplied with drink. In addition, there were platters of goose eggs and of sausages, various cabbages spiced with wild garlic, and leeks and onions cooked in butter. And this was just the first course!

‘I wonder who will get the hero’s morsel this evening?’ whispered Eadulf with a smile. He had come to know that at major feasts the person who had performed an outstanding act of bravery was symbolically rewarded with the curath-mir, which was a choice cut of the main meat dish.

‘I expect Beccan will announce it shortly,’ Fidelma whispered, ‘if he can overcome his dismay at my brother interrupting his attempt to bestow etiquette on these proceedings.’

There was a movement at the doors of the feasting hall and the young warrior, Gormán, entered and stood for a moment frowning uncertainly. Beccan, with a glance at Colgú, now busily engaged in conversation with Chief Brehon Áedo, went scurrying down the hall towards him. Fidelma watched as the two engaged in a swift and animated exchange. Then Beccan hurried back to Colgú’s side and bent to whisper in his ear. They seemed for a moment to be disagreeing about something and then Beccan appeared to shrug before he rose and signalled to Gormán. The warrior turned and left the hall.

‘I wonder what that is all about,’ muttered Fidelma to Eadulf, who had been hungrily sizing up the joint of venison, which was waiting to be carved. He turned absently, having missed the incident.

But the door was opening again and Gormán was ushering into the feasting hall a nondescript-looking man clad in religious robes. The religieux stood for a moment as if examining his surroundings, unsure of himself. The guests fell silent, their eyes resting on the unknown guest.

‘Come forward, Brother Lennán, and join us,’ Colgú called. ‘I am told that you have journeyed from Mungairit with an important message for me? Come – you have had a tiring journey, so share our feast and we will speak of this matter as you refresh yourself.’

The newcomer glanced around, quickly examining the company from dark, sunken eyes set in a sallow face.

Apparently interpreting his hesitation as awe at being in the company of the nobles of the Eóghanacht, Brehon Áedo rose from his seat next to the King and, with a friendly smile, motioned for the man to take his place.

‘Come and sit by me,’ Colgú invited. ‘I know Abbot Nannid of Mungairit well. How is the uncle of Prince Donennach? Does he continue in good health? Come, Brother, and you may tell me what message Abbot Nannid sends while we feast.’

The religieux gathered himself and his shoulders seemed to straighten – and then he strode towards the dais. As he did so, his right hand slipped into his robe as if to reach for a document. Instead of seating himself at the chair that Brehon Áedo offered, his stride brought him to the side of Colgú – and then the unthinkable happened. A knife appeared in his hand as if it had been conjured out of thin air and he lunged forward. ‘Remember Liamuin!’ he cried in a tone that was almost a scream and struck Colgú full in the chest.

The King stared uncomprehendingly at the blood spreading over his tunic. Everyone seemed frozen in a moment of silent shock. Then, as the knife descended once more, Brehon Áedo, with a cry, threw himself in front of Colgú. The knife struck him in the side of the neck, sinking deeply and killing the Brehon.

The attacker was struggling to retrieve the knife from Áedo’s inert body as if he intended to strike again. He was still yelling the same words: ‘Remember Liamuin!’ Then he glanced up and saw Caol, commander of the King’s bodyguard, moving forward, his sword in hand, and renewed his frantic efforts to recover his knife. He had partially succeeded when Caol struck at him. The sword blow went straight to the man’s heart and it was obvious that he was dead even before he reached the floor.

The cries of horror now rose in a deafening roar. Beccan was standing as if rooted to the spot, his face a deathly pale.

Eadulf was the first to reach Brehon Áedo but one look told him that the Chief Brehon was beyond help. He pulled the body off the slumped figure of Colgú and made a quick examination. The King was unconscious and blood still seeped from the wound in his chest. Eadulf was aware of Fidelma standing anxiously just behind him.

‘He is still alive, but only just,’ he said.

‘With respect, I am best qualified to attend to the King.’ It was the voice of old Brother Conchobhar, the physician and apothecary who had tended Colgú and Fidelma since they were children.

Eadulf immediately moved aside. The old man was right. There was no need to debate the issue.

‘Will he live?’ Fidelma demanded, her voice cracking with emotion.

‘I can only do my best,’ replied Brother Conchobhar tersely. ‘The rest will be up to God.’ He knelt at the King’s side and began to remove Colgú’s tunic and shirt, to examine the wound.

People were still milling about the feasting hall, their voices raised in disbelief, some trying to tell the story as they had seen it.

Now Finguine, the heir apparent, sprang up on a table and called for silence, clapping his hands to add emphasis.

‘This noise is not helping,’ he called, when the level of cacophony receded. ‘You must all disperse and allow our physicians to take care of the King.’

