BADGER’S MOON (Chapter One)
It seemed as if the great white disc of the moon dominated the sky. Low hanging, remorselessly bright and cold, it filled the heavens with such luminosity that all darkness seemed to vanish. He felt visible and naked before it, standing shivering in its unmerciful icy illumination. Some distant thought registered that it was curious, in spite of a feeling of body coldness, that his head appeared to be on fire, the palms of his hands were sweating, and his breathing was swift and shallow. He felt almost sexually aroused. His heartbeat was throbbing in excitement. His nostrils were filled with the fragrance of the mixed nocturnal scents. He raised his arms towards the giant smudged white disc, stretching forth his fingertips as if he would pluck the moon from the sky, straining forward a little, the muscles rippling in his back and shoulders as he stretched.
His lips drew back from his teeth, snarling a little in his grin of exultation. He felt a thrill of knowledge, an intoxication of superiority over his fellows. He, alone of all people, would dare to speak the forbidden sacred name of the moon because he shared her enlightenment, her secret wisdom. He, alone, dared speak her name while his fellows would call her by myriad euphemisms and epithets because they were too frightened to stand before the unforgiving goddess of the night and utter her true, hallowed identity. They would uneasily refer to her as ‘the brightness’, ‘the radiance’, or ‘the place where knowledge is gathered’, and when sailors went on board a ship they thought they would bring misfortune on themselves unless they simply called her ‘Queen of the Night’. But he knew her true name and only he would dare to utter it.
Only he had the privilege of pronouncing her name, and it was a token of his power, a show of his authority and skill in defining the named. The God of the New Faith would not reveal his own name even to his beloved Moses. Didn’t the priests of the New Faith say that when Moses asked for the name of the deity who was about to use him, the God replied: ‘I am who I am.’ Was it not true that all the gods wanted to declare their divine freedom from any manipulation or control by concealing the knowledge and use of their names? Names and naming imparted power. He held that power. He felt that power now.
He stretched forth his hands again and spread his fingertips as if to caress the stern, smutty face of the moon.
He could feel that stirring, the strange pulsating of the sreang na imleacáin, the umbilical cord, which bound him to her white orb and demanded his unquestioning service and obedience, in return for which he held dominion beneath her rays.
He knew that the time had come once again when he could no longer resist her demands. The compulsion was now irresistible.
He turned from the clearing and moved into the woods with a curious loping gait. He knew where he was going although he had not consciously worked it out. He carried himself with an animal-like ease, moving swiftly along the darkened forest path. He negotiated its impediments without difficulty, his breath soft and not taxed at all by his efforts. The main track was near. The trees were thinning and he could see the dark outlines of the old rath of the chieftain on the hill to his right. He paused at the sight. He observed the flicker of the lanterns that marked the gates of the fortress. He knew that in the shadows behind the lamps there would be at least two warriors on watch. That did not matter. He did not intend to go any closer to the fortress than he was now. That was not his purpose.
The moonlight revealed that the track, which lay alongside the woods, winding its way up to the fortress, was deserted. He glanced up at the orb above him and his lips compressed momentarily into a thin determined line.
Was it too late? Could he have missed the moment? Surely not. The impulse which guided him assured him that all would be right. He had the knowledge. He was omniscient.
There was a movement at the gates of the rath. The squeal of metal hinges disturbed the silence of the night. He could hear voices and someone called in a masculine drawl: ‘Safe home, Ballgel!’ A soft female voice answered cheerfully. Then he heard the rasping sound of the gates shutting.
A shadowy figure began to swing down the hill.
He let out a breath of thanks. He had arrived in time. The slight female figure, apparently carrying a basket on one arm, became visible in the moonlight once away from the dark shadows of the fortress walls. The figure walked with a confident youthful step.
He smiled to himself and drew back a little into the cover of the trees. He could feel the throb of his pulse begin to increase its pressure again, the sweat on the palms of his hands began to itch. Unconsciously he rubbed them up and down on his thighs to dry them and ease the itching sensation.
