The Spider's Web

A Celtic Mystery

Mysteries of Ancient Ireland featuring Sister Fidelma of Cashel (Volume 5 of 25)

Peter Tremayne

Minotaur Books

Spider's Web
Chapter One
Thunder was rumbling around the high bald peaks of the mountains which spread from the central summit of Maoldomhnach's Hill, from which they took their name. An occasional bright flash silhouetted the rounded height, causing shadows to flit briefly across the valley of Araglin within its northern foothills. It was a dark night with storm clouds clustering and racing across the heaven, tumbling over each other as if blown in disarray by the powerful breath of the ancient gods.
On the high pastures, the shaggy-coated cattle huddled together, some bellowing fretfully now and then, not just to comfort themselves from the threatening storm but to warn one another of the prevailing scent of ravening wolves whose hungry packs haunted the dark woodlands which bordered the high meadows. In a corner of the pastures, well away from the cattle, a majestic stag stood as an anxious sentinel over his hinds and their calves. Now and then he would thrust his elaborately antlered head skyward and his sensitive nostrils would quiver. In spite of the darkness, the heavy clouds and threatening storm, the beast sensed the approach of dawn beyond the distant eastern peaks.
Below in the valley, by the dark, gurgling ribbon of a river, a group of unfortified buildings stood in complete darkness. No dogs were stirring at this hour and it was still too early for the cocks to herald the approach of a new day. Even the birds had not begun their dawn chorus and were still sheltering sleepily in the surrounding trees.
Yet one human was stirring at this dark hour; one person wasawakening at this hour of stillness when the world seemed dead and deserted.
Menma, the head stableman to Eber, chieftain of Araglin, a tall, ponderous man with a bushy red beard and a fondness for liquor, blinked and threw off the sheepskin from his straw palliasse bed. The occasional flash of lightning lit his solitary cabin. Menma groaned and shook his head as if the action would clear it from the effects of the previous night's drinking. He reached to a table and, with shaky hands, fumbled for the flint and tinder to light the tallow candle which stood upon it. Then he stretched his cramped limbs. In spite of his excessive drinking, Menma was possessed of a mysterious in-built sense of time. All his life he had risen in the dark hour before dawn no matter the lateness of the hour at which he had tumbled, in drunken stupor, into his bed.
The big man began his ritual morning cursing of all creation. Menma had a fondness for cursing. Some people began the day with a prayer, others by performing their morning's ablutions. Menma of Araglin began his day by cursing his master, the chieftain Eber, wishing upon him all manner of deaths by choking, by convulsion, by mangling, by dysentery, by poison, by drowning, by smothering and by any other means his meagre imagination could devise. And after he had exhausted such manner of ill-wishing on his master, Menma continued cursing his own existence, his parents for not being rich and powerful; cursing them for being only simple farming folk and thereby ordaining for him a role as a lowly stableman.
His own parents had been simple labourers on their richer cousins' farmsteads. They had not succeeded in life and had ordained Menma's own menial existence. Menma was a jealous and bitter man, unhappy with his lot in life.
Nevertheless, he rose automatically in the darkness of the early morning and drew on his clothes. He never bothered to wash nor comb the matted tangle of his shoulder-length, red-coloured hairand the great bush of his beard. A gulping draught of corma, the sickly mead that always stood in a jug by his bedside, was all the cleansing he deemed necessary to prepare him for the day. The stench of his body and garments proclaimed, to those near enough to inhale their malefic odour, that Menma and cleanliness were not compatible.
He shuffled to the door of his cabin and peered out, blinking up at the darken sky. The thunder still rumbled but he instinctively knew that it would not rain that day in the valley. The storm was on the other side of the mountains and moving along them east to west, keeping parallel to the valley of Araglin. It would not cross northward over the mountains. No; it would be a dry day even if cloudy and cool. The clouds obscured the stars so that he was unable to be precise about the time but he sensed, rather than saw, the pale line of dawn just below the distant eastern peaks.
The rath of the chieftain of Araglin still slumbered in the darkness. Although this was no more than an unfortified village, it was courtesy to call the dwelling of a chieftain a rath or fortress.
Menma stood at his door and now he began to softly curse the day itself. He resented the fact that everyone was able to sleep on but that he had to be the first to rise. And when he had finished with the day there was Araglin itself to be cursed and he did full justice to his scanty vocabulary.
He turned back into his cabin for a moment and blew out the candle before beginning to shuffle along the track that led between the peaceful buildings towards the chieftain's stables. He needed no candle for he had often walked that path before. His first task would be to turn the horses out to pasture, feed the chieftain's hunting hounds, and then to oversee the milking of the chieftain's cattle. And by the time the horses were out in the pasture and the hounds were fed, then the women of the household would be awake and coming to attend the milking. Milking was not a man's job and Menma would not demean himself by doing it. But there had been a cattle raid in the valley recently and Eber, the chieftain,had instructed him to check the milch herd before each milking. It was an affront to the honour of the chieftain that anyone would dare steal even a calf from his herd and Eber had been furious at the news that cattle raiders were threatening the peace of his clan lands. His warriors had scoured the countryside for the culprits but without success.
