Act of Mercy

A Celtic Mystery

Mysteries of Ancient Ireland featuring Sister Fidelma of Cashel (Volume 8 of 25)

Peter Tremayne

Minotaur Books

Act of Mercy
Chapter One
Ardmore Bay, on the Irish south coast, mid-October, A.D. 666.
 
 
Colla, the tavernkeeper, tugged on the leather reins to halt the two sturdy donkeys which had been patiently hauling his overladen cart along the track across the precipitous rocky headland. It was a soft autumnal morning and the sun had begun its climb in the eastern sky. The quiet sea below the headland reflected the azure canopy which held only a few white fleecy clouds. There was just a hint of a soft breeze from the north-west, giving impetus to the morning tide. Colla, from this high point on the coast, could see that the sea's long dim level appeared flat and calm. He had lived long enough by its vast expanse to know that this was an illusion, however. From this distance, human eyes were unable to appreciate the swells and currents of the brooding, treacherous waters.
Around him, sea and coastal birds wheeled and darted with their cacophony of morning cries. Guillemots were gathering along the coast in preparation for their departure during the harsh winter months. A few razorbills, who had already left their cliff nests, could still be seen here and there but they, too, would be gone within the next few weeks. The residue of the hardier summer birds was vanishing now, like the cormorants. Now was the time when the gulls began to dominate; these were the abundant flocks of common gulls, smaller and less aggressive than the large, black-backed glaucous gull.
Colla had risen some time before dawn to take his cart up to the Abbey of St Declan, which stood on the top of the steep headland called Ardmore, the high point overlooking the small harbour settlement below. Colla not only kept the local tavern but he traded with the merchants whose ships used the bay as a sheltered haven; merchants sailing to Éireann's shore from as far afield as Britain, Gaul and from even more distant lands.
His trip that morning had been to deliver four great casks of wine and olive oil which had arrived in a Gaulish merchant shipon the previous evening's tide. In return for such wares, the Abbey's industrious Brothers supplied leather goods - shoes, purses and bags - as well as objects made from skins of otter, squirrel and hare. Colla was now returning to the harbour to the Gaulish merchant, who would be sailing on the evening tide. The Abbot had been well pleased with the transaction as, indeed, had Colla; his commission was substantial enough to mould his rugged features into a smile of satisfaction as he set out across the headland.
For a moment, however, he halted his donkeys to view the scene below. It gave him a sense of proprietorship as he gazed down, perhaps of power. He could see the tiny harbour in the bay below and several ships bobbing at their anchorage. For Colla, the view seemed to put things in a perspective from which he felt like a king surveying his kingdom.
A shiver interrupted his thoughts as a fresh wind gusted in from the north-west. He'd discerned a subtle change in the morning breeze and realised that it had become stronger and colder. The sun had been up over an hour now and the tide was on the turn. Any moment now, he expected a movement in the bay below. Colla flicked the reins and eased the cart and its burden forward along the steep track twisting down the hill towards the small sandy bay which stretched before him.
Among the ships below, he caught sight of the black silhouettes of a couple of great sea-going vessels, the ler-longa, at anchor in the sheltered harbour. From this vantage point, they looked small and fragile but he knew that, in reality, they were large and sturdy, measuring twenty-five metres from stern to stern - enough to brave the great oceans beyond these shores.
His head jerked as he heard an explosive crack, above the general cries of the birds and the distant hiss of the sea. It was immediately followed by an outraged chorus of cries, as disturbed sea birds rose up above the bay, screaming their displeasure. It was the sound and movement that he had been expecting. His keen eyes saw one of the ler-longa moving slowly from its anchorage. The crack had been the great leather sail snapping before the wind as it was hauled into place, straining before the gusts as it was secured. Colla smiled knowingly. The captain would have been in a hurry to utilise the north-western dawn wind combined with the turning tide. What did the sailors call it? A lee-tide running in the same direction as the wind. Good seamanship would soon bring the ship out of the bay and beyond the Ardmore headland southwards to the vast open sea.
Colla strained his eyes to make sure of the identification of theship, but only one vessel was due to set sail on the morning tide. It was Murchad's Gé Ghúirainn - 'The Barnacle Goose'. Murchad had told him that he was due to leave with a collection of pilgrims setting out for some holy shrine beyond the seas. Indeed, as Colla had driven his cart up towards the Abbey, he had passed a band of religieux, men and women, walking down to the harbour to go aboard her. That was not unusual. The Abbey of St Declan was frequented by such bands of pilgrims from every corner of the Five Kingdoms of Éireann. They usually stayed at the Abbey prior to joining their respective ships which would convey them to their various destinations. Some pilgrims, depending on their character, preferred to stay in Colla's tavern. He had a few such staying with him the previous night who must now be on board The Barnacle Goose. There was one young female religieuse who had arrived very late and who was anxious to be aboard at dawn. And Colla's nephew, Menma, who helped him run the tavern, had told him that a man and woman had arrived earlier to take a room but they were joining the pilgrim ship as well.
