Dancing with Demons

A Mystery of Ancient Ireland

Mysteries of Ancient Ireland featuring Sister Fidelma of Cashel (Volume 18 of 25)

Peter Tremayne

Minotaur Books

 
CHAPTER ONE

Ferloga had been an innkéeper most of his adult life and was in the habit of boasting that he had seen all manner of guests – rich and poor, the arrogant and the humble. He had had dealings with kings and chieftains, religious of all descriptions, rich merchants, travelling players, farmers passing on their way to market and even beggars desperate for shelter. Ferloga’s proud claim was that no guest had ever tried to cheat him of his fee, for there were few of them that he was unable to judge; after a glance, he could tell what calling in life they followed and whether they were trustworthy or not. But, as the elderly innkeeper sat talking with his wife while she finished cleaning the utensils after the morning meal, he freely confessed to confusion. The guest who had arrived not long after nightfall on the previous evening had been an utter mystery to him.
A tall, thin man, almost skeletal, the pale parchment-like skin had stretched tightly over his bony features. That he was elderly was indisputable, but whether sixty or eighty years of age was impossible to discern. He had curious eyes, the left one made sinister by the white film of a cataract. His unkempt white hair seemed to tumble in all directions, thick and curly, ending around his shoulders. His neck reminded Ferloga of a chicken’s scrawny folds with a prominent bobbing Adam’s apple. A dark grey woollen cloak, which had probably once been white, covered the man from neck to ankles. He carried a long wooden staff with curious carving on it, and a leather satchel was slung from his shoulder.
At first Ferloga had thought that he was a wandering religious, for he certainly looked like one of the hermits that one infrequently encountered on the road, and it was clear that he had arrived on foot. However, once he loosened his cloak, the stranger displayed none of the usual symbols of the New Faith but wore a curious necklet of gold and semi-precious stones which, Ferloga knew, no religious would ever wear.
The conversation had been unexpectedly short. Ferloga was used to some sociability from his guests but this elderly traveller merely demanded a bed. He even declined a traditional mug of corma to protect against the chill of the night. When Ferloga asked whither he had come, the man replied: ‘A long journey from the north,’ and nothing more. Ferloga took the view that the man was exhausted from his travels and, indeed, he noticed that the newcomer was swaying slightly and the dark skin under his eyes was a trifle puffy. So the innkeeper did not press the late arrival further but conducted him to a small room above the stairs, and withdrew.
Now, in the light of dawn, Ferloga was still wondering about his mysterious guest.
His plump wife sniffed in irritation as she gave the cauldron of porridge, still warming over the fire, a stir to stop it sticking.
‘Rather than sit there trying to make guesses, why don’t you go and rouse the man. It’s long past sun up. All the other guests have risen, broken their fasts and continued on their way. I do not plan to stay here all day making sure the porridge does not burn. I need to go berry picking.’
Ferloga sighed and slowly rose from his comfortable seat by the side of the fire. Lassar, was right, of course. The business of the inn could not wait for ever and it was unusual for guests to delay so long in the morning.


Fidelma of Cashel halted her horse on a rise of the road, which ran from Cluain Meala, the Field of Honey, the settlement on the banks of the broad River Siúr, where she had spent the night, north to her brother’s fortress. She had spent a week away from Cashel in attendance at Lios Mhór, the great abbey and settlement south beyond the mountain range of Mhaoldomhnaigh. Although she had slept well the previous night, Fidelma felt exhausted after a week’s hard work. She was a dálaigh, or advocate, of the law courts of the five kingdoms of Éireann, proficient to the degree of anruth, the second highest qualification in the land. Her rank therefore allowed her not only to plead cases before judges but, when nominated, to hear and adjudicate in her own court on a range of applications that did not require the presence of a judge of higher rank. It was a task that Brehon Baithen, the senior judge of the kingdom of Muman, often requested her to perform. It was also a task that she liked least.
She frequently found it tiring to sit in a stifling court and listen to the complaints and arguments of those who appeared before her. Often it was a waste of time and the plaintiffs should have been advised that their claims, more often than not, were born from pettiness and malice and without foundation in law. But it was her task and duty to sit patiently and decide whether there was a case to be answered and whether it should be brought before a more senior Brehon. And, after a week in the law courts at Lios Mhór, she felt drained and irritable and was delighted when she could finally mount her horse and set off across the mountains back towards her brother’s royal fortress at Cashel.
