Smoke in the Wind

A Mystery of Ancient Ireland

Mysteries of Ancient Ireland featuring Sister Fidelma of Cashel (Volume 11 of 25)

Peter Tremayne

Minotaur Books

 
Smoke in the Wind
Chapter One
The girl looked as if she were merely resting among the bracken lying with one arm thrown carelessly behind her head the other extended at her side. Her pale, attractive features seemed relaxed; the eyes, with their dark lashes, were closed; the lips were partially opened showing fine, white teeth. Her dark hair formed a sharp contrast to the pallid texture of the skin.
It was only by the thin line of blood, which had trickled from the corner of her mouth before congealing, and the fact that her facial skin seemed discoloured, mottled with red fading into blue, that one could see she was not resting naturally. From that, together with her torn, bloodstained, dirty clothing, a discerning observer might realise that something was clearly wrong.
The youth stood before the body, gazing down at it without expression. He was thin, wiry, with ginger hair and a freckled face, but carrying a tan which seemed to indicate that he was used to being outside in most weathers. His lips were too red and full, making his features slightly ugly by the imbalance. His pale eyes were fixed on the body of the girl. He was dressed in a sleeveless sheepskin jacket, fastened by a leather belt. Thick homespun trousers and leather leggings gave him the appearance of a shepherd.
A deep, long sigh came from his parted lips; a soft whistling sound.
‘Ah, Mair, why? Why, Mair?’
The words came like a curious sob yet his expression did not alter.
He stayed there with fixed gaze for a few more moments until the sound of shouting came to his ears. He raised his head sharply, tilting it slightly to one side in a listening attitude, and his features changed. A wild, hunted expression came on his face. People were moving in his direction. Their cries came clearly to his ears, moving closer and closer through the surrounding trees. He could hear them beating through the gorse and bracken.
The youth glanced once more at the body of the girl and then turned quickly away from the approaching sounds.
He had gone barely ten or twenty metres when a blow across the shoulders felled him to the ground. The momentum of the blow caused him to pitch forward. He dropped on his hands and knees, gasping for breath.
A burly man had emerged from concealment behind a tree, still holding the thick wood cudgel in his hand. He was dark, thickset and full-bearded. He stood, feet apart, above the youth, the cudgel in his hands, ready and threatening.
‘On your feet, Idwal,’ the man growled. ‘Or I shall strike you while you are still on your knees.’
The boy looked up, still smarting from the pain of the blow. ‘What do you want with me, lord Gwnda?’ he wailed. ‘I have done you no harm.’
The dark-haired man frowned angrily. ‘Don’t play games with me, boy!’
He gestured back along the path, towards the body of the girl. As he did so a group of men came bursting through the trees onto the forest path behind them. Some of them saw the body of the girl and howls of rage erupted from them.
‘Here!’ yelled the dark-haired man, his eyes not leaving the youth, his cudgel still ready. ‘Here, boys! I have him. I have the murderer’.
The newcomers, voices raised with fresh anger and violence, came running towards the kneeling youth who now started to sob as he saw his death in their expressions.
‘I swear, by the Holy Virgin I swear I did not—’
A sharp kick from one of the leading men landed on the side of the boy’s head. It sent him sprawling and, mercifully, into unconsciousness because several others among the new arrivals started to kick viciously at his body.
‘Enough!’ shouted the dark-haired man called Gwnda. ‘I know you are full of grief and anger, but this must be done according to the law. We will take him back to the township and send for the barnwr.’
‘What need have we of a judge, Gwnda?’ cried one of the men. ‘Don’t we have the evidence of our own eyes? Didn’t I see Idwal and poor Mair with voices raised in fierce argument only a short time ago? There was violence in Idwal, if ever I saw it.’
The black-bearded man shook his head. ‘It shall be done according to law, Iestyn. We will send for the barnwr, a learned judge from the abbey of Dewi Sant.’

 

