The Second Death by Peter Tremayne is the 26th book in the Mysteries of Ancient Ireland series (Available July 26, 2016).
Ireland, A.D. 671. It is the beginning of the summer season and the Kingdom of Muman is preparing to celebrate the Great Fair of Cashel. It is an extravagant nine days of contests, food, and endless entertainment. Circumstances have led Fidelma and Eadulf far and wide across the kingdom, and they have been absent from the Great Fair for many years. But, for once they haven't been called away from Cashel, and are eager to enjoy the festivities – that is, until the last wagon in a group traveling to the fair catches on fire. The driver dies and it appears that the driver was a woman disguised a boy, for reasons unknown. Eadulf, upon further inspection, finds an even more disconcerting discovery – a rotting corpse in back of the wagon. Now, with only a week left to the fair, it is up to Fidelma and Eadulf to solve the mystery in time.
The line of half a dozen or so gaudily painted wagons, some pulled by patient mules and others by oxen, wound its way along the Slíge Dála, the main highway which ran from Tara in the north-east, all the way to Cashel, capital of Muman, the most south-westerly of the Five Kingdoms of Éireann. On a small rise overlooking the ‘Way of the Blind’ – a road so-called because it was said that it was so well built, even the blind could travel it in safety – two figures on horseback watched the wagons moving slowly along its broad stretch.
‘Where are they off to?’ demanded Brother Eadulf, surprise in his voice for he and his fellow traveller had only just breasted the rise and spotted the procession.
The young warrior at his side, Aidan, a member of the King of Muman’s élite bodyguard, the Warriors of the Golden Collar, replied indifferently, ‘To Cashel, I dare say, friend Eadulf. Where else would they be going at this time of year?’
‘But for what purpose?’ Eadulf was irritated for he knew well where the Slíge Dála ended. Had he not ridden its entire length from Cashel to Tara and back again only a few years before? Yet Aidan’s answer implied that he should know something more.
‘Have you forgotten that in a few days it will be Bealtaine, the Feast of the Fires of Bel?’
Eadulf frowned, still trying to make a connection. ‘Therefore?’ he prompted.
‘Why, it is the day of the Oenach, the Great Fair of Cashel, to mark the start of the pastoral summer season.’
A memory stirred. ‘I had forgotten,’ Eadulf admitted. ‘You see, I have never been in Cashel during the festival time. The Fates have always placed Fidelma and me in many other parts of the world when the fair has been held.’
‘Then you will enjoy it for the first time,’ Aidan said warmly. ‘The fair lasts nine days in which there are athletic sporting contests of all sorts, such as archery, and demonstrations of prowess with arms, horse racing, feats of skill from professional entertainers, feasting, assemblies presided over by the King and his Chief Brehon … why, even the great fairs of Taillteann, Tlachtga and Carman pale into insignificance compared with our fair.’
Eadulf smiled at the young man’s boastful enthusiasm and turned his attention back to the line of wagons moving steadily south-west along the great road of timber planking, placed directly over the low-lying and boggy marshlands. On firmer terrain, roads were built differently. They were formed of impacted earth and stone, but through bogland the ingenuity and sophistication of the road-builders was apparent. The road was laid with birch runners traversed by large oak planks, the latters’ weight keeping the runners in place and providing a broad and level surface – to the extent that two wagons could pass each other at speed. The road could cross waterlogged areas in the manner of a pontoon, or cross streams and rivers by means of wooden or stone bridges. As Eadulf had discovered, their building and maintenance were strictly governed by law, and the responsibility for the upkeep of the roads lay with the local chieftain.
Eadulf knew that from this spot where he and Aidan had halted, the road ran on for another twenty or so kilometres to the great Rock of Cashel, which reared above the plains and on which the fortress of Colgú the King dominated the surrounding countryside. As the road moved through this marshland, here and there little hillocks rose out of the bog, like islands rising from the sea. And the bogland could be just as treacherous and unforgiving as the sea to those who missed their way and were sucked into its greedy maws. And even if he had forgotten that it was soon to be the feast day of the Fires of Bel, the ancient God of Light, he should have been reminded by the mass of yellow flowers, symbolic of ‘fire’, that were now bursting into life across the countryside: broom, bog myrtle, marsh-marigolds, even hawksweed appeared here and there.