Turning in her saddle, she watched her companion trotting up towards her. The youthful warrior who joined her was Caol, the commander of her brother’s guard. He had been designated to act as her escort on the trip.
Fidelma smiled as he reined in his mount beside her and gestured with an outstretched arm. ‘That’s Ráth na Drínne ahead. I could do with refreshment at Ferloga’s inn before we continue on to Cashel.’
Caol inclined his head briefly. ‘As it pleases you, lady.’ Those who knew Fidelma as sister to Colgú, King of Muman, always used the respectful form of address rather than her ecclesiastical one of Sister. Caol added: ‘We did leave Cluain Meala without breaking our fast and I could do with something to fill the emptiness in my stomach.’
There was a slight note of rebuke in his voice as he reminded Fidelma of her eagerness to be off even before daylight that morning. However, Caol knew why Fidelma was anxious to return to Cashel. She had been a week away from her little son, Alchú, and Caol appreciated her anxiety as a mother. He knew that she must be feeling an additional anxiety because her husband Eadulf, the Saxon, had left Cashel over a week before on an embassy to the abbey at Ros Ailithir on behalf of Ségdae, Abbot of Imleach and chief bishop of Muman. How long he would be away on his embassy, which involved matters of ecclesiastical importance, was anyone’s guess. Perhaps he would be gone several weeks. That being so, Caol had tried not to complain about her general impatience and quickness of temper during this last week.
Fidelma was smiling almost apologetically at him, as if she read his thoughts.
‘I know, I know,’ she said softly. ‘Had I not been in such a hurry to be on the road to Cashel this morning, we could have broken our fasts and had something warming to keep out the chill on the journey. But Ferloga’s inn lies ahead of us and we can soon rectify the lack of nourishment caused by my impatience.’
She turned and nudged her horse forward towards the distant rise of Ráth na Drínne.
It was not long before they trotted into the yard before the inn, causing the chickens and geese to start an angry chorus at being disturbed. Before they began to dismount, the door of the inn swung open and Ferloga himself came hurrying out. The first thing that Fidelma noticed was his pale features and concerned expression.
‘What ails you, Ferloga?’ she asked, frowning down at him.
‘Lady …’ The innkeeper’s expression seemed to brighten as he recognised her. ‘Thank God that you have come.’
Fidelma raised an eyebrow in query as she dismounted and faced the elderly innkeeper.
‘You appear distraught, Ferloga. What is the trouble?’
‘One of my guests, lady,’ replied the man. ‘He was late to rise and so I went up to wake him. I have just found him in bed – dead.’
Caol had dismounted and was taking Fidelma’s reins from her. ‘Dead?’ He suddenly looked interested. ‘Murdered?’
Ferloga looked shocked. ‘Murdered? I hadn’t thought …’
‘Put the horses in the stable, Caol,’ Fidelma instructed before turning to the shocked innkeeper. ‘Come, let us examine this body. Who is this guest, anyway?’
As he turned to lead the way back into the inn, Ferloga contrived to shrug. ‘I’ve no idea, lady. He arrived late last night and told me nothing. He was elderly, that is all I know.’
As they entered the inn, Lassar came forward anxiously. ‘Ah, it is good that you are here, lady. This could be bad for us if the kin of the guest claim we have been neglectful in our duties towards him and somehow contributed to his death.’
Fidelma knew exactly why the elderly couple were concerned. The laws for innkeepers in the Bretha Nemed Toisech were very precise about their responsibilities. A guest, by virtue of the fact, was given legal protection, and anyone killed or injured while under that protection was counted to have been a victim of the crime of díguin, the violation of such protection. The responsibility was down to the fer tige oíget or the guest-house owner, whether it was a public hostel or a private inn. If responsible, Ferloga might lose his inn and be fined a heavy sum.
Fidelma gave the old woman a smile of reassurance. ‘Where is the body?’ she asked Ferloga.
He turned to ascend the dark wooden stairs that led to the upper floor. ‘This way,’ he said.
The body lay on its back in the bed. Ferloga had already opened the shutters to allow light to flood into the room. Fidelma wished that Eadulf was with her. Having studied medical matters for a period in Tuam Brecain, the renowned Irish medical college, his knowledge would have been invaluable. She bent down and allowed her eye to traverse the body of the old man who lay there. There were two things she noticed immediately. The facial muscles seemed twisted into a grimace, as if a last moment of pain had been frozen on the features. That death could not have taken place much before dawn was clear because the flesh was not really cold. The second thing she noticed was that the pale lips were blue, unusually so. Disguising her distaste, she drew back the covers and quickly ascertained that there were no marks of physical violence on the body. Replacing the covers, she stood up, turning to face the anxious Ferloga.
