The Subtle Serpent

A Celtic Mystery

Mysteries of Ancient Ireland featuring Sister Fidelma of Cashel (Volume 4 of 25)

Peter Tremayne

Minotaur Books

The Subtle Serpent
Chapter One
The gong was struck twelve times, its vibration rousing Sister Brónach from her contemplation. Then she heard the gong being struck once again; a single, clear, sharp note. She sighed as she recognised the lateness of the hour and, rising swiftly from her knees before a statue of the Christ in His Suffering, she genuflected. It was an automatic motion, hastily made without thought or meaning, before she turned and made her way from the duirthech, the wooden chapel of the abbey.
In the stone-flagged corridor outside the doors of the chapel, she paused as her ears detected the curious shuffling of leather-soled sandals on the stone. Round the far corner, along the gloomy passageway, which was lit by smoky candles of fat, fixed in their iron holders to the walls, came a procession of dark robed and cowled figures, walking two by two. The hooded figures of the sisters, led by the imposing, tall figure of the matriarch of their order, seemed like a line of wraiths haunting the dim corridor. The sisters of the community of The Salmon of the Three Wells, a euphemism for the Christ, shuffled along with heads bowed; no one looked up as they passed Sister Brónach, who was now standing to the side of the open door to the chapel. Not even the Abbess Draigen acknowledged her presence. The sisters proceeded, without speaking, into the chapel for the midday prayers. The last of the sisters paused only to turn and close the door behind the procession.
Sister Brónach had waited, with hands folded before herand head respectfully bent, as they passed her by. Only when the chapel door thudded softly closed behind them did she raise her head. It was plain to see why Sister Brónach bore her name. Her countenance was, indeed, sorrowful. The middle-aged religieuse was never known to smile. In fact, she was never known to demonstrate any emotion, her features seemed permanently engraved in lines of doleful meditation. There was an irreverent saying among her fellow religieuses that if Brónach the Sorrowful ever smiled it would herald a 'second coming' of the Saviour.
For five years Brónach had been the doirseór, the doorkeeper, of the community which had been founded by the Blessed Necht the Pure over three generations before. The foundation was perched on a lonely southern peninsula of the kingdom of Muman, the south-westerly of the five kingdoms of Éireann. It stood at the foot of the mountains, in a small, wooded inlet of the sea. Brónach had joined the community when she was a young, timid and unenterprising woman, thirty years ago. She had sought refuge in the community purely as a means of sanctuary from the harsh and demanding life of her isolated island village. Now, in her middle years, Sister Brónach remained as timid and unenterprising as ever she had been; content to let her life be governed by the sounding of the gong from the small tower where the time-keeper kept watch on the community's water-clock. The community was famed throughout the kingdom for its remarkable time-keeping. On the sounding of the gong, Sister Brónach would have some task to fulfil in her office as doorkeeper of the community. The office, doirseór, sounded consequential but it was no more than a title for a maid of all work. Yet Sister Brónach seemed contented with her lot in life.
The gong had just sounded the hour of midday when it was Sister Brónach's task and duty to draw water from the well and take it to the Abbess Draigen's chambers. After the midday prayers and meal, the abbess liked to bathe in heatedwater. Therefore, instead of attending the services with the rest of her sisters, Brónach would retreat to draw the water.
Hands folded under her robes, Sister Brónach moved quickly forward, her leather sandals slapping the granite stones which paved the passage from the old wooden chapel, the duirthech, or oak house as such churches were always called, and into the main courtyard around which the habitations of the community were built. There had been a flurry of snow earlier that morning but it had already melted into a wet slush causing the paving of the square to be slippery. But she progressed confidently across it, passing the central bronze sundial, mounted on its polished slate plinth.
Although it was a cold, wintry day, the sky was mainly a translucent blue with a pale sun hanging high amidst wisps of straggling clouds. But here and there, along the horizon, low leaden clouds filled with snow hung in patches and Brónach could feel the chill air around the tips of her ears. She pulled her headdress tighter around her head for comfort.