Reluctantly, the guests began shuffling to the door of the feasting hall, which had been thrown open. Gormán stood to one side, sword in hand, awaiting orders.

Brother Conchobhar glanced up at Eadulf. ‘We need to have him removed to his own bedchamber where we may treat his wound in more comfortable circumstances.’

Eadulf looked round to find Beccan, the steward. The man still seemed to be in a state of shock. ‘Help me to carry Colgú to his bedchamber.’

Beccan stared at him as if he did not understand.

‘I mean now!’ Eadulf said harshly.

The steward blinked and then became aware of his responsibilities. He carefully helped to lift the inert body of the King while Brother Conchobhar moved forward, guiding the way from the feasting hall.

Realising that Fidelma was about to follow them, Eadulf told her: ‘There is little you can do to help; better surely to find out who this assassin is and why he struck!’

Fidelma stared at him for a moment, as if she would disagree. Then, knowing he was right, she turned back into the hall to where Brehon Aillín stood looking down at the bodies of Brehon Áedo and the dead religieux. Then Finguine was at her side with a goblet of wine. He held it out to her without speaking. She took it and swallowed two mouthfuls, feeling its warmth in her body, helping her blood to flow once more after the trauma of the last few moments. Everyone seemed to be confused, not knowing what to do.

‘I must take over until … until Colgú is recovered.’ Finguine’s voice was quiet. It was as if he were asking for her approval.

Brehon Aillín coughed nervously before she could respond.

‘And as poor Brehon Áedo is dead, as his deputy I should therefore take charge of the legal matters.’ It was true that Brehon Aillín was next in seniority among the Council of Brehons. ‘But, of course, as the King’s sister as well as a dálaigh, I would appreciate your assistance, lady,’ he added courteously. ‘Your experience in such matters is well known.’

‘Very well, Brehon Aillín,’ Fidelma replied after a moment or two. ‘Any advice that you or my cousin Finguine need, is yours for the asking.’

Finguine looked relieved that a possible awkward moment had been avoided. He turned to Brehon Aillín. ‘It was Gormán who admitted the assassin to the hall,’ he said. ‘I presume you will want to question him first?’

The place was almost empty now. Apart from Brehon Aillín and Fidelma, only Finguine and Caol now remained amidst the empty tables still laden with uneaten food. Gormán had remained at the door and, on Caol’s summons, the young warrior advanced, his face pale and his manner nervous.

‘Tell me what you know about this man, Gormán,’ Brehon Aillín said, indicating the corpse of the assassin.

Gormán pursed his lips and gave a little shrug. ‘There is little I can tell you. I was on duty outside the doors of the feasting hall, for it was my turn to act as sentinel. One of the guards from the main gates approached, accompanying this religieux.’

‘Who was the guard?’ asked Brehon Aillín.

‘Luan, the one they nickname the “hound”.’

‘Caol, send someone to find Luan,’ instructed Finguine before indicating that Gormán should continue.

‘Luan told me that the religieux had approached the gates, saying that he was Brother Lennán from Mungairit and had come with an important message for the King. He did not look suspicious. He looked just like an ordinary religieux. He confirmed his purpose to me and said his message was very important, but for the ears of Colgú only. Therefore I told him to wait outside while I entered the feasting hall and told the steward about him. Beccan went directly to Colgú and explained about the visitor. Beccan then signalled for me to admit the man and I did so. The rest you all saw for yourselves, for I had returned outside to my station.’ He sighed, turning his worried expression to Fidelma and adding sorrowfully, ‘I could not have prevented what happened, lady.’

‘No one is blaming you, Gormán,’ Fidelma told him. ‘We were all taken completely by surprise.’

‘So far, that tells us nothing,’ Brehon Aillín murmured. ‘We had better examine Brother Lennán’s corpse.’

At that moment the door opened and Caol returned with another warrior. The man was looking about apprehensively as he was guided towards the group.

‘Is it true?’ the newcomer asked in a whisper. ‘Is the King badly wounded?’

‘It is true,’ confirmed Brehon Aillín, ‘but God be praised that he still lives. However, Brehon Áedo is dead. Now, I presume that you are called Luan? We need you to tell us about this man who has proved to be his assassin.’

‘I did not know,’ the guard burst out, obviously distressed. ‘I should have been suspicious … but he fooled me.’

Brehon Aillín smiled thinly. ‘Just tell us what happened.’

The guard stood frowning, as if forming his recollection.

‘I was on guard at the gates when the figure of a religieux came up the hill, walking easily and openly. He came to me and announced that he was Brother Lennán from the Abbey of the Blessed Nessán and that he had walked from Mungairit to bring an important message to King Colgú. I knew that the King would be celebrating the feast of Colmán and told the man so. He replied that his message was important, that he needed to see the King at once and that he would take responsibility for disturbing him. I ordered my companions to maintain their vigil at the gates and instructed Brother Lennán to follow me to the feasting hall. There I spoke with the warrior, Gormán, and handed over my charge to him.’