 
The monk was young and walked with that confident, rapid stride of youth along the pathway through the encompassing forest. He wore his winter cloak wrapped tight against the early morning chill and his thick blackthorn staff was carried not so much as an aid to walking but to be turned, at a moment’s notice, into a weapon of defence. The woods of Ffynnon Druidion, the Druid’s well, were notorious for the highway thieves who lurked within its gloomy recesses.
Brother Cyngar was not really worried, merely cautious in spite of his confident gait. Early dawn on this bright autumnal day was, he felt, a time when all self-respecting thieves would still be sleeping off the excessive alcohol of the previous evening. Surely no thief would be abroad and looking for victims at such an hour? Not even the infamous Clydog Cacynen who haunted the woods; Clydog the Wasp, he was called, for he stung when least expected. A notorious outlaw. It was fear of meeting Clydog Cacynen that caused Brother Cyngar to choose this hour to make his way through the wood, having spent the previous night at a woodsman’s cottage by the old standing stone.
There was frost lying like a white carpet across the woodland. Behind the soft white clouds, a weak winter’s sun was obviously trying to extend its rays. The woodland seemed colourless. The leaves had fallen early for there had been several cold spells in spite of its not being late in the season. Only here and there were clumps of evergreens such as the dark holly trees with the females carrying their bright red berries. There were also some common alders with their brown, woody cones which had, only a short time before, been ripened catkins, and a few silver birch. But everything was dominated by the tall, bare and gaunt sessile oaks.
Now and again, along the track that he was following, Brother Cyngar espied crampball clinging to fallen trunks of ash; curious black and inedible fungi which he had once heard prevented night cramp if placed in one’s bed before sleeping. Cyngar had the cynicism of youth and smiled at the thought of such a thing.
The woods were stirring with life now. He saw a common shrew, a tiny brown creature, race out of a bush in front of him, skid to a halt and sniff. Its poor eyesight was made up for by its keen sense of smell. It caught his scent at once, gave a squeak, and then disappeared within a split second.
As it did so, high above came the regretful call of a circling red kite who must have spotted the tiny, elusive creature even through the canopy of bare branches and, had it not been for Brother Cyngar’s appearance, might have taken it as its breakfast.
Only once did Brother Cyngar start and raise his stick defensively at a nearby ominous rustling. He relaxed almost immediately as he caught sight of the orange-brown fur coat with white spots and broad blade antlers that denoted a solitary fallow deer which turned and bounded away through the undergrowth to safety.
Finally, Brother Cyngar could see, along the path ahead of him, the trees gradually giving way to an open stretch of bracken-strewn hillside. He began to sense a feeling of relief that the major dark portions of the wood were now behind him. He even paused, laid down his stick and took out his knife as he spotted an array of orange at the edge of the footpath. He bent down and carefully inspected the fungus with its white, downy underside. It was not difficult to recognise this edible species which many ate raw or soaked in honey-mead. The little harvest was too good to miss and Brother Cyngar gathered it into the small marsupium he wore on his belt.
He rose, picked up his stick again and began to walk on with the renewed energy which comes with knowing one’s objective is almost in sight.
On the far side of the next hill lay the community of Llanpadern, the sacred enclosure of the Blessed Padern, where nearly thirty brothers of the faith lived and worked in devotion to the service of God. It was to this community that Brother Cyngar was travelling. He planned to seek hospitality there, an opportunity to break his fast, before continuing his journey on to the famous abbey of Dewi Sant on Moniu, which some Latinised as Menevia. The abbey was the authority over all the religious communities of the kingdom of Dyfed. Brother Cyngar had been entrusted with messages for Abbot Tryffin by his own Father Superior. He had left on his journey shortly after noon on the previous day and hence his overnight stop at the woodsman’s cottage, after completing nearly twenty kilometres of his journey, before venturing through the notorious woods of Ffynnon Druidion. He had left the woodsman’s cottage too early for breakfast but, knowing that the hospitality of Llanpadern was a byword among pilgrims journeying south to Moniu, he did not mind delaying his morning meal.
Brother Cyngar walked entirely at ease now. The sun, while not exactly breaking through the clouds, was warm enough to dispel the early morning frost. Birds wheeled and darted about the skies on their many food-gathering tasks and the air was filled with their cacophony; plaintive, angry, argumentative, depending on their natures.
He came over the shoulder of the bare rocky hill called Carn Gelli. On its height stood a heap of stones, one raised upon another, to denote an ancient grave, which gave the place its name. Brother Cyngar halted and, from the vantage point, peered down into the valley beyond. A short distance below him was the grey stone complex of buildings. Smoke drifted reassuringly from a central chimney. He walked down the pathway, his speed increasing, his body propelled more by the steepness of the path than a desire to reach the gates in a hurry.
As he followed the path to the main gates of the community he noticed, surprisingly, that they stood open and deserted. This fact made him frown. It was unusual, even at this early hour, for it was the custom of the brethren of Llanpadern to be out in the surrounding fields, beginning their work at first light even on such a cold autumnal day as this one. There was usually some activity about the gates and the fields.
He came to a halt at the gates, compelled by a sudden feeling of unease. No one stood in attendance. After a moment’s delay, he went to the wooden pole to ring the bronze bell which hung there. The chime echoed eerily but there was no movement in answer; no responding sound followed the dying peal; there was no sign of anyone beyond.
Brother Cyngar waited a few moments and then caused the bell to send out its clanging demand again, this time ensuring that its peal was long and insistent. Still there was no response.
He moved slowly inside the deserted courtyard and looked round.
Everywhere was as quiet as a tomb.