At the end of the abbey courtyard stood a granite high cross, which sanctified the foundation. Brónach passed through a small opening beyond the cross and onto a tiny rocky plateau overlooking the sheltered inlet on which the religious foundation stood. On this natural rocky dais, which stood only ten feet above the stony shoreline of the inlet, from an aperture in the rugged ground, the Blessed Necht had found a gushing spring. She had sanctified the well. It had needed a benediction, for the stories told how it had previously been a spot sacred to the Druids who also drew water from this well.
Sister Brónach walked slowly to the well-head which was now encircled by a small stone wall. Over this the members of the community had constructed a mechanism for lowering a pail into the dark waters, now far below ground level, and then raising it by means of turning a handle which cranked a rope, winding it up and down. Sister Brónach couldremember a time when it took two or three of the sisters to raise water from the well whereas, after the mechanism was constructed, even an elderly sister could work it without great hardship.
Sister Brónach paused for a moment in silence as she stood at the well-head and gazed at the surrounding scenery. It was a curiously quiet hour of the day: a period of inexplicable silence when no birds sing, no creatures move and there is a feeling of a suspension of life, a feeling of some expectation; of waiting for something to happen. It was as if nature had suddenly decided to catch its breath. The chill winds had died away and were not even chattering among the tall granite peaks which rose behind the abbey. Sheep still wandered over their rough stone terrain like moving white boulders, while a few sinewy black cattle were gnawing at the short turf. Sister Brónach perceived the hollows of the hills were filled with the mystic blue shadows caused by the hanging clouds.
Not for the first time did Sister Brónach feel a sense of awe at her surroundings and at this mysterious hour of expectant tranquillity. She felt that the world seemed poised as if waiting for the blast of ancient horns which would summon the old gods of Ireland to appear and come striding down from the surrounding snow-peaked mountains. And the long grey granite boulders, which were scattered on the mountain sides, like men lying prone in the crystal light, would suddenly turn into the ancient warrior heroes of past ages; rise up and march behind the gods with their spears and swords and shields, to demand why the old faith and old ways had been forsaken by the children of Eire, the goddess of sovranty and fertility, whose name had been given to this primeval land.
Sister Brónach suddenly swallowed sharply and cast a swift, guilty glance around her, as if her fellow companions in Christ would hear her sacrilegious thoughts. She genuflected swiftly, as if to absolve her sin in thinking about the old,pagan gods. Yet she could not deny the truth of the feeling. Her own mother, peace be on her soul, had refused to hear the word of the Christ and remained firm in her belief in the old ways. Suanach! It was a long time since she had thought about her mother. She wished that she had not, for the thought cut like a sharp anguished blade in her memory even though it was twenty years since Suanach's death. Why had the memory come? Ah yes; she was thinking of the old gods. And this was a moment when, it seemed, the old gods and goddesses were making their presence felt. This was the hour of pagan sadness, a sorrowful echo from the very roots of the people's consciousness; a yearning for times past, a lament for the lost generations of Eire's people.
Far away, she heard the sound of the community's gong; another single stroke, from the watcher of the water-clock.
Sister Brónach started nervously.
A full pongc, the Irish unit of time equalling fifteen minutes, had passed since the sounding of the hour for midday prayers. The gong was sounded once to mark the passing of each pongc; then each hour was marked by striking the gong for the number of the hour. Every six hours, the cadar, or day's quarter, was also marked by an appropriate number of strikes. It was also the time when the watch was changed for no watcher was allowed more than a cadar at her onerous task.
Brónach compressed her lips slightly, realising how the Abbess Draigen disliked indolence, and looked round for the pail. It was not in its usual place. It was then that she noticed that the rope was already fully extended into the well. She frowned in annoyance. Someone had taken the pail, placed it on the hook and lowered it into the well but then, for some obscure reason, they had not raised it again but gone away and left the bucket in the bottom of the well. Such forgetfulness was inexcusable.
With a suppressed sigh of irritation, she bent to the handle. It was icy cold to the touch, reminding her of thecoldness of the winter day. To her surprise it was hard to turn as if a heavy weight were attached to it. She renewed her efforts by pushing with all her might. It was as if the handle was obstructed in some way. With difficulty, she began to turn the mechanism, winding the rope slowly, so very slowly, upward.