The figure drew nearer, walking swiftly, unconcerned. The girl drew abreast of him and he moved slightly, causing the undergrowth to rustle gently.
She halted at once and swung in his direction.
‘Who is there?’ she demanded, peering into the darkness, her voice showing no fear.
He hesitated only a moment, peering swiftly around in the shadows to make sure that they were alone, and then stepped forward into the moonlight. She recognised him and visibly relaxed.
‘Oh, so it’s you! What are you doing here?’
He cleared his dry throat and forced a smile. His voice was pitched to that of warm friendliness. ‘I was on my way home, Ballgel. I thought I saw you coming down the track from the rath. Isn’t it late to be going home?’
The girl dismissed the hour with laugh. ‘Becc had many guests this evening. I had to stay to help my uncle in the kitchen. There was a great tidying to do. Isn’t it always the same at the rath every night our chieftain entertains? I am often forced to stay until about this time. I thought you knew that.’
He nodded absently. He did know it. He was counting on it. ‘I’ll walk along the way with you.’
‘Suit yourself,’ she replied. ‘It’s straight home for me. It’s been an exhausting day.’
She turned and recommenced her interrupted walk. She knew that his house lay in the general direction of her own and was not surprised at his offer to accompany her. He fell in step at her side.
He was smiling now. It was a fox-like smile but, in the gloom, she did not see the cunning mould of his features.
‘If you want to get home quickly, then the quicker path lies along the woodland shortcut over the shoulder of the hill. It takes fifteen minutes off the journey by this track where you have to go all round the base of the hill.’
‘Across the Thicket of Pigs at this time of night?’ She laughed again. ‘With wolves and who knows what wild animals along the way? And aren’t you forgetting what has happened in those woods up on the hill?’
He paused and spread his arms as if he would sweep the dangers aside.
‘I am here to protect you, aren’t I?’ he demanded. ‘Neither beast nor man would dare attack two grown adults. Come on. I am in a hurry to get home too and have further to go than you. That path is a full fifteen minutes in the saving of our journey. Surely that’s a good prospect?’
The girl hesitated, reluctantly seeing the logic of his argument.
‘It’s dark along the woodland path,’ she protested, but in a half-hearted fashion.
‘What? Dark? With the moon at its full, there’s light enough for us to see the passing of a badger below the bushes at twenty paces. Come on! There is nothing to be fearful of since you are with me.’
She hesitated only a fraction of a moment more and then slowly nodded agreement. ‘Very well. But I mean to hurry along the path.’
She went before him and for a second he raised his face to the great hanging white orb of the moon, eyes closed exultantly, letting the death-white flesh of his face bathe in the chilly white light.
‘Come on, then,’ he heard her call impatiently. ‘What are you waiting for?’
‘I am coming,’ he replied hastily. His heart was beating so loud that it seemed to drown out all other sounds. He felt the sweat trickling down his forehead and around his eye sockets. He raised a hand to wipe his face. Then he set off with slow sure steps after her shadowy form, as it seemed to momentarily vanish along the pathway into the moonlit woods.
‘My lord Becc, come quickly!’
Becc, chieftain of the Cinél na Áeda, glanced up in annoyance as Adag, his steward, burst into his bedchamber without even the courtesy of knocking. It was an unforgivable lapse of social etiquette and he opened his mouth to deliver a reprimand, but the servant was continuing.
‘Brother Solam from the abbey has just arrived at the gates. The abbey is under attack,’ gasped the rotund and balding man. ‘Abbot Brogán asks that you go to his assistance immediately.’
Becc had been up late, feasting and drinking with his guests. His head ached and his mouth was dry. He groaned a little and reached for a flagon that stood on a table near his bed. He raised it and took a mouthful or two directly from it. His face screwed into a look of distaste as the stale liquor washed down. His steward looked on with disapproval.
‘Wine is sweet in the drinking but bitter in the paying,’ observed Becc in self-defence, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
Adag focused beyond the chieftain’s shoulder and piously intoned: ‘He who drinks only water will not be drunk.’
