The man had not been dead long. The blood and spittle around his twisted lips had not even dried. The body swung to and fro in the faint breeze, suspended at the end of a stout hemp rope from the branch of a squat oak tree. The head was twisted at an awkward angle where the neck had been broken. The clothes were torn and if the man had worn sandals then they had since been taken by scavengers for there was no sign of any footwear. The contorted hands, still sticky with blood, showed that the man had not died without a struggle.
It was not the fact that a man had been hanged on a crossroad tree that caused the small party of travellers to halt. The travellers had become used to witnessing ritual executions and punishments since they had crossed from the land of Rheged into the kingdom of Northumbria. The Angles and Saxons who dwelt there seemed to live by a harsh code of penalties for those who transgressed their laws, from an assortment of mutilations of the body to execution by the most painful means devised, the most common and humane being by hanging. The sight of one more unfortunate suspended on a tree no longer troubled them. What had caused the party to draw rein on their mounts, an assortment of horses and mules, was something else.
The party of travellers consisted of four men and two women. Each was clad in the undyed wool tunica of the religious, and the hair of the men was shaven at the front, their tonsure markingthem as brothers of the church of Columba from the Holy Island of Iona. Almost as one they had halted to sit staring up at the body of the man hanging in gruesome wide-eyed death, the tongue blackened and stretched between the lips in what must have been one last frantic gasp for air. The face of everyone in the party was grim with apprehension as it examined the body.
The reason was not hard to discern. The head of the body was also shaven with the tonsure of Columba. What remained of his clothing proclaimed it to have once consisted of the habit of a religieux, though there was no sign of the crucifix, leather belt and satchel that a peregrinus pro Christo would have carried.
The leading traveller had drawn near on his mule and gazed up with a terrified expression on his white features.
Another of the party, one of the two women, urged her mount nearer and gazed up at the corpse with a steady eye. She rode a horse, a fact that signified that she was no ordinary religieuse but a woman of rank. There was no fear on her pale features, just a slight expression of repulsion and curiosity. She was a young woman, tall but well proportioned, a fact scarcely concealed by her sombre dress. Rebellious strands of red hair streaked from beneath her headdress. Her pale-skinned features were attractive and her eyes were bright and it was difficult to discern whether they were blue or green, so changeable with emotion were they.
'Come away, Sister Fidelma,' muttered her male companion in agitation. 'This is not a sight for your eyes.'
The woman addressed as Sister Fidelma grimaced in vexation at his anxious tone.
'Whose eyes is it a sight for, Brother Taran?' she responded. Then, edging her horse even closer to the corpse, she observed,'Our brother is not long dead. Who can have done this terrible deed? Robbers?'
Brother Taran shook his head.
'This is a strange country, sister. This is only my second mission to it. Thirty years have passed since we first began to bring the word of Christ to this Godforsaken land. There still be many pagans about with scant respect for our cloth. Let us move on - quickly. Whoever did this deed may have remained in the vicinity. The abbey of Streoneshalh cannot be too far distant and we want to reach it before the sun drops below those hills.'
He shivered slightly.
The young woman continued to frown, displaying her irritation.
'You would continue on and leave one of our brethren in this manner? Unblessed and unburied?'
Her voice was sharp and angry.
Brother Taran shrugged, his obvious fear making him a sorry spectacle. She turned to her companions.
'I have need of a knife to cut our brother down,' she explained. 'We must pray for his soul and accord him a Christian burial.'
The others cast uneasy glances at each other.
'Perhaps Brother Taran is right,' replied her female companion, apologetically. She was a large-boned girl, sitting heavy and awkward on her mount. 'After all, he knows this country - as do I. Was I not a prisoner here for several years, taken as a hostage from the land of the Cruthin? Best to press on to seek the shelter of the abbey of Streoneshalh. We can report this atrocity to the abbess there. She will know how to deal with the matter.'
Sister Fidelma pursed her lips and exhaled in annoyance.
'We can at least deal with our departed brother's spiritual needs, Sister Gwid,' she replied shortly. She paused a moment. 'Has no one a knife?'
Hesitantly, one of her male companions moved forward and handed over a small knife.
