The Leper's Bell
By Peter Tremayne
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2004 Peter Tremayne
All rights reserved.
Amist was rolling down from the upper reaches of the mountains, cascading like a silent smoky-white tide towards the lower slopes, silently shrouding everything in its swift forward motion. Strangely, there appeared to be no wind disturbing the noiseless air, but the mist must have been activated by some cold, soft breath to start its avalanche-like movement.
The hungry vapour reached and enshrouded Nessán the shepherd as he moved swiftly down the rocky incline, following alongside the path of the frothy river, which rose in the now invisible high peaks above him. As the chilly fingers of the mist swept over him, he halted for a moment to adjust to the sudden change in visibility. Although he was no stranger to these mountains, he was thankful for the guidance of the river at his right hand side, for he knew that it flowed down to the lowlands, north into the sea, and he would not get lost. It had been a foolish thing to do: to venture into these mountains when the changeable weather could not be taken for granted. Many people had paid with their lives for such folly.
Yet had he really been foolish to ascend the mountains in the first place? He shivered again, though this time not with cold. He had dared the climb, in spite of the condemnation of the New Faith, in order to make supplication to the old gods. He had told no one about his intention, not even his wife Muirgen, even though it was for her that he had taken such a dangerous step as to ignore the priests of Christ.
He had started his ascent of the mountains at dawn, climbing up by the foaming river and passing the lake, deep, black and still, in the speckled hollow. He had gone on up to the high ridges until he came to the spot where the river rose and then cascaded in a spectacular long waterfall as it began its descent through the lake and down the mountainside. This was the Top of the Three Hollows, Barr Tri gCom, where the ancients claimed that this world and the Otherworld met, where the fate of the five kingdoms had been decided by the gods.
Nessán the shepherd knew the stories well enough, for the old storytellers had passed them down to his people as they huddled round the flickering fires of their hearths. It was here that the sons of Milidh had fought with the ancient gods and goddesses of the Children of Danu and broken their power, driving them into the hills and relegating them from powerful deities to small, mischievous sprites. But before that had happened, on these same slopes, three goddesses of Danu - Banba, Fódhla and Eire - came to the sons of Milidh and each had made a plea, acknowledging the victory of the sons of Milidh, that their names be given to the land. So it came to pass. While poets often hailed the land of Banba and Fódhla, the ordinary people accepted that they lived in the land of Eire.
The slopes of these same mountains, according to the ancient storytellers, had been drenched with blood, for the victory of the sons of Milidh was not easily come by. Indeed, on these very slopes fell Scota, daughter of the pharaoh Nectanebus, wife to Milidh, and her druid Uar; Fas, wife to the great hero Uige, who became ruler of Connacht, also perished with her druid Eithiar, and there fell three hundred of the greatest warriors who had followed the sons of Milidh. But in contrast, or so the stories went, there perished ten thousand followers of the Children of Danu, before the battle was conceded to Milidh's sons.
Indeed, these misty slopes had been fertilised by the ancient blood of the combatants. However, even that history was not the reason why these mountains were considered forbidding and often avoided by those who dwelt in their shadows.
It was said that in the time of Cormac the son of Art the Solitary, who was hailed as the 126th High King to rule at Tara, there was an attempt to invade the five kingdoms of Éireann by the army of Dáire Donn, who called himself King of the World. That formidable force landed on the very shores of the peninsula on which these same mountains rose. Cormac son of Art sent his great general, Fionn Mac Cumhail, and his élite warriors, the Fianna, to meet Dáire Donn. At a place called Fionntragha, the fair strand, by the shores of the sea, Fionn met the invaders and slaughtered every warrior of them.
Among the army was the daughter of Dáire Donn, a girl named Mis, who came upon her father's body on the battlefield. She began to drink the blood of his wounds and thus demented fled into the mountains, which took their name Sliabh Mis from her. Here she dwelt in her blood frenzy, killing every animal and human that passed her way and drinking their blood.
It required great courage for Nessán to brave these bloodstained mountains, but he felt desperate and desperation can give valour even to the most timid.
So he had ascended to the black waterfall, and, as he had heard his ancestors had done in the centuries before the New Faith arrived on these shores, he had snared a rabbit to make a sacrifice and called upon Dub Essa, the dark lady of the waterfall, to grant his wish. But not by a single sign did he receive an answer. He waited, trying not to show impatience, but he had no wish to spend a night on the upper reaches of the mountain. All was quiet, and eventually he saw the smoky mist rolling in from the sea. After a moment more of indecision, he reluctantly left the waterfall and began to follow the river downwards. He was on the lower slopes when the mist suddenly came down and engulfed him.
He continued determinedly along the path, hearing the gushing sounds of the river close by, oddly muffled by the mist that encompassed him. Beyond the length of a fertach, some three metres, the mist obscured everything and he concentrated his gaze on the ground immediately at his feet.