Menma approached the imposing dark outline of the hall of assembly, one of the few great large stone buildings within the ancient rath. The other stone building was Father Gormán's chapel. The stables were at the back of the rounded construction, just behind the guests' hostel. To approach the stables, Menma had to trudge a circular path around the wooden extensions to the stone hall which housed the private apartments of the chieftain and his family. Menma glanced at the buildings in jealousy. Eber would still be snoring in his bed until well after dawn.
Behind his veil of beard, Menna grinned lewdly. He wondered if anyone was sharing Eber's bed that night. Then he frowned angrily. Why Eber? Why not him? What was so special about Eber that he had wealth, power and was able to entice women into his bed? What fate had made him a humble stableman? Why ... ?
He paused in mid-stride, head to one side.
The darkness seemed soundless. The rath continued to slumber. High, high up among the distant hills came the long, drawn out howl of a wolf breaking the silence. No; it was not that which had caused him to halt. It had been some other noise. A noise he could not quite place.
He stood for a moment more but the silence remained. He was just about to dismiss the half heard sound as a trick of the wind when it came again.
A low, moaning sound.
Was it the wind?
Menma suddenly genuflected and shivered. God between him and all evil! Was it one of the dwellers in the hills? The people ofthe sídh; the little folk in search of souls to carry below into their dark caverns?
There came a sudden shriek, not loud but sharp enough to make Menma start, his heart increasing its beat for several seconds. Then the low moaning came again. This time it was a little stronger and more sustained.
Menma looked around him. Nothing stirred among the dark shadows of the buildings. No one else seemed to have heard the noise. He tried to locate its origin. It came from the direction of the apartments of Eber himself. In spite of its ethereal quality, Menma could now identify it as human in origin. He sighed in relief for, as brutal in his views of the world as he was, nevertheless, it did not bode well to go up against the folk of the sídh if they were intent on soul-stealing. He glanced quickly about. The building appeared dark and tranquil. Was Eber ill? He frowned, undecided what to do. Eber was his chieftain, come what may, and Menma had a duty to his chieftain. A duty which not even his bitterness could cause him to neglect.
He cautiously made his way to the door of Eber's apartments and tapped softly.
'Eber? Are you ill? Do you require assistance?' he called gently.
There was no reply. He tapped again, a little louder. When there was still no response, he summoned courage and lifted the latch. The door was not secured, not that he expected it to be. No one secured their doors in the rath of the chieftain of Araglin. He moved inside. He had no trouble adjusting his eyes to the darkness. The room which he had entered was empty. He knew from previous experience that Eber's apartments consisted of two rooms. The first room, in which he stood, was called 'the place of conversation', which was a private reception room for the chieftain, where he discreetly entertained special guests, away from the public gaze of the hall of assembly. Beyond this room was the chieftain's bed chamber.
Menma, having ascertained the first room to be empty, turned towards it.
The first thing he noticed was a glow of light from beneath the door. The second thing that registered with him was the rising sound of the moaning beyond the door.
'Eber!' he called sharply. 'Is there anything wrong? It is I, Menma the stableman.'
There was no reply and the moaning sound did not diminish.
He moved across to the door and rapped sharply.
Hesitating only for a moment, he entered.
A lamp was lit on a small table. Menma blinked rapidly to adjust his vision. He was aware of someone kneeling by the bed, someone in a hunched posture, rocking back and forth and whimpering. They were the source of the low moaning sound that he had been hearing. He was aware of the dark stains on the clothes of the figure. Then his eyes widened a fraction. They were blood stains and there was something flashing and glinting in the lamplight, something that the person was clutching in their hands. It was a long bladed dagger.
For a moment, Menma stood immobile, fascinated by the spectacle.
Then he realised that there was a second person in the room. Someone was lying in the bed beside which the moaning figure was kneeling.
Menma stood a pace forward.
Sprawled on the bed, naked except for the coverlets twisted around him, was the blood-smeared body of Eber the chieftain. One hand was thrown casually back behind his head. The eyes were wide and staring and seemed alive in the flickering of the lamplight. The chest was a mess of bloody wounds. Menma had seen enough animals slaughtered not to recognise the jagged tearing of injuries caused by a knife. The knife must have been frenziedly plunged, again and again, into the chest of the chieftain of Araglin.
Menma half raised his hand to genuflect but then dropped it.
'Is he dead?' he demanded hollowly.
The figure beside the bed continued to rock back and forth moaning. It did not look up.
Menma took another step forward and gazed dispassionately downwards. Then he moved closer, dropping to one knee and reaching towards the pulse in the chieftain's neck. The body already felt cool and clammy. Now that he looked more closely into the eyes, and the lamplight played no tricks with them, he could see that they were set and glazed.
Menma drew himself up and stared down in distaste. He hesitated, feeling that in spite of the evidence of his eyes, he had to make sure that Eber was dead. He raised a foot to nudge at the body with the toe of his boot. There was no response. Then he raised his foot and lashed viciously out at the side of the body. No, he was not mistaken. Eber, the chieftain, was dead.
Menma turned his gaze to the still moaning figure, which was still clutching the knife. He began to laugh harshly. He suddenly realised that he, Menma the stableman, was going to be rich and powerful just like the cousins he had envied all his life.
He was still chuckling when he left the chieftain's apartments and set off in search of Duban, the commander of Eber's bodyguard.
THE SPIDER'S WEB. Copyright © 1997 by Peter Tremayne. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.