Sister Fidelma took it and dismounted, moving across to where the rope that held the body was tied to a lower branch to keep it in place. She had raised the knife to cut it when a sharp cry caused her to turn sharply round in the direction of the sound.
Half-a-dozen men had emerged on foot from the woods on the far side of the road. They were led by a man mounted on a horse - a burly man with long unkempt hair curling from underneath a polished bronze helmet and merging into a great bushy black beard. He wore a burnished breastplate and carried himself with some authority. His companions, clustered behind him, carried an assortment of weaponry, mostly staffs and bows with arrows strung but not drawn.
Sister Fidelma had no knowledge of what the man shouted, but it was clearly an order, and it took little guessing that it was an order for her to desist in her task.
She glanced at Brother Taran, who was patently apprehensive.
'Who are these people?'
'They are Saxons, sister.'
Sister Fidelma gestured with impatience.
'That I can deduce for myself. But my knowledge of Saxon is imperfect. You must speak with them and ask who they are and what they know of this murder.'
Brother Taran turned his mule and, in stumbling fashion, called out to the leader of the men.
The burly man with the helmet grinned and spat before letting forth a volley of sounds.
'He says his name is Wulfric of Frihop, thane to Alhfrith of Deira, and that this is his land. His hall lies beyond the trees.'
Brother Taran's voice was nervous and he translated in a worried staccato.
'Ask him what this means?' Sister Fidelma's voice was cold and commanding as she gestured towards the hanging body.
The Saxon warrior rode closer, examining Brother Taran with a curious frown. Then his bearded face broke into an evil grin. His close-set eyes and furtive look reminded Fidelma of a cunning fox. He nodded his head as if amused as Taran spoke hesitantly and replied, spitting on the ground again in emphasis as he did so.
'It means that the brother was executed,' translated Taran.
'Executed?' Fidelma's brows drew together. 'By what law does this man dare execute a monk of Iona?'
'Not of Iona. The monk was a Northumbrian from the monastery on the Fame Islands,' came the reply.
Sister Fidelma bit her lip. She knew that the bishop of Northumbria, Colmán, was also abbot of Lindisfarne and that the abbey was the centre of the church in this kingdom.
'His name? What was the name of this brother?' demanded Fidelma. 'And what was his crime?'
Wulfric shrugged eloquently.
'His mother probably knew his name - and his God. I did not know it.'
'Under what law was he executed?' she pressed again, trying to control the anger she felt.
The warrior, Wulfric, had moved so that his mount was close to the young religieuse. He leant forward in his saddle towardsher. Her nose wrinkled as she smelt his foul breath and saw his blackened teeth grinning at her. He was clearly impressed that, young as she was, and woman that she was, she did not seem afraid of him or of his companions. His dark eyes were speculative as he rested both hands on the pommel of his saddle and smirked towards the swinging body.
'The law that says a man who insults his betters must pay the price.'
'Insults his betters?'
'The monk,' Taran continued to translate in nervous fashion, 'arrived at Wulfric's village at noon seeking rest and hospitality on his journey. Wulfric, being a good Christian,' - had Wulfric emphasised this point or was it merely Taran's translation? - 'granted him rest and a meal. The mead was flowing in the feasting hall when the argument broke out.'
'It seems that Wulfric's king, Alhfrith ...'
'Alhfrith?' interrupted Fidelma. 'I thought Oswy was the king of Northumbria?'
'Alhfrith is Oswy's son and petty king of Deira, which is the southern province of Northumbria in which we are now.'
Fidelma motioned Taran to continue his translation.
'This Alhfrith has become a follower of Rome and has expelled many monks from the monastery of Ripon for not following the teachings and liturgy of Rome. Apparently, one of Wulfric's men engaged this monk in discourse on the rival merits of the liturgy of Columba and the teachings of Rome. The discussion turned to argument and argument to anger and the monk said heated words. The words were considered insulting.'
Sister Fidelma stared at the thane in disbelief.
'And for this the man was killed? Killed for mere words?'
Wulfric had been stroking his beard impassively and now he smiled, nodding again as Taran put the question to him.
'This man insulted the thane of Frihop. For that he was executed. Common man may not insult one of noble birth. It is the law. And it is the law that the man must remain hanging here for one full moon from this day.'