He was descending now to the level path at the foot of the mountains which he would take to the left, away from the river, around the base of the mountains towards his home. He was feeling a sense of relief that he had left the brooding, shrouded peaks behind him.
A hand bell jangled with a high, strident note in the mist ahead of him. It was a sharp sound even though it was somewhat muffled in the gloom.
He halted nervously.
There was a shadow seated by the dark rising trunk of a tree a short distance ahead. He could just make out the form in the swirling mist.
The hand bell jangled again.
'May the gods look down on you this day, Nessán the shepherd,' came a high-pitched and curiously singsong voice, its quality not sounding quite human in the distortion of the murkiness.
Nessán screwed up his eyes to focus better, feeling the same chill as when the mist had first engulfed him.
'Who speaks?' he replied gruffly, trying to disguise his nervousness.
'I speak,' came the same voice, with what seemed a parody of a chuckle. The hand bell rang sharply again. 'Salach! Salach!' The words were an automatic cry as the shepherd moved closer.
Nessán took an involuntary pace backwards. 'Are you a leper?'
He could not recognise the figure sitting at the bole of the tree because, from head to foot, it was covered in a hooded robe which did not reveal any features or show any flesh apart from one white - almost snow-white - claw that was the hand that held the small bell.
'I am,' came the response. 'I think that you know me, Nessán of Gabhlán.'
Nessán hesitated. A cold fear seized him as he realised who the leper was. Who had not heard of the Lord of the Passes, whose very name was a byword for terror and horror among the surrounding valleys?
'I know you, lord,' he whispered, 'but how do you know my name?'
This time the curious sound that came back through the mist was definitely a chuckle.
'I know many things, for are these not my lands and are you not of my people? Do I not know, Nessán, shepherd of Gabhlán, why you have been up to the Top of the Three Hollows? Do I not know why you have called on the dark lady of the waterfall even though it is forbidden by those who preach the New Faith?'
Nessán swallowed hard. 'How do you know these things?' He tried to sound defensive and demanding but only succeeded in sounding frightened.
'That is not for you to understand, Nessán.'
'What do you want of me, lord? I have done you no harm.'
This question brought another convulsion of mirth from the seated figure.
Nessán drew himself up. 'How do I know that you have the knowledge you claim?' He suddenly found a degree of defensive courage. 'You say that you know why I have been in the mountains. Anyone may guess reasons when they see a man descend from these peaks.'
The hand bell jangled again, as if to silence him.
'I have been sitting waiting for your return along this path, shepherd.' The voice had taken on a menacing tone. 'Why did you go and sacrifice a rabbit to the dark lady of the waterfall? I will tell you. A decade has passed since you wed your wife Muirgen. One child has recently been born to you and that stillborn. The midwife has told you that you will never be blessed with a child. Your wife Muirgen still has the milk destined for your dead infant. Muirgen is desperate in her desire for a child and, seeing her longing, witnessing her desperation, you in your turn have become desperate.'
Nessán stood rooted to the spot, listening to the recital with growing fear. The seated figure seemed to be penetrating his very thoughts.
'Last week, shepherd, you went to pray with Muirgen at the little chapel at the ford of the Imigh. You asked the visiting priest to intercede with the Christ and His Holy Mother. You knew that your supplications and prayers would go unanswered. That is why you have returned to the old ways, the Old Faith. You went to ask Dub Essa to grant that Muirgen would, by some miracle, have a child.'
Nessán's head lowered on his chest and his shoulders sagged. He felt like a boy who had been discovered in the act of some misdemeanour and now awaited the inevitable punishment.
'How ... how do you know all this?' It was one last whispered attempt at regaining some self-respect.
'I have said, shepherd, that is not for you to understand. I am lord of these dark valleys and brooding peaks. I am here to tell you what you need to know. Return to your home. You will find that your supplication has fallen on favourable ears. The wish of Muirgen is now granted.'
Nessán raised his head sharply.
'You mean ...?
'Go home. Go back to Gabhlán. You will find a boy child on your doorstep. Do not ask from where or why he has come to you. Let no one know the way he came. Henceforth he shall be your child and you will name him Díoltas. You will raise him as a shepherd on these mountains.'
Nessán frowned, puzzled.
'Díoltas? Why should an innocent child be named "vengeance"?'
'Do not ask from where or why he has come to you,' repeated the figure with heavy emphasis. 'You will be observed and any transgression of these conditions shall be punished. Is this clear in your mind, shepherd?'
Nessán thought for a moment and then bowed his head again in acceptance. Who was he to argue with the ancient gods, who must surely have heard his prayers and sent this awesome leper as their messenger?
It is clear,' he agreed quietly.
Then go, but tell no one of our meeting. Forget that it was I who answered your prayers. Forget that it was I who bestowed this gift on you but simply remember that you owe me a debt. I may ask you to repay it by some favour one day that may or may not be forthcoming. Until then - go! Go swiftly!'