At that moment, Caol came hurrying up the stairs into the room and cast a look at the corpse.
‘Can I help, lady?’ he asked.
Fidelma shook her head. ‘Take a closer look and see if you agree with me. I believe the old man suffered a fit.’ She used the word taem to indicate the condition.
Caol glanced down, nodding. ‘Blue and twisted lips and a convulsion of the muscles. I have observed the like before, lady, on the battlefield. Twice now I have seen men work themselves up into such a rage that, suddenly, they clutch at their chests and their faces become contorted and they fall into a paroxysm. Many have died from it.’
Fidelma agreed. ‘There seems no barrier to the condition, old age nor youth. I have even heard that some can survive the fit, and have described it as a terrible, debilitating pain here in the centre of the chest. No, have no fear, Ferloga, yours is not the responsibility for this death.’
There was a deep sigh of relief from the doorway. Lassar had followed Caol up the stairs and stood watching them.
‘I’ll go below and prepare some refreshment for you, lady,’ she said.
‘If you have fresh bread and honey, it will more than satisfy me,’ Caol added quickly as the old woman turned away.
Fidelma was gazing quizzically down at the corpse again. ‘Who was he?’ she asked.
Ferloga shrugged. ‘I had little chance to find out. He arrived after dark, only said that he was from the north, which was not a matter of surprise for I could hear the northern accents in his speech. He answered no questions, asked only one of his own, ate nothing, drank less and demanded to be shown to his bed.’
Fidelma looked keenly at the innkeeper. ‘Asked only one question? What was that?’
‘He asked what road he should take this morning to find Cnánmchailli.’
Fidelma shook her head thoughtfully. ‘The place beyond Ara’s well? But there is nothing there, only an ancient pillar stone.’
‘Just what I said,’ agreed Ferloga. ‘But he wanted to know the road, so I told him.’
‘Did you form any opinion of the man? You have a reputation for knowing your guests even when you spend only a few moments with them.’
Ferloga grimaced wryly. ‘I was saying only this morning to Lassar that I am perplexed. At first, I thought he was a religious until I examined his clothing and ornaments more closely. Alas, this man puzzles me.’
‘And he came here on foot?’ asked Caol. When Fidelma shot him a glance of surprise, Caol added, by way of explanation: ‘When I dealt with our horses just now, I saw no other horse in the stable that would belong to a guest.’
‘You are right,’ Ferloga said. ‘This man arrived on foot with only that strange staff to help him on his travels.’
Fidelma moved to the ornately carved staff that had been propped in a corner of the room. Taking it in her hands she gazed curiously at the dark oak wood which was mounted and tipped with bronze, both as a spiked ferrule and as an ornate headed piece. In fact, at the top part of the staff, the piece of bronze was shaped as a head wearing a tore; a male head with a long, flowing moustache and some semi-precious glinting red stones for the eyes. From ear to ear was a crescent-shaped head-dress studded with little triskel-style solar symbols.
‘It’s quite beautiful,’ muttered Caol, gazing over her shoulder.
‘It’s also quite old,’ said Ferloga.
‘It’s certainly very ancient,’ agreed Fidelma. ‘I seem to have seen those symbols before, but I can’t quite recall where …’
‘There are curious symbols and animals carved all over the staff,’ observed Caol, pointing. ‘It must be very valuable.’
‘What else did he carry that might identify him?’ demanded Fidelma, turning to Ferloga.
The innkeeper gestured at a leather satchel, which the man had been carrying the night before. There was also the richly inscribed gorget, which he had worn around his neck and which was now placed on the table by the side of the bed. The old man had obviously removed it from his neck before reposing himself for sleep.
‘Apart from his robe and clothing, there is only the satchel and this ornament.’
The satchel revealed no more than a change of clothing, an extra pair of sandals and a knife, and such toilet items as anyone might carry. However, if the staff had been a fascinating object of art then the gorget was even more so. The necklet was made of intricately beaten gold, decorated with all manner of ancient symbols that also seemed disturbingly familiar to Fidelma – but which she could not place at all. She was about to remark on it when Caol gave a grunt of surprise.
She turned to see him removing a small leather bag from under the pillow on which the old man’s head lay. He held it up and the bag clinked as if it contained metal. He handed it to Fidelma.
‘I think we’ll find that this strange old man was rich,’ he said.