Brehon Aillín was about to dismiss the man when Fidelma turned to the guard with a thoughtful expression.

‘One moment, Luan. Why did you say that you should have been suspicious? What gave you such a thought?’

The guard looked unhappy, licking his dry lips for a moment.

‘Lady, it is a long way to come on foot from Mungairit in the land of the Uí Fidgente, yet this man strolled up to the gates here as if he had barely walked from the centre of the town, let alone from Mungairit. There was no sign of his having been on the road for any time. His clothes were not creased or dusty, and he did not even carry a walking staff.’

‘He could have travelled by horse or some other means, and also stopped along the way,’ Brehon Aillín commented. ‘That is what taverns and hostels are for.’

‘He did say that he had walked,’ Luan repeated. ‘I suppose that he could have changed his clothes and footwear before arriving at our gates. That would make sense.’

‘It is a good point,’ Fidelma said. ‘But not necessarily something to be suspicious about. You should not rebuke yourself, Luan. Even if you had voiced your concern, it would not have stopped the inevitability of what has taken place.’

‘There is something more…’ began Luan.

‘Which is?’ asked Brehon Aillín, sounding impatient.

‘Just before the feast started there was a downpour of icy rain. It did not last very long but it was heavy. Feel my tunic. I was on guard and could not find shelter in time.’

He held out an arm and Fidelma reached forward and touched it. It was still damp.

Luan continued: ‘The Brother arrived in dry clothes, within a short time of the heavy shower ending. So he could not have come far.’

‘You point is well taken, Luan,’ Fidelma said softly. ‘But even so, there could have been a logical explanation. I repeat: do not blame yourself. You may return to your duties.’

As soon as Luan had left the feasting hall, Fidelma turned to where the body of the assassin was still sprawled on the floor where it had fallen. Nearby was the body of Brehon Áedo.

‘I think we can have poor Áedo’s body removed to the chapel while we see if the murderer’s body can tell us something as to his identity,’ she suggested.

Brehon Aillín relayed the order to Caol, who summoned two attendants and instructed them to remove the body of the slain Chief Brehon of Muman. Aillín stood with Fidelma as she stared down at the body of the assassin before her. Then she knelt at his feet and, without touching anything, gazed at the man’s shoes. They were of the type called cuarán, shoes of leather with seven folds or layers to make the sole, which gave them the necessary thickness for hard wear. Unusually, the leather was stitched to cover a piece of wood to support the heel.

‘One thing is certain,’ she said. ‘Luan is correct. This man has not walked far in these shoes. They are fairly new and the leather on the soles has hardly been marked. They are of good craftsmanship, too. In no circumstances are they the footwear of a poor religieux. Oh, and can you see those score-marks on the leather on the inside parts of the sandals? What might that mean?’

Brehon Aillín pursed his lips. ‘That this fellow had some impediment in walking, one foot scraping the other?’

Fidelma shook her head. ‘We saw no such impediment when he walked into the feasting hall. There is another explanation – that the score-marks were made by stirrups when the man was mounted.’

Brehon Aillín looked a little embarrassed at this obvious deduction. ‘It is possible,’ he conceded.

Fidelma continued her examination. ‘The robes are ordinary religieux robes without adornment. They are of good quality wool and woven well, but nothing remarkable.’

‘Except that the robes are dry,’ muttered Brother Aillín, ‘as Luan duly noted.’

‘He wears a criss, a belt of cordage,’ Fidelma continued, ‘but nothing else. One might expect a purse to be attached, such as that worn by a religieux who is travelling. Now let us turn him over on his back and see what else we can find.’

They carefully turned the body onto its back.

Fidelma allowed Brother Aillín to make a quick search of the clothing but he moved back and sighed, ‘There is nothing hidden other than what you see, but I will observe that his undershirt is unusual.’

Fidelma leaned forward, and even before she felt the texture she could recognise the material. ‘Sróll?’ She did not hide her surprise.

‘Satin, indeed. A shirt of satin, not of flax or wool which most religieux would wear,’ confirmed the Brehon.

‘The clothing must be examined carefully to see if there are any marks of embroidery which might identify its origin,’ Fidelma told him. ‘It is strange that this man carries neither purse nor anything else that one would expect on a journey. So let us see what we can tell by his appearance.’

