Valley of the Shadow

A Celtic Mystery

Mysteries of Ancient Ireland featuring Sister Fidelma of Cashel (Volume 6 of 25)

Peter Tremayne

Minotaur Books

Valley of the Shadow
Chapter One
Hunters were coming. Humans. The baying of their hounds echoed eerily through the narrow glen. Rising swiftly from the waters of a small central lake, a speckled, white-rumped, curlew flapped upwards, announcing its annoyance at having to leave a potential meal of choice crab behind; its long down-curved beak giving forth a haunting, plaintive cry - 'coo-li!', 'coo-li!'. It rose upwards into the air until it became a mere black speck, moving in ever widening circles, against the cloudless azure sky. The only other object in that blue canopy was the large, bright, gold-white orb of the sun now settling towards the western half of the sky and whose rays caused the indigo waters of the lake to sparkle like a myriad of bright, glittering jewels as the beams caught it.
It was a hot, lazy day. But now, the sluggish atmosphere was being disturbed as a general alarm began to spread. An otter, with its long body and powerful tail curving behind, ran swiftly for cover with a hunched and rolling gait. On a mountain track, a fallow deer buck, with broad blade antlers, still covered by velvet growth, which would shortly be discarded when the rutting season arrived, halted with its nostrils quivering. Had the baying of the hounds not warned it, the peculiar scent of man, its only feared predator, would have caused the beast to turn and scramble upwards, over the shoulder of the hill away from the approaching menace. Only a single animal remained nibbling on the gorse and heather, apparently unconcerned by the frenzy which seized its fellow beasts. On a rocky protrusion stood a small, shaggy-haired, sure-footed feral goat, with its spreading horns. With its jaws rhythmically munching, it continued in its indifferent, lethargic stance.
Below, part of the valley was covered with a thicket of shrubs and trees which came down almost to the lakeside. This wood spilled through the northern end of the valley, tumbling to within fifty yards of the lake where low gorse and heather took over and spread through the rest of the basin. Most of the woodland growth consisted of the thorny brushwood of the blackthorn, with its tooth-edged toughened branches, looking little different from the cherry plumswhich grew amidst it, thickening the spread of the broad trunk oaks with their massive crooked branches and spreading crowns. Along a narrow, dark passage through this forest came the sound of a physical presence pushing rapidly through the restraining branches and the clinging shrubbery.
Out of the woodland thicket there burst the figure of a young man. He skidded to a halt, his chest heaving as he vainly sought to control his erratic, gasping breath. His eyes widened in dismay as he saw the vast, coverless expanse of valley before him, the sides moving gently upwards to the rock-strewn hills. A soft groan of despair came to his lips as he sought for a means of concealment in the bare landscape before him. He turned back towards the thicket but the sounds of his pursuers were close. Behind him, still concealed by the dense wood, he could hear them. The baying of the hounds had turned into frenetic yelps of excitement as they sensed the nearness of their prey.
Grim desperation etched the young man's features. He began to stumble forward again. He wore a long costume of rough brown homespun, the habit of a religious. It was torn and some thorny branches had attached themselves to it where the wool had proven too strong for the smaller twigs to rip entirely away. Mud and even blood, where the thorns had encountered flesh, stained the young man's clothing. Two things confirmed that the garment was, indeed, that of a religious. Firstly, he wore his head shaven at the front to a line from ear to ear, his hair flowing long at the back, in the fashion of the tonsure of St John which was affected by the religieux of Ireland. Secondly, around his neck he wore a silver chain on which was hung a silver crucifix.
The young man, who was in his early twenties, would have been handsome but now his features were twisted in anxiety, his face bore the numerous scratch marks of passing undergrowth. Traces of blood and bruising were to be observed on his ruddy cheeks. Above all, it was the fear in his wide dark eyes that distorted his features. The young man had given himself up to fear, his entire body oozed fear like the sweat which poured from it.
With a smothered cry, he turned and began to run towards the lake, his hands grabbing at his long habit, to stop it encumbering his feet and make his progress easier. He had long ago lost his sandals. His feet were bare, lacerated and caked with mud and blood. He was oblivious to the pain, for pain was the last thing that seemed to permeate his thoughts. Around his left ankle he wore an iron circlet of the sort hostages or slaves wore, for there was a circular link through which a chain or rope might be passed.
The young man had only proceeded a few yards towards the lake when he realised the futility of seeking any sanctuary there. There were only a few shrubs around it and nothing else. It had, for too long, been used as a watering spot by the wild life for there was not even long grass or gorse growing around it. Countless creatures had masticated the verdure into a short stubble over the years. There was no place for concealment.
With a curious whine of desperation, the young man paused and threw up his arms in a helpless gesture. Then he spun round towards the sloping hills where the feral goat still stood in aloof indifference. He began to scramble desperately upwards. His foot caught on the rag of the torn hem of his habit and he tripped and fell heavily; the little breath he had left was knocked from him.
It was at that moment that the first of his pursuers emerged from the forest behind.
Three men on foot came running out of the woods, each holding a leash at the end of which was a large mastiff, each beast straining and pulling, jaws slavering, yelping eagerly as they saw their prey. The three huntsmen spread out slightly but the young man was too exhausted to endeavour to escape. He had raised himself on an elbow and half lay, half sat, gasping as the men approached. There was a fearful resignation on his features.