Fidelma opened the string that tied the leather pouch together. Indeed, it was full of coins, mainly of gold and silver but with a few bronze coins. She glanced at several of them.
‘They are mainly old coins of Gaul and Britain, ones the Britons struck before the coming of the Romans. That’s curious. I can’t see any Roman coins among them either and they are the easiest to come by these days.’
‘That may mean the old man intended to travel in Gaul or Brittany?’ suggested Caol.
Fidelma returned his smile but shook her head. ‘It only means that he was in possession of coins from those countries, but they are centuries old. If someone was going to travel, why would they not be in possession of more modern coins?’
Caol looked a little crestfallen. ‘You are right, lady. But the old man must have been some sort of merchant, to have these foreign coins and so many. Only merchants are so rich.’
‘I doubt that he was a merchant.’ It was Ferloga who uttered the thought.
Fidelma turned to give him a quizzical look. The innkeeper was looking worried.
‘Not everyone has converted to the New Faith, lady. You know that already. Some keep to the old ways.’
She suddenly realised what the innkeeper was implying. Picking up the old man’s gorget, she examined it carefully and let out a slow breath as she agreed with Ferloga’s unspoken thought.
Caol was standing frowning. ‘I don’t understand,’ he said.
‘Ferloga is saying that he thinks this old man might have been a Druid priest,’ Fidelma explained.
Caol’s eyebrows shot up. ‘But the old religion has died out. The Druids are no more.’
‘I have had several encounters with those who cling to the old religion,’ Fidelma said, a little grimly. ‘It was only a short time ago that Eadulf and I were sent to the valley of Gleann Geis when Laisre decided that his people should convert from the old ways to the New Faith.’
‘Gleann Geis is way over to the west,’ Caol dismissed airily. ‘They are always slow to move with the times.’
Fidelma smiled at the young warrior’s arrogance. ‘Or perhaps they move in a different direction?’ she observed quietly. ‘You are wrong, Caol – there are many who still move along the old paths and venerate the old gods and goddesses of this land. Many, even of the New Faith, respect and do reverence to the Druids or see them as they were – as great teachers. Did not Colmcille, the dove of the Church, write in one of his poems that Christ, the son of the One God, was his Druid?’
Caol shrugged indifferently. ‘So you are saying that the old man,’ he jerked his head towards the corpse, ‘might have been a Druid?’
‘It would fit in with the way I initially mistook him for a religious,’ interrupted Ferloga, ‘and yet he is certainly not of the Christian Faith. Look at the symbols he carries. They are found among the carvings on the stones where I have heard that people gathered to worship in the old days. And then there was him asking the way to Cnánmchailli, the place of the ancient pillar stone.’
‘You may well be right, Ferloga,’ Fidelma said. ‘However, there is little we can do now to identify him, unless someone comes in search of him.’
‘I do not know what to do, lady,’ muttered the innkeeper. ‘No one has ever died in my inn.’
Fidelma thought for a moment or two. ‘We will take his belongings with us to Cashel. Brother Conchobhar is very learned in many of these old customs and symbols. He might be able to tell us more about what they signify and perhaps we can trace where this man came from.’
‘But the body?’ Ferloga still looked unhappy. ‘What am I to do with it?’
‘There is a small chapel beyond the next hill,’ Caol pointed out. ‘Two brothers of the Faith look after it and there is a burial ground nearby. Send someone to bring them hither to take away the body and give it a decent burial. Whatever the man’s beliefs, he deserves that much.’
The old innkeeper’s face grew longer but Fidelma, with a smile, reached in her purse and handed a few coins to Ferloga. She knew what he had been thinking.
‘Tell them it is my wish that they give the deceased a proper burial,’ she said. ‘And you will find there is enough there that you will not be wanting for your fee for his night’s repose.’
‘But I can’t accept that,’ protested the innkeeper, half-heartedly.
‘I am taking the old man’s purse,’ Fidelma cut off his protests, ‘because I believe that the coins may be a means of discovering more about him. I would not have you suffering any loss for this misfortune – and if anyone comes by making enquiries for him, tell them to come to Cashel.’
Ferloga’s hand closed over the coins. ‘A blessing on you, lady.’ He hesitated and then added nervously, ‘Do you think anyone will come looking for him?’
‘Why so uneasy?’ asked Fidelma.
Ferloga compressed his lower lip with his top one for a moment. ‘If he is a man of the old religion, his comrades might also be of that belief and custom. We are good Christians here, lady. My grandfather was baptised in the Siúr by the Blessed Ailbe himself.’