On the far side of the highway stood a bog island that he recognised because it seemed to be a mass of impenetrable oak trees made even darker by the overgrowth of ivy that clung everywhere. It was called Daire Eidnech – the Ivied Oak Grove. He knew that among those oaks was a small religious community which had been established a hundred years before by the Blessed Ruadhán of Lothra.
A series of short sharp bird-calls caused him to glance up at the pale late-spring sun. He saw the small, hovering bird with its familiar grey and russet feathers, as the kestrel began dropping down on its prey. A hare was leaping away at that moment, and even if the kestrel had been large enough to deal with the mammal, its element of surprise was gone. Eadulf noted the animal’s escape with a certain amount of satisfaction. He briefly wondered why local hares did not dig burrows as they did in his own land. The hares here made their form, or lair, in an oval-shaped hollow within a moss hummock. Even as he formed the question, the obvious answer came to him: it was impossible to dig a dry burrow in the wet bogland.
‘We should join the main highway, friend Eadulf, if we wish to get to Cashel before dark,’ Aidan said, interrupting his thoughts, gesturing towards the position of the sun.
Eadulf acknowledged this with a nod of his head and nudged his placid grey-white cob, with its black patch on the forehead, down the rise, keeping to the small dry track that they had been following through the marsh in order to join up with the larger highway. It was not difficult to follow the path which wound its way across the hummocks, but one had to be extra careful in places, since it would be dangerous to miss one’s footing, with the marshland clawing on either side. Even a path such as this, only big enough for one horse to move in single file, was listed in law, and neighbouring chieftains were deemed responsible for seeing to its maintenance.
It took the two men some time to negotiate their way onto the main highway, where they paused for a moment.
‘We should be home well before sundown,’ Aidan said confidently. ‘The way is easy from here so we can increase the pace, if you wish. The horses won’t tire on this firm surface, and it’s not far now.’
Eadulf replied with an immediate shake of his head. It was only with extreme reluctance that he made any journeys at all on horseback, even when the mount was placid of temper, like his cob.
‘We’ll keep to a steady pace,’ he said. ‘There’s plenty of time.’
They set off, relaxing in the afternoon light for, weak as it was, the sun was still warming to the body. They had soon covered a few kilometres, with the ground rising gradually away from the marshland and the more dominant hills now appearing to the south and west. It was as they were coming through an area of sparse woodland that they saw the pall of smoke ahead and smelled the bitter odour of burning on the faint breeze that wafted in their direction. As they followed the roadway, curving through the wood, they came across a long stretch of the highway. Ahead of them, the line of wagons which they had seen previously was halted to one side of the road.
It was obvious what had caused the pall of smoke. The last wagon in the line was still wreathed in it, although there was no fire. A group of men and women surrounded it; many of them were still carrying buckets, others holding brooms of bound twigs or blankets. The pair of oxen that had been hauling the burned wagon had been unharnessed and led some distance along the road to safety. Now it seemed an argument was ensuing among those who had been putting out the fire. There was shouting and fierce gesticulating.
Aidan increased his horse’s pace to a trot to bring him swiftly to the scene. The sound of the approaching horses made the band of people turn and those arguing to fall silent as they watched Aidan and Eadulf come nearer.
‘Is anyone hurt?’ Aidan called as he halted his mount. The actual fire did not appear to have been a bad one, fortunately.
No one replied for the moment but several people glanced to one of their number, a tall, broad-shouldered man, who was obviously their leader. He looked like a blacksmith, with bare forearms and a leather jerkin which did little to disguise his muscular arms. His pale blue eyes contrasted with his dark, curly hair.
‘Who are you?’ he demanded rudely. Then his eyes fell on the golden torc around Aidan’s neck. ‘I am sorry, Warrior,’ he muttered, obviously recognising the emblem of the Nasc Niadh, the Bodyguard of the Muman King.
‘And you are?’ Aidan asked equally curtly.
‘I am Baodain, the leader of the Cleasamnaig Baodain. You may have heard of us?’
‘Baodain’s Performers?’ Aidan echoed.
‘We are entertainers going to Cashel for the great festival.’
‘That much I have guessed.’ Aidan gestured at the burned wagon. ‘I ask again, is anyone hurt? Can we be of help?’