'Don't unleash the hounds,' he cried breathlessly, anxiety edging his voice, as the huntsmen came within earshot. 'I will not run any more.'
None of the three made any reply but came to a halt before the young man, their hands firm upon the leashes so that the great hounds were almost within touching distance of him. They strained forward, whining in their eagerness to be at him, the spittle on their muzzles, their great rough tongues almost able to touch his skin. He could feel their hot breath and he cringed away.
'Keep them back, for the love of God!' cried the young man as his backward evasive movement caused them to strain forward further with snapping jaws.
'Do not move!' ordered one of the huntsmen roughly to the young man. He gave a swift tug on the leash to bring his animal under control. The other men quieted their dogs.
Now, out of the woods, came a fourth figure on horseback. At the sight of this figure, the young man's eyes flickered nervously. The corners of his mouth pinched as though he feared this figure more than the straining mastiffs before him. The figure was slender, seated at ease in the saddle, and rode with loose rein, allowing the horse to amble forward as if out for a morning ride without anurgency to be anywhere. The rider paused for a moment, gazing upon the scene.
The rider was a young woman. A helmet of burnished bronze encased her head, under which no hair escaped so tight did it fit. A thin band of twisted silver was set around the helmet meeting at the centre with a gleaming semi-precious stone. Apart from that single circlet of silver, she wore no other jewellery. No cloak adorned her shoulders and her clothing was a simple saffron-coloured linen dress pulled in at the waist with a man's heavy leather belt with a purse attached. From this belt, an ornate knife in a leather scabbard hung on her right side while on her left a longer scabbard was balanced with the intricately worked handle of a sword protruding from it.
The face was slightly rounded, almost heart-shaped and not unattractive. The skin was pale although there was a slight blush on the cheeks. The lips were well shaped but a trifle pale. The eyes cold and sparkling like ice. A cursory glance would have made one think the woman was young and innocently attractive but a second glance might cause one to dwell on the hardness of the mouth and the curious menacing glint in the fathomless eyes. The corner of her mouth twisted slightly as she saw the huntsmen and their dogs threatening the figure of the young man on the ground.
The leader of the huntsmen glanced over his shoulder and smiled with satisfaction as the woman walked her horse across to them.
'We have him, lady,' he called, stating the obvious with satisfaction.
'That you do,' agreed the woman in an almost pleasant tone which made her voice sound the more menacing.
The young man had recovered some of his breath now. His right hand was twisting nervously at the silver crucifix which he wore around his neck.
'For pity's sake ...' he began but the woman held up a hand in a gesture calling for silence.
'Pity? Why do you expect pity, priest?' she demanded in a hectoring tone. 'I have enough pain of my own to cry for another's pity.'
'I am not responsible for your pain,' returned the young man defensively.
The woman gave a sharp bark of staccato laughter which caused even the straining hounds to turn their heads momentarily at the unexpected discordant noise.
'Are you not a priest of the Faith of Christ?' she sneered.
'I am a servant of the True Faith,' the young man agreed, almost defiantly.
'Then there is no mercy for you in my heart,' the woman replied sourly. 'On your feet, priest of Christ. Or do you wish to begin your journey to the Otherworld laying down? It makes little difference to me.'
'Mercy, lady. Let me depart in peace from these lands and, I swear, you will never see my face again!'
The young man scrambled to his feet and would have rushed to her stirrup to plead at her foot had he not been held back by the threatening hounds.
'By the sun and the moon,' the woman smiled cynically, 'you almost persuade me that I should not pour water on a drowning mouse! Enough! Nothing emboldens wrong doing more than mercy. Bind him!'
The last order was directed to her huntsmen. One of them handed the leash of his dog to another, drew a large dagger-like knife and moved to the nearest clump of blackthorn, cutting a stout pole some five feet in length. He returned, taking a rope, which he had carried wound around his shoulder, and motioned the young man to come forward. Reluctantly he did so. The pole was placed behind his back, between it and his elbows, and then the arms were tied so that the wood acted almost in the manner of a painful halter.
The woman looked on approvingly. When the binding was completed, by the expedient of another piece of rope tied loosely around the neck of the young man with the other end held in the hand of a huntsman, the woman nodded in satisfaction. She glanced up at the sky and then back to the group before her. The hounds had quieted, the excitement of the hunt having receded.
'Come, we have a long journey before us,' she said, turning her horse and moving off at a walking pace back towards the forest path.
The huntsman leading the prisoner advanced after her with the other two and the hounds bringing up the rear.
Stumbling, the young priest cried out once more.
'For the love of God, have you no mercy?'
The huntsman jerked quickly on the rope, tightening it around the hapless young man's neck. He turned to his charge with a black-toothed grin.
'You'll survive longer, Christian, if you save your breath.'
Ahead of them, the mounted figure of the woman continued on without concern. She stared straight ahead with a fixed expression. She rode as if she were alone, ignoring those who came behind her.
High up on the hillside, the feral goat stood, watching theirdisappearance back into the wood, with the same indifference that it had displayed throughout the encounter.
And eventually the circling curlew returned downwards to the lakeside in search of its interrupted meal.
VALLEY OF THE SHADOW. Copyright © 1998 by Peter Tremayne.