She gazed down at the face of her brother’s attacker. It was only now on close examination that she realised the dead man was only in his mid-twenties or so. His gaunt, sallow face had, at first glance, made him appear far older. The cheeks and upper lip were cleanshaven, but with that telltale bluish quality which indicated that he had to shave more frequently than most. The hair around his tonsure was thick and almost blue-black, as were his eyebrows. The eyes, vacantly staring upwards, were dark as well. Having observed their colour, Fidelma bent forward and closed them, trying to disguise her distaste for the task as the body had now begun to grow cold. Then she forced herself to touch the skin where the tonsure of St John had been shaved, after the manner of the Five Kingdoms rather than that of St Peter of Rome.

‘You note how his pate is pale – a white circle of skin that is at odds with the sallow and weather-tanned skin of his face and arms? I think this tonsure was but recently cut.’

‘You doubt that he was a religieux?’ asked Brehon Aillín.

‘You must admit, he has proved to be an unusual religieux,’ replied Fidelma dryly. ‘But we can make no such deduction as yet. We only remark that the tonsure is but recent. Now let us remove and examine his clothing and see what we can make of his body.’

‘His body?’ frowned Brehon Aillín.

‘The man can change his clothing, the cut of his hair – even his features to some extent – but he cannot disguise his body.’

‘Perhaps I should examine the body, lady,’ muttered Brehon Aillín uncomfortably.

‘I have seen and examined enough corpses in my time, Aillín, as you well know. I do not need anyone to spare my modesty.’

At that moment, Eadulf re-entered.

‘The King still lives,’ he announced, before anyone could ask the question. ‘The wound went deep but it is clean and there appears to be no infection. The bleeding has been halted and Brother Conchobhar is in constant attention. However, the King is still unconscious and perhaps that is a good thing, for sleep will help to heal the wound.’

Fidelma compressed her lips for a moment. The only question in her mind that Eadulf had not answered was one that no one could answer at that time: would Colgú live? She took in some deep breaths before she indicated the corpse.

‘You come at an opportune time, Eadulf, for we need your skills. We were just about to examine the body of the assassin.’

‘What of his words before he struck? Has anyone recognised them?’ They stared at him blankly for a moment.

‘Remember Liamuin!’ Eadulf reminded them. ‘Who is, or was, Liamuin? What does the name mean?’

‘It is not a common name,’ replied Fidelma, disconcerted that she had forgotten all about what the assassin had called out as he struck with his dagger.

‘It is a female name,’ replied Finguine. ‘Doesn’t it mean “the comely one”?’

‘Liamuin is an unusual name but not an exclusive one,’ Fidelma reiterated. ‘Anyway, let us continue our examination of the assassin, for I think we were about to come to a conclusion that he was not necessarily a religieux.’

‘There seems to be no identification on the man to show where he comes from,’ Brehon Aillín said. ‘He could be disguised as a religieux. Under his robe he wears a satin undershirt.’

Eadulf’s mouth twitched slightly to hide a cynical expression. ‘It is not exactly unknown for abbots, bishops and other wealthy prelates to clad themselves in such finery,’ he said.

‘But not a man purporting to be just a messenger and clad in simple robes as these,’ objected Brehon Aillín.

‘A point that is well taken,’ confirmed Eadulf. ‘Anything else?’

‘He has good shoes, hardly worn, that do not reflect any lengthy walking. They have scuff-marks that might indicate he rode a horse,’ replied Fidelma. ‘He was certainly not caught in the rain shower which occurred not long before he arrived here.’

‘And have you noticed the other curious thing?’ enquired Eadulf. Fidelma raised an eyebrow slightly, but said nothing.

‘So far as I saw, when he attacked Colgú and now as he lays before us, there was no crucifix around his neck. Neither one that showed his poverty nor one that showed rank. It is odd that a member of the Faith would be without a cross.’

Fidelma smiled approvingly. ‘A very good observation, Eadulf.’

Eadulf regarded the corpse for some time in silence before he realised that the others were waiting for him to make some further comment.

‘His hands show that he is no manual labourer for the skin is soft and the palms exceptionally so, for that is an area where manual work leaves an impression. The fingernails are carefully cut and rounded and,’ he took the right hand in his, pointing to the thumb and forefinger, ‘there is a dark stain here on the side of the thumb as well as the forefinger. I would say that it is ink. His hair is cut and his face shaven. All in all, I would say he was a man used to keeping up a good appearance.’

‘Anything else?’ asked Fidelma.

‘The main thing we must consider,’ Eadulf insisted, ‘is the name of the woman he shouted. Whoever she is, or was, it was meant to be recognised immediately by your brother. As this man struck him, he shouted: “Remember Liamuin!” Surely someone here should recognise that name and what it means?’

Copyright © 2014 by Peter Tremayne.

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Peter Tremayne is the fiction pseudonym of Peter Berresford Ellis, a renowned Celtic scholar who has written over 30 books on the Ancient Celts and the Irish. As Tremayne, he is best known for his stories and novels featuring 7th century Irish religieuse Fidelma of Cashel. He lives in London.

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