She paused after a while and glanced around hoping that one of her companions was nearby in order that she could request assistance in raising the pail. Never had a pail of water weighed so much as this. Was she ailing? Perhaps she was weakening in some way? No; she surely felt well and as strong as ever she had. She caught a glimpse of the distant, brooding mountains, and shivered. The shiver was not from the cold but from the chill of the superstitious fear that caught at her thoughts. Was God punishing her for heretical contemplation of the old religion?
She glanced anxiously upwards before bending to her task again with a muttered prayer of contrition.
'Sister Brónach!'
An attractive, youthful sister was striding from the community's buildings towards the well.
Sister Brónach groaned inwardly as she recognised the domineering Sister Síomha, who was the rechtaire, the steward, of the community and her immediate superior. Unfortunately, Sister Síomha's manner did not match the wide-eyed innocence of her becoming features. Síomha, for all her youth, had the well-founded reputation in the community of being a hard task-master.
Sister Brónach paused again and leaned her weight against the handle to secure it. She returned the disapproving expression of the newcomer with a bland countenance. Sister Síomha halted and gazed at her with a sniff of censure.
'You are late gathering the water for our abbess, Sister Brónach,' chided the younger sister. 'She has even had to send me to find you and remind you of the hour. Tempori parendum.'
Brónach's expression did not change.
'I am aware of the hour, sister,' she replied in a subdued tone. To be told that 'one must yield to time' when her life was governed continuously by the sounding of the gong of the water-clock was irritating even to her timorous personality. Making such a comment was as near to rebellion as Sister Brónach could get. 'However, I am having trouble raising the pail. Something appears to be restricting it.'
Sister Síomha sniffed again as if she believed that Sister Brónach was trying to find an excuse for her tardiness.
'Nonsense. I used the well earlier this morning. There was nothing wrong with the mechanism. It is easy enough to raise the pail.'
She moved forward, her body language pushing the elder sister aside without making contact. Her delicate yet strong hands gripped the bar of the handle and pushed. An expression of astonishment passed momentarily over her face as she encountered the obstruction.
'You are right,' she conceded wonderingly. 'Perhaps both of us can work it. Come, push when I say.'
Together they put their weight into the task. Slowly, with much exertion, they commenced to turn the handle, pausing every so often to rest a moment. Clouds of their exerted breaths drifted from their mouths to vanish in the crystal cold air. The makers of the mechanism had constructed a brake so that when the rope was raised fully, the brake could be applied in order that a single person could then take the filled pail from the hook without fear that the weight would send the bucket crashing back into the well. Both sisters strained and pulled until the rope reached the maximum point of raising and Sister Síomha put on the brake.
As she stood back, Sister Síomha saw a curious expression on the usually doleful countenance of her companion. Never had she seen such a look of wide-eyed terror as Sister Brónach displayed as she stood gazing towards the well-head behind Síomha. Indeed, never had she seen an expression other thanone of mournful obedience on the usually graven features of the middle-aged sister. Sister Síomha turned slowly wondering what Brónach was staring at in such a horror-struck fashion.
What she saw made her raise a hand to her mouth as if to suppress a cry of fear.
Hanging by one ankle, which was secured to the rope on which the pail was usually suspended, was a naked female body. It was still glistening white from its immersion in the icy water of the deep well. The body was hanging head downwards so that the upper part of the torso, the head and shoulders, were beyond their view being hidden in the well-head. But it was obvious from the pale, dead flesh of those parts of the body they could see, flesh smeared with cloying red mud, apparently not washed off in its immersion in the well water, and covered with innumerable scratch-like wounds, that it was a corpse.
Sister Síomha genuflected slowly.
'God between us and all evil!' she whispered. Then she made a move towards it. 'Quickly, Sister Brónach, help me cut down this poor unfortunate.'
Sister Síomha moved to the well-head and peered down, hands reaching forward to swing the body out of the well. Then, with a sharp cry which she could not stifle, she turned away, her face becoming a mask of shocked surprise.
Curious, Sister Brónach moved forward and peered into the well-head. In the semi-gloom of the well she saw that where the head of the body should have been was nothing. The body had been decapitated. What remained of the neck and shoulders were stained dark with blood.