Becc gazed at him sourly, opened his mouth and then closed it again. Another aphorism came unbidden into his mind. Let you be drunk or sober, keep your thoughts to yourself.
He rose and began to move rapidly, dressing quickly and ignoring his disapproving steward until he had buckled on his sword.
A dishevelled Brother of the Faith was waiting in agitation in the anteroom beyond. He was young, with fair hair.
‘Brother Solam,’ Becc greeted him. ‘What is this news that you bring me?’
‘The abbey is under attack, my lord Becc. My abbot bids you—’
Becc made a cutting motion with his hand, silencing the man.
‘The abbey is under attack? Who is attacking it?’ he demanded sharply.
‘The villagers, my lord. Yet another body, the body of the young girl named Ballgel, was found in the woods this morning…’
The chieftain’s eyes widened with shock. ‘Ballgel? But she works in my kitchen. She was here last night until late because we had guests…’ He turned quickly to his steward, who had followed him. ‘Adag, at what time did Ballgel leave the rath last night?’
‘Just after midnight, lord. I was at the gate when she left. She went alone.’
Becc turned to Brother Solam. ‘It is certain that it was Ballgel who was killed?’
‘It is certain. The villagers are in an ugly mood. This is the third young girl of the village who has been killed in as many months. A crowd has marched on the abbey and called upon the abbot to hand over the three visiting religious. The abbot refuses and now they are in fury, rage and clamour. They say they will attack the brethren and set fire to the abbey unless the strangers are handed over.’
‘Why the strangers? Do the villagers have evidence that they killed Ballgel?’
Brother Solam shook his head quickly. ‘The villagers are full of fear and suspicion, lord. But that does not make them any the less dangerous.’
‘I have already alerted the guard, my lord Becc,’ Adag intervened. ‘The horses should be saddled by now.’
‘Then let us ride for the abbey!’ Becc ordered decisively, turning to lead the way to the courtyard. ‘Brother Solam can ride behind one of our warriors.’
The abbey of the Blessed Finnbarr was only a short ride away, a cluster of wooden buildings gathered by the banks of the River Tuath. The buildings were encompassed by a wooden stockade which served to keep out wolves and other nocturnal scavengers. Before the wooden gates, which were hardly strong enough to exclude one determined man, a group of forty or fifty men and women had gathered. Facing them stood a slightly built, elderly religieux with silver hair. His clothing proclaimed him as a senior member of the community. At either side of him stood two young, nervous-looking brethren.
The old man was holding up his hands as if calling for quiet. However, the shouting and outrage of the crowd drowned out his words.
‘Hand over the strangers! We will deal with them!’
At the forefront of the crowd was a thickset villager with a dark black beard and an angry expression. He carried a thick cudgel in one of his large hands. Those around him roared their approval of his belligerent leadership.
‘This is a house of God!’ The thin, reedy tone of the old man made itself heard in a momentary lull of the angry murmurs. ‘No one dare enter the house of the Lord with violent intent. Go back to your homes.’
At this the people howled their disapproval. Someone threw a small stone from the back of the crowd. It passed over the people’s heads and struck harmlessly at the walls. But the implication was dangerous.
‘In the name of God, Brocc, take these people away from this place before harm is done.’ The old man appealed directly to the burly leader. They were almost face to face, so that no one else could probably hear the words of appeal.
‘Harm has already been done, Abbot Brogán,’ replied the man as loudly as he could so that those around would know what was being said. ‘More harm shall be done if you refuse to give up the strangers to justice.’
‘Give them up to vengeance is what you mean. Our visitors walk in the shadow of God. They are protected not only under the ancient laws of hospitality but under the sacred rule of sanctuary.’
‘You would protect the murderers of our children?’
‘Where is your proof against them?’
‘The proof is the mutilated bodies of our daughters!’ cried Brocc, raising his voice so that all the people could hear him.
A loud acclamation greeted his words.
‘You have no proof,’ countered one of the younger Brothers of the Faith at the abbot’s side. Unlike the abbot’s, his voice was young and strong and carried. ‘You have come here only because these religious are strangers in our land and for no other reason. You fear them simply because they are strangers.’