In the centre of the courtyard stood a great pyramid of branches and logs piled high as if waiting to be ignited into an immense bonfire. The dry wood was structured so that it stood fully four metres or more in height. The young man rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he examined it.
He suppressed the shiver that threatened to send its icy finger down his spine. He marched across the quadrangle to the chapel door and swung it open. The chapel was shrouded in gloom, in spite of the brightness of the morning. Not even the altar candles were alight. He could discern nothing among the shadows.
Having been a visitor to the community on several occasions, Brother Cyngar knew the layout of the community’s buildings, and turned through a small door which he knew led to the main living quarters. The brethren shared one large dormitory that now stretched before him. The beds were all neat, tidy and undisturbed. Their occupants had either risen very early and made them or not slept in them at all during the previous night.
Brother Cyngar’s lips had become slightly dry and his feeling of disquiet began to grow as he walked between the rows of empty beds. Some unconscious prompting caused him to move lightly on the stone-flagged floors, trying not to let his leather sandals make a sound.
Beyond the dormitory was the refectory, the communal dining room.
It was deserted, as he now expected it would be. But he was not expecting the manner of its desertion. It was lit by several flickering, smoking candles and, to his amazement, Brother Cyngar observed that each place was laid, each platter contained a half-eaten meal. By these platters, knives and spoons were laid down as if the eater had been disturbed. Jugs and beakers containing water and wine stood at each place setting.
A sound made him start nervously and drop his blackthorn stick with a loud clatter on the floor. A few feet away on the table, a black rat dragged a piece of food from a platter and went bounding away with it. With mouth firmly compressed to keep his lips from trembling, Brother Cyngar bent down to retrieve his stick.
There seemed no disarray anywhere to explain why the meal appeared to have been deserted halfway through the eating of it. Stools and benches were pushed back as if everyone had risen, but he saw nothing that indicated any confusion or panic. He walked up and down the tables searching for something to account for the scene that met his incredulous eyes.
He realised that the candles were burning low and deduced that they must have been alight for a long time before he arrived because, in one or two places, the candle grease had spilled onto the wooden table top. This must have been the evening meal and, so it seemed to Brother Cyngar, at a given moment, before the meal had ended, the brethren had simply stood up, leaving everything in an orderly manner, and … and vanished! Brother Cyngar exhaled sharply. This time he could not suppress the shiver.
Steeling himself, he turned and began to explore the rest of the buildings of the community, one by one. The quarters of the Father Superior were neat and tidy, the bed not slept in, and, again, there was no sign of any commotion to account for the disappearance of the occupant. The tiny scriptorum was also undisturbed, the books arranged neatly on the shelves. Outside, across the quadrangle, in the storerooms, nothing was out of place, and when Brother Cyngar went to the animal sheds he found all in order.
It was only when he had returned halfway across the flagged courtyard on his way back to the chapel that he realised the significance of this. There were no animals in the barns; no chickens, no pigs, no cows nor sheep, not even one of the two mules which he knew the community kept. They, like the brethren, had vanished.
Brother Cyngar prided himself on being a logical young man and, having been raised as a farmer’s son, he was not frightened of being alone. He was not one given to easy panic. All the possible facts and explanations should be examined and considered before one gave way to fear. He walked carefully to the main gate and gazed intently at the ground in search of any signs indicating a mass exodus of the community with their animals. Cows and mules in particular would leave tracks in the earth outside.
There was no sign of the earth being unnecessarily disturbed by the passage of men or animals. He did note some deep cart ruts, but that was not unusual. Plenty of local farmers traded regularly with the community. The roadways to the north and west were stony, so the tracks soon vanished. He could see a few traces of the flat-soled sandals used by the monks but there were few other signs. Without an alternative to consider, he return to the conclusion that the community had vanished like a wisp of smoke dispersed in the wind.
At this point, Brother Cyngar felt the compulsion to genuflect and he muttered a prayer to keep all evil at bay, for what could not be explained by Nature must be the work of the supernatural. There was no temporal explanation for this desolate scene. At least, none he could think of.
Could Father Clidro, the Father Superior of Llanpadern, and his fellow monks have stood up in the middle of their meal, left their candles burning, gathered all the animals and then … then what? Simply disappeared?
As a conscientious young man, Brother Cyngar forced himself to return to the refectory and extinguish the candles before going back to the main gates. He gave a final glance around and then swung them shut behind him. Outside, he paused, uncertain of what he should do next.
He knew that a few kilometres to the north lay the township of Llanwnda. Gwnda, the lord of Pen Caer, was supposed to be a man of action. Brother Cyngar hesitated and wonder if he should proceed in that direction. But, as he recalled, there was no priest at Llanwnda, and what could Gwnda and his people do against the supernatural forces of evil which had caused the brethren of Llanpadern to vanish?
He concluded that there was only one thing to do.
He should continue as quickly as possible to the abbey of Dewi Sant. Abbot Tryffin would know what to do. He must inform the abbot of this catastrophic event. Only the brethren of the great abbey founded by Dewi Sant had the power to combat this enchantment. He found himself wondering what evil sorcery had been unleashed on the poor community of Llanpadern. He shivered almost violently and began to hurry away from the deserted buildings, moving swiftly along the stony road towards the southern hills. The bright, autumnal day now seemed gloomy and heavy with menace. But menace of … of what?
SMOKE IN THE WIND. Copyright © 2001 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.