Baodain looked nervously at his companions before replying, ‘The driver of the wagon has been overcome by the fumes.’
Eadulf had been gazing at the wagon with interest, since it was an unusual type for the country. It was a four-wheeled, enclosed vehicle with a curving wooden roof of the type he had seen in Gaul. In Rome these wagons, still called by their Gaulish name of rheda, were often adapted for carrying entire families to their summer villas outside the city. They could hold six people seated, with luggage. The wagon was not badly burned and, in fact, it seemed that the burn-marks were restricted to the area where the driver sat. The back of the wagon was like a wooden hut on wheels and it appeared to be untouched.
Eadulf turned with a frown to the man who called himself Baodain.
‘How badly is the driver injured?’
Baodain shrugged indifferently.
‘The driver is dead!’ a woman’s voice called, and the crowd all turned in that direction. She was standing at the rear of the next wagon, and Eadulf could see that she was young and attractive.
He swung off his horse. ‘I will examine his body.’
Baodain immediately blocked his way. ‘We want no interference from a foreign religieux,’ he grunted, having identified Eadulf’s accent as not of the country. ‘We will take care of this matter ourselves.’
Aidan leaned forward on his horse, his hand moving to the hilt of his sword and easing it in the scabbard in an unmistakable gesture. ‘This is Eadulf, husband to the lady Fidelma, sister to King Colgú of Cashel. You will accept his authority, and if you do not, then you will be answerable to mine. I am Aidan, Acting Commander of the King’s Bodyguard.’
Baodain hesitated a moment as if he would contest the order and then, with a sigh, he stepped backwards. At this gesture, the others moved back too, forming a pathway to where Eadulf could see a body stretched out beside the next wagon further down the line. Eadulf walked quickly over to where it lay face down on the muddy path. It was clear that the flames had caught the left side of the body. Trying to hide his distaste at the injuries and the curious smell like roasting pork, he knelt down beside the corpse, which was that of a boy, clad in a rough homespun cloak now partially burned away. The feet seemed quite small, for one leather sandal had come off his foot and now lay by it. The woollen hood was intact and covered most of his head.
Eadulf gently pushed the body over on its back. The hood fell away, and as it did so, he gasped aloud in surprise. The side of the face undamaged by the flames was clearly that of a young woman. Even in death, she was pretty; her face was heart-shaped, the skin pale – but there seemed a faint animation remaining to it as if, at any moment, the dead girl would open her eyes and smile at him.
Eadulf’s lips compressed as he sought to control his emotion. That violent death should come to a young girl with such beauty was always harder to take than death in the elderly and ugly. One immediate thing puzzled him. The burn-marks on her left side were not sufficiently bad, in his judgement, to cause death. Pain and shock, yes – perhaps it was shock that had killed her? His keen eyes now examined the body for any other obvious wounds. There were none. Death had certainly occurred very recently yet the lips had already gone purple and the facial muscles exhibited some degree of rigidity. He swiftly checked to see if there were any means of identification on her person. There did not seem to be anything. The clothes told him little, but he did notice something tucked into one of the sandals. It was a small piece of folded vellum, no bigger than one’s palm.
Surreptitiously, he unfolded and glanced at it – and immediately felt frustrated. The writing was in the ancient calligraphy called Ogham, consisting of short lines drawn to or crossing, a base line. He had never bothered to learn it as it had long fallen out of general use, and even the language was an archaic one called bérla na filed, ‘the language of the poets’. He could make nothing from the collection of lines, so refolded the vellum and placed it in the small leather pouch he always carried attached to his belt. Finally he stood up and looked towards Baodain and the others who had gathered around.
‘You did not tell me that the driver was a woman,’ he said.
Those gathered around let out gasps of astonishment, and Baodain himself moved forward and stared down at the corpse.
‘That was because I did not know.’ His surprise was undisguised. ‘She was dressed as a boy and claimed to be such. She was alone with her wagon.’
‘And now she is dead,’ Eadulf added in a heavy voice. ‘What did she call herself?’
‘The boy – girl – gave no name to me.’
‘She was part of your troupe,’ Eadulf pointed out. ‘Are you telling me that you did not even know what name the dead girl went by?’
‘He – she – was not part of the troupe,’ protested Baodain. ‘The boy – er, the girl – was a stranger among us. She only joined us at midday today. As for the rest of us, we all know each other, and some of us are related to one another.’