The Barnacle Goose appeared to be making good time through the water, helped onwards by the favourable wind and tide. In some ways, Colla envied Murchad and his handsome ship, heading out across the horizon to adventure and unknown lands. In other ways, the tavernkeeper knew that such a life was not for him. He was no sailor and preferred his days to be more predictable. However, he could have stopped on the headland watching the sea and the ships below all day but he had work to do, a tavern to run. So he turned his attention back to the track, flicking the reins and clucking softly to increase the gait of his donkeys. The animals twitched their ears and obediently strained forward.
It took him all his concentration to negotiate the track because it was always more difficult bringing a cart down a steep hill than hauling it up. He came to a halt in his tavern yard. When he had left, it had been dark, with no one stirring. Now the entire village was a hive of activity as fishermen departed to their boats; sailors, recovering from a drunken night's carousing ashore, stirred and made their way back to their ships, while labourers left for the day's work in the fields.
Menma, Colla's assistant, a dour-faced young man, was sweeping out the tavern's main room when the stocky tavernkeeper entered. Colla glanced around approvingly as he saw that Menma had already cleared the tables where the guests had breakfasted before their departure.
'Have you tidied the guests' chambers yet?' Colla asked, movingto pour himself a mug of sweet mead, to refresh himself from his journey.
His assistant shook his head resentfully.
'I have only just cleared the breakfast things away. Oh, and that Gaulish merchant came by asking for you. He said he would return soon with a couple of men to load the goods on his ship at midday.'
Colla nodded absently as he sipped his drink. Then he put it down with a reluctant sigh.
'I'd better make a start on the rooms then, otherwise we will have more guests arriving before we are ready. Did all the pilgrims get away safely?'
Menma pondered the question before answering.
'The pilgrims? I think so.'
'You only think so?' Colla teased. 'You would make a fine host, not to ensure that your guests have departed.'
The young man ignored his master's sarcasm.
'Well, there were a dozen other guests demanding food and only myself in the place to serve them,' he protested sulkily. He thought again. 'The man and woman, the religieux who arrived after the main meal last night - they'd both gone before light. I wasn't even up. I found that they had left money on the table here. You were out and about early. Did you see them leave?'
Colla shook his head.
'I met only one group of religieux on the road and they were coming from the Abbey, heading for the quay. Oh, and a short while after, another religieuse was following. Perhaps they were keen to be on the quay early?' He shrugged indifferently. 'Well, so long as they paid their dues. Out of a dozen guests we had only one other, apart from those two, bound for The Barnacle Goose this morning -- the young religieuse who arrived so late. Surely you would know if she was up and sailed with the tide or not?'
Menma disclaimed knowledge.
'I cannot remember her. But as she is not here, I presume that she either sailed or went a different way.' He shrugged. 'I have only one pair of eyes and hands.'
Colla pressed his lips together in annoyance. Were Menma not the son of his sister, he would make his ears sting with the back of his hand. He was turning out to be a lazy youth and always complaining. Colla had the impression that Menma seemed to think working in the tavern was a task below his station in life.
'Very well,' Colla replied, biting back his resentment. 'I'll startcleaning the guest rooms. You let me know when the Gaulish merchant returns.'
He turned up the wooden stairs to where the guest chambers were situated. These rooms were well-appointed, with one large room in which a dozen or more could squeeze in at a reduced fee, and with a half-a-dozen rooms for those who could afford to reward their host more generously. The communal room had been filled to capacity last night, mostly with drunken Gaulish sailors who were not able to row back to their own merchant ship due to a surfeit of alcohol and food. Of the rest of the rooms, five had been occupied. Three of the guests had been visiting merchants. Then there had been the religieux who, for one reason or another, had declined the hospitality of the Abbey on the hill. That was not unusual.