Another missile was aimed from the back of the crowd. This time it caught the young Brother a glancing blow on the forehead, causing a red gash of blood, and the impact made him stagger back a step or two. The crowd growled menacingly, like an animal, in their approval of the bloodshed.
‘Unless you wish to suffer the same fate as the strangers, Abbot Brogán,’ threatened Brocc, ‘you will hand them over.’
‘You dare to threaten the abbot?’ cried the second Brother, his expression aghast. ‘You have already raised your hands against the brethren of this community, for which God’s punishment will surely pursue you. But you dare to threaten—’
‘Enough of words!’ Brocc yelled and raised his cudgel menacingly.
It was then that the chieftain Becc, with Adag his steward and four of his warriors, came riding up, pushing their horses through the crowd. The people fell back with sullen expressions at the sight of their chieftain and his armed horsemen.
Brother Solam, who had been riding behind one of the warriors, slipped off the horse and hurried to the abbot before turning to the crowd, standing in front of the abbot in an attitude of protection. The people had suddenly fallen into an uneasy quiet. However, Brocc did not wish to lose the momentum he had gained.
‘Well, lord Becc,’ he called in a sneering tone, ‘have you come to sanction the punishment of the murderers or do you support those that would protect them?’ He flung out a hand and pointed accusingly at the abbot. ‘The abbot refuses to hand the murderers over to justice.’
‘I have come here to tell you that this is not the law,’ cried Becc sharply. ‘Disperse back to your homes.’
Brocc placed his feet apart and one hand remained on his hip while the other held his cudgel in easy fashion. He had his reputation as a strong man to maintain and his stance had more than a trace of a swagger to it.
‘So you seek to protect the murderers too, lord Becc?’ He raised his voice almost triumphantly.
‘It is enough that I am your chieftain for you to obey me,’ Becc snapped at him in irritation. ‘I say, go back to your homes lest you incur my displeasure.’
The crowd began to mutter uneasily and several of them turned away with pale, sullen faces.
‘Hold fast!’ Brocc yelled. He remained in his defiant position. His sharp voice halted those who were half-hearted among the mob. He turned insolently back to the chieftain. ‘Do not try to intimidate us, lord Becc. We will have justice.’
Becc’s face had become red with anger.
‘You do not seek justice, Brocc,’ he retorted. ‘What you seek is bloodshed and with no just cause but your prejudice against the strangers.’ He raised his voice again to the others. ‘I call on you once more to disperse to your homes. You currently stand in contravention of the Cáin Chiréib - the law of riot. The consequences of continuing your actions are dire. Do you understand?’
Once again the faint-hearted would have turned away, accepting the inevitable, but Brocc held up a hand to stay them yet again.
‘I am a céile, a free clansman. I work my land, pay my taxes for the upkeep of this community and am the first to join the chieftain’s troops in time of war and danger. I have a voice in the clan assembly and while I may not be of the derbfhine of your family, that band of relatives who elected you as chieftain, my voice should and shall be heard.’
Becc, sitting easily on horseback, continued to appear relaxed, only his eyes now narrowed slightly.
‘Your voice is being heard, Brocc,’ the chieftain pointed out softly. Only those who knew him well could appreciate the dangerous tone in his voice.
But Brocc did not know him so well. He turned to the crowd and appealed to those who had held their ground.
‘There have been deaths in this community. Violent, terrible deaths of young girls. Last night Ballgel, a cousin of mine who worked in the kitchens of our own chieftain’s fortress, was slaughtered on her way home. She is now the third young girl to be slaughtered at the time of the full moon. Did not Escrach, my brother’s only child, suffer this same terrible death last month? And when did these slaughters begin? They began at the time when Abbot Brogán first gave hospitality to the three dark strangers. Black is their colour and black are their deeds. We shall have justice. Bring them out to face punishment.’
There was a murmur of approval, slightly more muted than previously in view of the armed warriors. But it was clear that Brocc had strong support among the local people.