Nessán hesitated but a moment more and the figure raised an arm. He saw the dead white flesh and a skeletal finger that pointed into the gloom of the path before him. The shepherd uttered no further word but strode away from the seated figure. He went three or four paces and then some instinct made him glance back into the swirling mist. A breeze had come up and soon the vapour would be dispelled.
The tree was discernible to his eye but there was no one sitting under it. His mouth agape, Nessán glanced swiftly round. It seemed that he was alone on the track. A cold feeling tingled at the base of his neck. Turning, he began to move hurriedly along the path towards his home, his mouth dry, his face hot and sweaty with the fear that had come over him.
'Brother Eadulf, the king is expecting you.'
Capa, the warrior who commanded the king of Muman's bodyguard, greeted the Saxon monk as he entered the antechamber to the king's apartments in the ancient palace of Cashel. He was a tall, handsome man with fair hair and blue eyes and wore his golden necklet of office with an unconscious pride. But he did not smile in greeting as the sad-faced religieux made his way across the reception room. Neither did the several dignitaries who stood waiting in ones and twos to be called into the king's presence. They all knew Brother Eadulf but now they dropped their eyes and no one made any attempt to greet him. Eadulf seemed too preoccupied to notice them.
Capa moved to a tall oak door, tapped discreetly on it and then, without waiting for a response, threw it open.
'Go straight in, Brother Eadulf,' he instructed in a soft tone, as if he were issuing a condolence.
Brother Eadulf crossed the threshold and the door closed silently behind him.
Colgú, king of Muman, a young man with red, burnished hair, was standing before a great hearth in which a log fire crackled. He stood, feet apart, hands behind his back. His face was grave. As Brother Eadulf entered the room, the young man came forward with hands outstretched to greet him. There was anxiety on his features and his green eyes, which usually danced with merriment, appeared pale and dead.
'Come in, Eadulf,' he said, gripping the Saxon's hand in both his own. 'Come in, be seated. Do not stand on ceremony. How is my sister?' The words came out all in one breathless rush.
Brother Eadulf gestured a little helplessly by letting his shoulders slump as he took the seat indicated by the king.
'Thanks be to God, she is taking the first proper sleep that she has had in days,' he said. 'In truth, I feared for her health. She had not closed her eyes since we returned from Rath Raithlen and met your messenger outside the monastery of Finan the Leper.'
Colgú sighed deeply as he sank into a chair opposite.
'I worry for her. She is of a disposition that keeps a tight rein on her emotions. She tries to suppress them because she thinks it unseemly to allow others to see her real feelings. It is unnatural to do so.'
'Have no fear of that,' Eadulf said. 'Between ourselves, she has sobbed her heart out these last few nights until I believe she is unable to conjure up any more tears. Do not mention this to her for, as you say, she would prefer others to think she is in control.'
'Even her own brother?' Colgú grimaced. 'Well, at least she has displayed the emotion to you.' He paused for a moment and then said moodily: 'I feel that I am to blame for this grave misfortune which has fallen on our house.'
Eadulf raised a quizzical eyebrow. 'What blame can attach itself to you?'
'Did I not persuade Fidelma to go to Rath Raithlen, leaving her son in the care of the nurse Sárait? Now Sárait has been murdered and Alchú, my nephew, has been abducted.'
Brother Eadulf replied with a shake of his head. 'Unless you possessed some precognition of the event, what blame is there? You did not know, any more than we could know, what would happen in our absence. How could you tell that our son' - he emphasised the pronoun softly as an intended rebuke to Fidelma's brother - 'would be abducted?'
Colgú was not dissuaded from his personal anguish. He did not even respond to the subtle censure for ignoring Eadulf's position as father of Alchú.
'You say that Fidelma is now sleeping?'
Brother Eadulf made an affirmative gesture. 'With the help of a little sedative that I prepared - an infusion of heartsease, skullcap and lily-of- the-valley.'
'I know nothing of such apothecary's arts, Eadulf.'
Eadulf grimaced. 'What small healing art I have learnt is thanks to my study at Tuaim Drecain, in the kingdom of Breifne.'
Colgú forced a sad smile. 'Ah yes; I forget that you have spent time in our greatest medical school. So my sister sleeps? How is her state of mind?'
'As to be expected, she is in great agitation and anguish. At first she couldn't take in what had happened, but for the last two days she has been scouring the countryside questioning all in the vicinity of the place where Sárait was slain and the baby taken. Questioning but learning nothing. It is as if the earth has swallowed the child along with the person who committed this evil act.'
'Evil, indeed,' agreed Colgú in a soft voice.
He stood up abruptly and returned to stand before the fire in the same pose he had been in when Brother Eadulf entered, back to the fire, feet apart, hands clasped behind him. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Leper's Bell by Peter Tremayne. Copyright © 2004 Peter Tremayne. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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