‘Where has your band come from?’
‘We have been on the road for many weeks now,’ Baodain replied evasively.
‘From where?’ Eadulf pressed.
‘We were performing at the Fair of Uisneach.’
Eadulf had heard of Uisneach, which by all accounts was the epicentre of the Five Kingdoms: all borders met at the Aill na Mireann, the Stone of Divisions. The latter was a great standing stone that had been erected there in what was called ‘the time before time’. Technically, it was in Midhe, the Middle Kingdom, and the very place where once the High Kings were inaugurated before they moved their capital to Tara.
‘So you came south through Laigin before you joined this highway. Did you join at Durlus or come by way of Cill Cainnech?’
‘You appear to know the geography of this land well, Brother Foreigner,’ Baodain commented rather insolently.
Ignoring him, Eadulf said, ‘I am trying to find out where exactly this girl took up with you.’
‘As I said, it was about midday, when we were halting to water our animals at the little patch called the Township of Peat. It is not too far from the road that leads to Durlus Éile. It is—’
‘I know where it is,’ Eadulf said grimly. ‘How and why did she join you?’
Baodain’s mouth twitched in annoyance, but glancing at Aidan, he continued after a pause: ‘We were halted by the stream there and, as I say, were watering the animals, when this wagon…’ he gestured at the strange vehicle ‘… came through the patch of woodland along a minor track.’
‘From which direction?’
‘From the north.’
‘Did that track lead from anywhere in particular?’
It was Aidan who intervened. ‘Any of those tracks would lead across the great marshlands, friend Eadulf. It’s not good country to drive a wagon through, as most of the tracks are too narrow. However, a track might lead from Durlus Éile.’
‘So the wagon came along this track from the northern marshland to where your wagons were.’ Eadulf turned to Baodain for confirmation. ‘What then?’
‘As I say, the driver gave the impression that he was a young boy. He gave no name, nor did he say from whence he came, but said that he was making for Cashel and could he follow us, for it was better to travel in company than alone. There was no reason to refuse him. It is our custom, where possible, for wagons to band together along the highways in case of robbers. The boy, as we thought him to be, was not overly talkative and, indeed, after we started our journey, there was no need for any conversation. We proceeded at a steady pace along the roadway to Cashel and all was quiet until, a short while ago, the fire halted us and then you came.’
Eadulf stared for a moment towards the driver’s seat of the wagon where the fire had taken hold.
‘One would presume that she leaped from the wagon when the flames erupted and must have run several paces to get here, to this point, where she fell and died. Does anyone know how the fire started?’
One of the men stepped forward, a sallow-faced fellow with sandy hair. ‘From what I saw, the girl must have accidentally set fire to something and then got caught by the flames. She then had to jump off the wagon to save herself.’
‘And what is your name?’ asked Eadulf.
‘I am Ronchú. My wife and I,’ he gave an automatic nod to the attractive young woman who had informed them of the dead driver, ‘we were driving the next wagon along. I am merely guessing how the fire began, but it is the logical explanation.’
‘So no one saw how it started?’
‘I was driving the leading wagon,’ Baodain said defensively. ‘No one knew anything until those behind alerted us to the fact that this last wagon was on fire. We halted and ran to put out the flames. It was difficult, for water seemed to have little effect. We finally had to beat it out with brooms.’
‘When was the body noticed?’ Eadulf asked.
Once again it fell to Baodain to offer information. ‘I saw the body lying there when I ran back, but thought the boy had merely been overcome by smoke. I shouted for someone to take care of him – but we had only just extinguished the flames when you and the warrior appeared. We did not have time to examine the body.’
Eadulf glanced around and was met by several nodding heads.
‘It is as Baodain says, Brother,’ said one burly-looking woman. ‘Our priority was to put out the fire.’
Eadulf walked over to the last wagon and stood looking at it. The first things that caught his attention were the streaks of black across parts of the driver’s seat. A half-burned wooden bucket lay on its side by the seat: it had clearly contained the same black matter. It reminded Eadulf of the glue-like material which sailors used between the planks of their boats to caulk them and make them watertight. He knew that it could be quite flammable. He became aware of the man named Ronchú standing gazing at the wagon over his shoulder.