Becc leant forward a little in his saddle. ‘Where is your evidence, Brocc?’ His tone was reasonable, almost conversational.
‘Evidence was given to your Brehon Aolú,’ replied the man.
‘Which he found not to be any evidence at all.’
‘And now the old fool is dead. Bring forth a new Brehon and I will give my evidence again.’
‘Aolú told you that you had no evidence. What evidence do you now present against the strangers to charge them before a Brehon? Evidence is what is required under the law of this land.’
Brocc laughed harshly. ‘Their very appearance is the evidence against them!’
In spite of the growing mutters of approval, the chieftain sat back and smiled grimly.
‘So, you have no evidence save your own prejudice?’ he sneered. ‘It is as I have said. You do not want justice; you simply want a sacrifice to your own prejudice. I say again to you, Brocc, and to everyone who now remains before these gates, you stand under the shadow of the Cáin Chiréib. This is the second time that I have uttered this warning to you. I do not want to utter it a third time.’
Brocc would not be put off. He stood immovable, shaking his head.
‘We will not be frightened away from our intention. We aim to enter the abbey and take the strangers and no one will stop us, neither clergy nor you, Becc, and your warriors, if you stand in the way.’
He lifted his stout cudgel into a menacing position across his chest. He turned to the crowd and raised his voice. ‘Follow me and I will give you justice!’
No one moved. They were looking beyond Brocc to where Becc and his warriors were seated on their horses. When Brocc turned back he found that Becc had taken his bow and now an arrow was drawn against its string and aimed at him. Brocc was no coward. He blinked in surprise for a moment and then he smiled in his defiance.
‘You cannot shoot me down, Becc. I am a céile, a free clansman.’ Becc had lifted the bow slightly in order to bring the arrow flights to the level of his eye. The bow was now fully drawn.
‘For the third time, Brocc, I warn you that you stand in the shadow of the Cáin Chiréib. I ask for the third and last time that you proceed to your home and no harm shall come to you. Stay and you will meet the consequences of your disobedience to the law.’
‘May you fester in your grave! You would not kill your own people, Becc,’ sneered Brocc. ‘You would not kill us to protect strangers.’ He raised his cudgel and called to the crowd. ‘Follow me! Let us have just—’
His words ended in a scream of pain.
Becc had released his arrow, and it had embedded itself in Brocc’s thigh. For a moment the man stood, his eyes wide, an aghast expression on his features. Then he collapsed and fell writhing to the ground, groaning in agony. No one else moved. No one spoke.
Becc turned with an angry frown. ‘You have been warned three times. Now, disperse to your homes!’ His voice was harsh.
With a quiet muttering but with alacrity, the mob vanished. Within a moment there was no one left out of the menacing crowd but the crumpled figure of Brocc.
Becc swung down from his horse as Abbot Brogán came hurrying forward.
‘Thanks be to God that you came quickly, my lord Becc. I feared that the abbey would be violated.’
Becc turned to his steward, Adag, who was also dismounting. ‘Take Brocc to the forus tuaithe and have them tend his wound. It is only a flesh wound, painful but not debilitating. Ensure that he is confined there to await a hearing before a Brehon for his violation of the law.’
The forus tuaithe was, literally, ‘the house of the territory’, which served as the clan hospital. Each territory had such hospitals, either secular ones governed under the direct cognisance of the Brehons or monastic charitable institutions under the direction and management of the local abbot.
Adag hauled Brocc to his feet, perhaps a little too roughly. The burly man groaned and clutched at him for support. Blood was spurting from his wound.
‘May a great choking come on you,’ Brocc groaned, his eyes smouldering with hate at Becc. ‘May you die roaring!’
Becc smiled back into the man’s malignant features. ‘Your curses are not harmful to me, Brocc. And remember, when you pronounce your maledictions, that it is said that under a tree falls its own foliage.’
He glanced at Adag and nodded slightly. The steward began to drag the wounded man away in none too gentle a fashion.
‘In case you don’t know the old saying, Brocc,’ Adag, the steward, whispered in cheerful explanation, ‘it means that if you invoke a curse and it does not harm the person against whom you have aimed it, it will fall on your own head. I would seek an act of contrition before the abbot to avoid its consequence.’
