The Chalice of Blood
Although it was not yet the end of summer, there was a damp chill in the air and Abbot Iarnla drew his chair nearer to the smoky log fire. No warmth emanated from it, only grey fumes and the hissing of moisture. He exhaled in annoyance.
'The wood is damp, Brother Gáeth,' he admonished the moon-faced religieux whose task it was to bring the wood to provide warmth for the abbot's chamber.
'Forgive me, Father Abbot,' the man stammered. 'It has only just been noticed that the thatch on the woodshed roof was in need of repair. The rain must have came through and soaked into the wood and'
Abbot Iarnla made a cutting motion with his left hand. 'Mox nox in rem,' he snapped impatiently, 'soon night, to the business. ' The wood-bearer received this sharp reproof with a bowed head and muttered that he would go at once in search of dry logs to replace the wet ones. Brother Gáeth was a tall man with almost ugly features and a permanently crestfallen expression that made the elderly abbot immediately feel guilty that he had spoken so roughly. It was known that Brother Gáeth was not considered robust in mind and his Latin was limited. The abbot forced a sympathetic smile. 'If you can find dry wood, bringit quickly, for I feel a chill.' Brother Gáeth moved obediently towards the door.
When he opened it, he found a tall man with thin, almost gaunt features and pale blue eyes on the threshold, his hand raised as if he were about to knock. Brother Gáeth stood quickly aside, head bowed respectfully, for Brother Lugna was the rechtaire, the steward, of the abbey of Lios Mór, and second in authority to the abbot.
Abbot Iarnla had heard Brother Gáeth's soft intake of breath and glanced round to see why he had paused before leaving.
'Ah, come in, Brother Lugna,' he invited, and motioned to a seat facing him on the far side of the fireplace. 'I wanted a word with you.'
Brother Lugna was in his mid-thirties; his long, straw-coloured hair was worn with the corona spina tonsure of Rome, which marked him out as one who followed Roman Rule, unlike his abbot who maintained the tonsure of St John, favoured by the Irish clerics. Brother Lugna's features seemed frozen in a disapproving expression. He entered and closed the door behind the wood-bearer. Then he crossed to the chair indicated by the abbot, lowered himself into it and sat without speaking.
Abbot Iarnla was elderly, with silver hair and mournful brown eyes and a figure that indicated a man who had been used to an easy and indolent way of life. He gestured towards the smoking fire.
'The wood is wet,' he explained unnecessarily. There was almost petulance in his voice.
His steward nodded absently. 'I have already reprimanded our tugatóir, the thatcher, for letting the woodshed roof fall into disrepair.' His tone indicated that his thoughts were elsewhere. 'He should have known better than to instruct Brother Gáeth to bring wet wood to you.'
The abbot glanced at him thoughtfully. 'I asked you to come,Brother Lugna, because I hear that you are still concerned with the well-being of Brother Donnchad. Or is it the Venerable Bróen who troubles you? I hear that in the refectorium this morning he announced that he had seen an angel at his window last evening.'
Brother Lugna's mouth drooped further. 'The Venerable Bróen is old and sadly his mind wanders. But it is Brother Donnchad who is of more concern to the community and me.'
'Such journeys and adventures that have fallen to the lot of Brother Donnchad can leave a marked affect upon the strongest of men,' the abbot commented.
Brother Lugna pursed his thin lips before replying. 'The community is worried for him. I am worried for him. I am told that even before he set out for the Holy Land with Brother Cathal, he was of an introspective nature and prone to moods, spending long hours in lonely contemplation.'
'Surely that is in the spiritual nature of our calling. Why, therefore, be concerned that he displays such tendencies now?' countered the abbot with a wry smile.
'I have every respect for Brother Donnchad's commitment to the Faith and to his scholarship. Nevertheless, his moods cause concern. He has sunk into gloomy contemplation ever since he returned from the Holy Land. Indeed, at times he often displays peevishness with his fellows, especially with Brother Gáeth who, I understand, was once his anam chara - his soul friend.' He grimaced and added, 'I always thought Brother Gáeth a curious choice as a soul friend for a scholar of Brother Donnchad's reputation. But I am told that his current attitude to Brother Gáeth is out of tune with his earlier disposition towards him.'
Abbot Iarnla sat back in his chair and clasped his hands together, leaving both forefingers extended and touching at the tips, which he placed against his lips.