‘Looks like the boy was carrying a bucket of that flammable stuff and it caught alight,’ the man observed.
Meanwhile, Aidan was looking at the sky. ‘It will soon be dark,’ he said ‘and a road across the marshland is not the best place to halt a large wagon train to conduct an enquiry.’ Seeing a frown gathering on Eadulf’s brow, he added: ‘I mean that perhaps we should accompany these wagons to Cashel, where a proper investigation can be conducted.’
Eadulf could see the logic in the suggestion. Certainly, some identification of the victim had to be attempted, but at the moment, the tragedy seemed like a straightforward accident.
‘The basic frame, the axles and wheels are still strong and undamaged,’ Baodain said. ‘We could harness the oxen back to the yoke and drive the wagon into Cashel so that it could be examined it there.’
‘Very well,’ replied Eadulf. ‘While you put the beasts back in harness, I shall take a look inside the wagon in case there is a means of identifying who this unfortunate girl is.’
The four-wheeled wagon was familiar to him. He had travelled in one through Gaul when he was journeying to Rome. Usually there was a central door on either side, with open windows on each side of the door. With this wagon, however, the windows had been filled in with fixed wooden panels. Eadulf went to the door on the right side to take hold of the handle. Then he saw that it had been fastened from the outside with a piece of rope secured with a tight knot. He went to the door on the other side and found it fastened even more securely, as if with a carpenter’s skill. It seemed a curious thing to do to a good wagon.
He called on Aidan to sever the rope on the accessible door with his sword, then opened the door and hauled himself inside to survey the dark interior. The stench he encountered – a pungent combination of human body odours, stale urine and rotting vegetation – was nauseating. Eadulf stepped back, reaching out a hand to steady himself from falling off the vehicle, and turned away to gulp in fresh air.
Behind him, Baodain uttered a sardonic chuckle at the sight of his ashen face and expression of distaste. ‘You look pale, Saxon. Aren’t you used to the way travelling folk live?’
Aidan moved Eadulf aside and stepped up in his place. ‘She must have kept a pig in there,’ he snapped. ‘It smells disgusting. Strange, since she did not look like the sort of woman who would live in filth. But with this mess, it’s no wonder she kept the doors of the wagon securely fastened.’
Eadulf wore a grim expression. His voice was sombre. ‘I am afraid that is the smell of a decaying human body, my friend. I have encountered the same smell in catacombs and graveyards. Someone fetch me a lamp, please.’
There was a silence and Aidan stepped down. Someone appeared with an oil lamp which was handed to Eadulf. Holding the light aloft, Eadulf advanced once more into the gloomy, grime-encrusted interior, while Aidan stood guard on the step behind him. The only word to describe the scene inside was chaos. It looked as if a storm had blasted through it, turning everything upside down. There was a mound in the centre covered by a dark blanket. Eadulf bravely plucked the cover away. Beneath it lay a corpse.
Steeling himself, Eadulf bent down to examine the putrid-smelling body. It was that of a man. Whoever this person had been, he must have died several days ago. The flesh was receding from the bones and the odours of putrescence were almost overpowering. It was that sickly smell that Eadulf had recognised, having encountered it several times before. There was enough of the corpse intact to show that it had been a youthful male, and the bits and pieces of clothing attached to it, revealed that the fellow had been well clad, his leather sandals well made. Eadulf could see that the hairline on the decomposing head was further back than normal, and it occurred to him that it might be the tonsure of the Blessed John; the western churches had adopted this in preference to the corona spinea.
For a long time he stared at the hairline until Aidan, peering into the wagon behind him, called: ‘What is it, friend Eadulf? What have you found?’
Eadulf began to back out of the wagon. Aidan reached out and helped him down.
‘There is a second death,’ Eadulf replied. ‘A second corpse. There will have to be an investigation when we get to Cashel, but in this case it will not be a matter of death from an accidental fire.’
‘Who is it?’ demanded Baodain.
Eadulf swung his troubled glance from Baodain to Aidan and then back again. ‘This body appears to be that of a religieux.’
Copyright © 2016 Peter Tremayne.
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Peter Tremayne is a pseudonym of Peter Berresford Ellis, a renowned scholar who has written extensively on the ancient Celts and the Irish. As Tremayne, he is best known for his stories and novels featuring Fidelma of Cashel. He lives in London.