Behind them, Becc had turned back to the old abbot.
‘This is a bad business, Abbot Brogán,’ the chieftain was saying as he unstrung his bow and hooked it onto his saddle.
The old religieux nodded. ‘I fear that the people are terror-stricken. If it was not Brocc, then someone else would put their terror to some ill use. Three young girls have been butchered and each one at the full of the moon.’ He shivered, crossed himself and mumbled, ‘Absit omen!’
‘What do the strangers have to say about their whereabouts last night?’
‘They each swear that they did not stir from the abbey and, in this matter, I do not know what to do. Should I tell them to be gone from the sanctuary of the abbey? That I can no longer give them protection and hospitality?’
Becc shook his head quickly. ‘If they are not guilty that would be an injustice and we would be guilty of a great crime for violating the law of hospitality. If they are guilty, then, equally, it would be wrong, for we would have dispersed them into the world without trial and, perhaps, to perpetuate their crimes elsewhere.’
‘Then what must we do?’ queried the abbot. ‘I can see no solution.’
Becc stood rubbing his chin as though deep in thought. In fact, he had been considering the problem ever since Brother Solam had brought him the news a short while before, and his plan was already in place. But Becc was not one who wished it to appear that his decisions were arbitrary. Aolú had been Brehon of the Cinél na Áeda for forty years when, three weeks previously, the old man had taken sick and died. Becc had been contemplating how he could replace the old judge. Within the Cinél na Áeda there were several minor judges but none of the rank and authority to replace Aolú as the senior judge of the clan.
‘I believe that we should call in the services of a Brehon from outside our temtory. The local Brehons, upright and honourable justices though they may be, might not carry the influence and potency to quell the panic that is growing among the villagers.’
The abbot nodded slowly. ‘I agree, my lord Becc. We must first calm the fears of the people and then find out who is behind these senseless killings.’
Becc pulled a face.
‘No killing is without a kind of sense to the person who commits it,’ he rejoined. ‘However, we must find a Brehon of authority.’
‘Where would you find such a Brehon, my lord Becc?’ demanded the abbot dubiously.
‘I am going to take one of my men and we shall ride to the king’s court at Cashel. King Colgú will advise us, for we can appeal to no higher authority in the land than our king.’
‘Cashel?’ Abbot Brogán’s eyes widened a little. ‘But that will mean that you will be away for several days upon your journey. It is a long road between here and Cashel.’
‘Have no fear. I will leave Accobrán, my tanist, in command with strict orders for your protection and that of the strangers.’ Accobrán had been the tanist, or heir apparent, to the chieftain of the Cinél na Áeda for less than a year. He was a young warrior, who had proved his courage in the recent wars against the rebellious Uí Fidgente. Becc smiled complacently. ‘I doubt whether anyone will attempt to attack the abbey again in view of the manner in which I have dealt with Brocc. The people will think twice about noting having seen the consequences of their disobedience.’
‘There is that, of course,’ the abbot agreed. ‘But I was thinking of the potential harm coming to any more of our young women.’
Becc fingered his beard thoughtfully for a moment. ‘I would have thought that observation would discount such a fear, abbot.’
The old man frowned. ‘I do not understand.’
‘The three young women were all slaughtered on the full of the moon. A ritual and gruesome death. We now lack an entire month until the next full of the moon. Our young women should be safe until then.’
The abbot’s face was grave. Becc had articulated the very fear that he had been trying to drive from his mind since the news of the second slaughter had been brought to him and had now been reinforced by the third killing.
‘The full of the moon,’ he sighed. ‘Then you agree, Becc, we are dealing with some madman…someone who needs to perform his or her killing ritual by the light of the full moon?’
‘That much is self-evident, Abbot Brogán. I will leave for Cashel this afternoon in search of a Brehon of reputation. We have until the next full of the moon before evil strikes at us once again.’
BADGER’S MOON Copyright © 2003 by Peter Tremayne