She turned away suddenly and retched, trying to subdue her compulsion to nausea.
After a moment or so, Sister Brónach realised that Síomha was apparently too stunned to make any further decisions. Steeling herself, Brónach reached forward, quelling her revulsion, and attempted to pull the body towards the edge ofthe well. But the task was too great for her to manage on her own.
She glanced swiftly to Sister Síomha.
'You will have to help me, sister. If you grip the body, I will cut the rope that holds the unfortunate,' she instructed gently.
Swallowing hard, Sister Síomha sought to regain her composure, nodded briefly and unwillingly grasped the cold, wet flesh around the waist. She could not help the expression of repugnance as the chill, lifeless flesh touched her own.
Using her small knife, such as all the sisters carried, Sister Brónach cut the bonds which fastened the ankle of the corpse to the well rope. Then she helped Sister Síomha haul the headless body over the side of the well's small surrounding wall and onto the ground. The two religieuses stood for several moments staring down at the corpse, unsure of what next to do.
'A prayer for the dead, sister,' muttered Brónach uneasily. Together they intoned a prayer, the words meaningless as they vocalised the ritual. At the end of it there was a silence for some minutes.
'Who could do such a thing?' whispered Sister Síomha, after a moment or two.
'There is much evil about in the world,' replied Sister Brónach, more philosophically. 'But a more pertinent question would be -- who is this poor unfortunate? The body is that of a young woman; why, she can be no more than a girl.'
Sister Brónach succeeded in dragging her eyes away from the bloodied, mangled flesh around where the head should have been. The sight of the gory mess fascinated yet appalled and sickened her. The body was plainly that of a young and previously healthy woman, perhaps scarcely out of puberty. The only other disfigurement, apart from the missing head, was a wound in the chest. There was a bluish bruise on the flesh above the heart and, looking closer, the cutting woundmarked where a sharp blade point, or some such implement, had entered the heart. But the wound had long since ceased to bleed.
Sister Brónach forced herself to bend down and reached for one of the arms of the corpse to place them across the body before the stiffening of the flesh made such a task impossible. She suddenly dropped the arm and let out a loud gasp of breath almost as if she had received a blow in the solar plexus.
Startled, Sister Síomha followed the direction of Brónach's outstretched hand, now pointing to the left arm of the corpse. Something was tied around the arm which had been hidden from them by the position of the corpse. It was a length of wood, no more than a stick with notches carved on it. Sister Brónach knew Ogham, the ancient form of Irish writing, when she saw it, though she did not understand the meaning of the characters. Ogham was no longer in general use throughout the five kingdoms for the Latin alphabet was now being adopted as the form of characters in which Irish was written.
In bending forward to examine the wooden stick, however, her eyes caught sight of something clutched in the other hand of the corpse. A small, worn leather thong was wound around the right wrist and travelled into the clenched fist. Sister Brónach had steeled herself again to her task, kneeling beside the body and taking up the small white hands. She could not prise apart the fingers; the stiffening of death had already locked the hand permanently into a fist. Nevertheless, the fingers were splayed just wide enough for her to see that the leather thong was attached to a small metal crucifix and this was what the lifeless right hand was clutching so tightly.
Sister Brónach let out a low groan and glanced across her shoulder to where Sister Síomha was bending, with a fixed expression, to see what had been discovered.
'What can it mean, sister?' Sister Síomha's voice was taut, almost harsh.
Sister Brónach's face was grave. She was now fully in control of her features again.
She breathed deeply before replying in a measured tone as she stared down at the poorly wrought crucifix of burnished copper. Obviously no person of rank and wealth would have such a cheap object as this.
'It means that we should now summon Abbess Draigen, good sister. Whoever this poor headless girl was, I believe that she was one of our own. She was a sister of the Faith.'
Far off, in the tiny tower overlooking their community, they could hear the striking of the gong to mark the passing of another time period. The clouds were suddenly thickening and spreading across the sky. Cold flakes of snow were drifting across the mountains again.
THE SUBTLE SERPENT: A CELTIC MYSTERY. Copyright © 1996 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.