Colla had not seen the youthful monk and the young Sister who, so Menma had told him, had arrived without baggage after the main meal had been finished. They had not even asked for food but had taken one of the separate rooms. He did, however, recall the third late arrival, the young religieuse, because she had arrived very late and seemed so nervous and ill-at-ease. She had hung around outside the tavern for some time, as if expecting someone to join her, and had eventually asked Colla if anyone had been enquiring for her. He tried to remember the name she had given but could not. He had wondered whether she would be happier in the cloisters of the Abbey but she had insisted on taking a room and told him that it was too dark to make her way up the steep hill to the protection of the Abbey. She had also told Colla that she had to be up early to meet some fellow religieux and join them aboard a pilgrim ship. As only Murchad's The Barnacle Goose was sailing with the morning tide, he had assumed that it could be no other vessel. He should have left Menma with specific instructions to see that the girl was roused in time. The taverner took his duties concerning the welfare of his guests very seriously.
Colla paused on the landing at the top of the stairs for a moment, as if summoning his enthusiasm for the task. He hated cleaning. It was the worst aspect of keeping a tavern. Colla had been hoping that his sister's son would share the burden of work, for he himself had never married, but the boy was turning into a liability.
Taking a broom, he pushed open the door of the communal room, immediately screwing up his face at the stench of stale wine fumes, old sweat and other odours that hung above the jumble and chaos of the discarded sleeping mattresses. Then, deciding to take the easier option, he turned towards the individual rooms. At least they would be easier to clean first and he would return to the general disorder afterwards.
The doors of the rooms all stood ajar, except for one at the end of the row. That was the room in which he himself had installed the young female latecomer. Colla believed himself to be a good judge of human character. He guessed that the young woman was a fastidious person, the type to tidy her room and shut her door when leaving it. He smiled in self-satisfaction at his perspicacity, mentally promising himself a drink if he turned out to be right. It was a game he often played, as if he needed some excuse to take a drink from his own stores. Then, unable to present himself with any further distractions, he forced himself to set to work.
He surprised himself by cleaning each room swiftly but with a thoroughness that belied the quick movements with which he tidied up. He was feeling pleased with his progress by the time he came to the fifth chamber, the one used by the young religieux couple. He entered it. It had been left in almost pristine condition, with the bed neatly made. If only all his guests were so clean and tidy! He was just congratulating himself on not having to do much work in here, when he caught sight of something on the floor. It was a dark stain. It looked as if someone had trodden in something, and yet there was no foul odour of excrement. Cautiously, Colla bent and dabbed at it with his finger. It was still damp yet nothing came off on his hand.
To reassure himself, he glanced around the room. His first impression had been correct: it was tidy enough. He stared back down to the single stain, and frowned in bewilderment.
In retrospect, he did not know why he turned from the room, without cleaning it. As he did so, he saw another stain on the floor outside the entrance to the sixth room. He hesitated a moment, tapped on the door and then lifted the latch, pushing it open.
The room was in shadows for the curtain covering the window had not been drawn back, but it was light enough to see that someone was still lying in the bed.
Colla cleared his throat. 'Sister, you have overslept,' he called nervously. 'Your ship is gone - sailed. Sister, you must wake up!'
There was no movement from the form under the blankets.
Colla moved slowly forward, dreading what he would find. He could tell instinctively that something was very wrong. When he reached the window at the head of the bed, he drew back the curtain so that light flooded into the room. At the same time he noticed that the blanket covered the head as well as the body which lay still on the bed. There was a meat-knife on the floor. He recognised it as one from his own kitchen.
'Sister?' There was desperation in his voice now. He did not want to believe what his mind was already telling him.
With a trembling hand he took hold of the edge of the blanket. It was sodden to the touch. Even without looking, he knew that it was not with water. Very gently, he pulled the blanket away from the face beneath.
The young woman lay there, eyes wide and glazed, her mouth twisted into a final grimace of pain. Her skin was waxy. She had been dead some time. Deeply shocked, Colla forced his eyes to drop from her pallid stare to her body. The white linen of her shift was ripped and torn and suffused in blood. He had never seen such savagery inflicted with a knife before. The body had been cut - hacked - as if a butcher had mistaken the young woman's soft flesh for that of a lamb to be slaughtered.
Colla dropped the blood-soaked blanket back to cover the figure with a curious groaning sound. He turned swiftly away and started to retch.
ACT OF MERCY. Copyright © 1999 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.