Anger now clearly formed on the features of the young sister. She knew little of Saxon law and in her opinion it was blatantly unjust, but she was wise enough to know how far to exhibit her indignation. She turned and swung herself easily back on to her horse and stared at the warrior.
'Know this, Wulfric, I am on my way to Streoneshalh, where I shall meet with Oswy, king of this land of Northumbria. And there I shall inform Oswy of how you have treated this servant of God and one who is under his protection as Christian king of this land.'
If the words were meant to give Wulfric any apprehension, they did not.
The man simply threw back his head and roared with laughter as her speech was translated.
Sister Fidelma's keen eyes had not ceased to keep watch not only on Wulfric but on his companions, who stood fingering their bows while the exchange was taking place, glancing now and then at their leader as if to anticipate his orders. Now she felt it time for discretion. She nudged her horse forward, followed by a relieved Brother Taran and her companions. She purposefully kept her mount to a walking gait. Haste would betray fear and fear was the last thing to show such a bully as Wulfric obviously was.
To her surprise, no attempt was made to stop them. Wulfric and his men simply remained looking after them, some laughing amongst themselves. After a while, when enough distance had been placed between them and Wulfric's band at the crossroads, Fidelma turned with a shake of her head to Taran.
'This is, indeed, a strange pagan country. I thought that this Northumbria was ruled in peace and contentment by Oswy?'
It was Sister Gwid, who like Brother Taran was of the Cruthin of the north, those whom many called the Picts, who answered Fidelma. Sister Gwid knew something of the ways and the language of Northumbria, having been for several years a captive within its borders.
'You have much to learn of this savage place, Sister Fidelma,' she began.
The condescension in her voice died as Fidelma turned her fiery eyes on her. 'Then tell me.' Her voice was cold and clear like the crystal waters of a racing mountain stream.
'Well.' Gwid was more contrite now. 'Northumbria was once settled by Angles. They are no different to the Saxons in the south of this country; that is, their language is the same and they used to worship the same outlandish gods until our missionaries began to preach the word of the true God. Two kingdoms were set up here, Bernicia to the north and Deira to the south. Sixty years ago, the two kingdoms were joined as one and this is now ruled by Oswy. But Oswy allows his son, Alhfrith, to be petty king of his southern province, Deira. Is this not so, Brother Taran?'
Brother Taran nodded sourly.
'A curse on Oswy and his house,' he muttered. 'Oswy's brother, Oswald, when he was king, led the Northumbrians to invade our country when I was but new born. My father, whowas a chieftain of the Gododdin, was slain by them and my mother cut down before him as he lay dying. I hate them all!'
Fidelma raised an eyebrow.
'Yet you are a brother of Christ devoted to peace. You should have no hate in your heart.'
Taran sighed. 'You are right, sister. Sometimes our creed is a hard taskmaster.'
'Anyway,' she continued, 'I thought Oswy was educated at Iona and that he favoured the liturgy of the church of Colmcille? Why then would his son be a follower of Rome and an enemy to our cause?'
'These Northumbrians call the Blessed Colmcille by the name Columba,' intervened Sister Gwid pedantically. 'It is easier for them to pronounce.'
It was Brother Taran who answered Fidelma's question.
'I believe that Alhfrith is at enmity with his father, who has married again. Alhfrith fears that his father means to disinherit him in favour of Ecgfrith, his son by his current wife.'
Fidelma sighed deeply.
'I cannot understand this Saxon law of inheritance. I am told that they accept the first-born son as the heir rather than, as we do, allow the most worthy of the family to be elected by free choice.'
Sister Gwid suddenly gave a shout and pointed to the distant horizon.
'The sea! I can see the sea! And that black building on the horizon there - that must be the abbey of Streoneshalh.'
Sister Fidelma halted her horse and gazed into the distance with narrowed eyes.
'What say you, Brother Taran? You know this part of the country. Are we near the end of our journey?'
Taran's face expressed relief.
'Sister Gwid is right. That is our destination - Streoneshalh, the abbey of the Blessed Hilda, cousin to King Oswy.'
ABSOLUTION BY MURDER. Copyright © 1994 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.