Fidelma smiled. ‘There is nothing to worry about, Ferloga.’
‘But if this man were a pagan and knew the ancient arts, the secret arts, and curses …’
Fidelma’s expression grew sharp. ‘We do not have a monopoly on all that is good, Ferloga. The New Faith binds us to have charity towards all and not to fear those who follow different paths.’
She glanced at Caol and, reading the meaning of her expression, Caol picked up the gorget, staff, the satchel and the purse of coins, and then followed her to the lower floor, where Lassar had set out a table with their refreshments on it.
Ferloga went to find the boy who usually helped him with the stables and outside work in order to instruct him to go to the chapel and summon the aid of the religious as Fidelma had advised. Meanwhile, Fidelma and Caol sat down to break their fast with freshly baked bread, honey and mugs of sweet mead. Fidelma took time to reassure Lassar about the situation and then, when Ferloga returned, she asked if he had any news from Cashel. The inns were the one sure way of hearing news and gossip.
‘There is little of consequence that has happened in the last few days, lady,’ he said. ‘Did anything of significance transpire at Lios Mhór? Were there any matters of importance that came before you?’
‘Nothing at all that is worth the breath of a storyteller,’ she observed. It had been a boring week with only petty crimes to speak of, such as a man failing to support his wife and a woman charging rape against a man who turned out to be innocent. Fidelma’s interrogation had discovered that the woman was inspired by vengeance after the man had rejected her. ‘Have there been no other travellers with news who have stayed at your inn?’
‘Only some religious who passed through a few days ago who were lately returned from the kingdom of Dál Riada beyond the seas,’ Ferloga told her.
Fidelma was at once interested for she had once travelled through Dál Riada and stayed at the tiny island of I, called Iona, where Colmcille had built an abbey. It had been nearly five years ago since she had stayed there when travelling to the Synod at Witebia for the great debate between the Irish clerics and those who supported Roman rule.
‘What news did they bring? Does Iona still send missionaries into the Saxon kingdoms?’
‘They did not say. They spoke of warfare among the Cruithin and among the Saxons. But there was peace in Dál Riada. The King, whom they named as Domangart, son of Diomhnall Brecc, has succeeded in consolidating affairs and bringing peace to the country. They say that everyone speaks well of this King.’
‘So Dál Riada prospers?’
‘Yes, but there is some fear and unrest, due to a Saxon King called Wulfhere who rules a kingdom called Mercia, which I understood is situated to the south of Dál Riada. Apparently he is attempting to expand his borders even among the other Saxon kingdoms and beyond. These same travellers brought news that a great abbey of the Britons in Gwynedd has been burned down in one of his raids into that country. Many of the religious have been killed.’
Fidelma sighed sadly. ‘The Saxons always seem to be fighting, and when it is not with their neighbours, then they fight among themselves,’ she observed. Then she thought of Eadulf and flushed guiltily. Yet, she thought, it was a true comment nonetheless.
‘Oh, and they brought word that the abbot of Iona had died.’
Fidelma eyes widened. ‘Cumméne the Fair?’ she queried.
‘That, indeed, was the name they mentioned, lady. You have a great knowledge of such things,’ Ferloga added, showing a little awe.
Fidelma shrugged indifferently. ‘It is when I travelled through that land that I met the old abbot.’ Cumméne was a respected scholar, the seventh abbot of Colmcille’s foundation, who had written a life of the holy founder. ‘Was the cause of his death a natural one?’
‘They said so, lady, for the abbot was apparently very aged and infirm.’
‘Who replaces him? Did they say?’
‘Failbe of the Cenél Conaill.’
It seemed that Iona was following the custom of many of the Irish abbeys where the abbacy succeeded in the same family, being elected by the derbfine, three generations of the family of the first abbot. Failbe, whom she had also met on that trip, was a nephew of another former abbot, Ségene, who was a cousin to Colmcille, founder of the abbey.
‘Failbe will have much to contend with,’ she observed, thinking aloud. ‘Cumméne will be hard to replace, for he was a great thinker and scholar.’
They chatted on for a while over the meal until Fidelma rose unhurriedly and announced that they must continue on to Cashel.
Caol went out to prepare the horses while Fidelma again reassured the innkeeper and his wife that they had no reason to feel responsible about the death of the stranger at their inn. Soon, she and Caol were back on the road out of Ráth na Drínne and trotting along the highway that wound through the woods towards her brother’s fortress.
DANCING WITH DEMONS. Copyright © 2007 by Peter Tremayne. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.