'I am reminded that you joined our community just a shorttime after Donnchad and Cathal set out on their pilgrimage. A pity that you did not know them at that time. Things were very different then.' He paused and sighed. 'Let us consider the facts. In a way, Donnchad has lost his blood brother as well as his brother in Christ. I remember when Donnchad and Cathal first came to join us at this abbey. They were local youths from the fortress by the ford, just a few kilometres downriver from here.'
'I am well acquainted with their story, being, as you know, under the patronage of their mother, Lady Eithne of An Dún,' the steward responded in a flat voice.
'I had not forgotten. She is a most devout lady. Not only is she a staunch supporter of the Faith but has always been a supporter of our community.' Abbot Iarnla refused to be distracted from his reminiscence. 'Her sons, Cathal and Donnchad, were highly intelligent lads and Brother Cathal became one of our best teachers. Alas, it was his very learning that almost became his downfall. Maolochtair, the Prince of the Déisi, who governed the lands this abbey was built on, became jealous of his knowledge and denounced Cathal to the King at Cashel. He claimed Cathal was indulging in magical practices.'
'I have heard the tale and know that Maolochtair was old and twisted by that time,' interposed Brother Lugna.
'He was indeed. But who would dare say it? It was he who instructed Lady Eithne's husband to give this land to our founder, the Blessed Carthach, over thirty years ago, so that he could build this abbey upon it. We had to respect Maolochtair, although, to be frank, his mind was not what it once was. He was filled with suspicion against family and friend alike, thinking they all meant him harm. We tried to send Brother Cathal out of harm's way to administer the church and community at Sean Raithín, the old fortress in the mountains north of here. But Maolochtair soon followed him there with his accusations.
'Maolochtair demanded that the King at Cashel imprison Cathal for a while in order that the grave charges could be considered. The King felt bound to agree, for Maolochtair was kin through his marriage to the aunt of his own father, Failbe Flann. Thanks to the King's sister, Sister Fidelma, Cathal was cleared. I believe it was her advice that not only secured his release but sent him and his brother, Donnchad, out of the vengeful reach of Maolochtair until that twisted man departed this earthly realm.'
'I know,' Brother Lugna replied, showing his irritation. 'I have heard the story from the Lady Eithne's own lips. Five years ago Cathal and his brother Donnchad agreed to set out on their pilgrimage to the Holy Land. A short time after they left, Maolochtair died from the delirium tremens.'
'Our beloved brethren succeeded in reaching the Holy Land. Ah, what joy it must have been to behold Jerusalem and walk the roads where our Lord once walked.' The abbot was smiling, seemingly lost in the pleasure of contemplating such an achievement.
'Except that the joy was not long-lived,' Brother Lugna pointed out. 'On the return journey, they were shipwrecked off the southern coast of Italy.'
'But our brethren survived,' the abbot responded.
'Survived? Indeed they were among the few who made it to the shore when their ship was wrecked. But many others, including the crew of the ship, all perished in the turbulent waves.'
'Cathal was so welcomed by the people of the city where they were brought ashore ... what was the name of it? Tarentum? Ah yes, that's it. Tarentum. He was so welcomed that he decided to settle there. And the people immediately elevated him to be the bishop of that city.'
Brother Lugna sniffed slightly. 'Their gain was our loss and, indeed, a loss to his own brother as well as to his mother, theLady Eithne, who still mourns him as one dead. At least Brother Donnchad felt it was his obligation to return here to us in Lios Mór.'
The abbot gazed at his steward thoughtfully and then asked softly, 'Do you imply censure of Brother Cathal?'
Brother Lugna regarded the abbot coldly. 'I did not mean to imply anything of the sort. Cathal remained in Tarentum because he felt that he had been called by the Christ to serve there. However, the point is that he remained there. The Lady Eithne feels a betrayal that he has not returned. She told me so. And his brother, Donnchad, has not been himself since his journey back to us. And it was an amazing journey. North to Rome, where I have studied; from there to our brethren in Lucca and then on to the famous Bobbio, until finally he returned to us here, bathed in glory.' The steward's voice rose with pride. 'How many of our brethren have been on such a glorious pilgrimage? Just to touch the soles of his sandals which have trodden the same earth and stone that was walked upon by our Blessed Saviour, why, that elevates the spirit in each of us.'
Abbot Iarnla's lugubrious expression did not alter, apart from a momentary twitch at the corners of his mouth.
'I doubt that,' he replied in a monotone. 'I am sure Brother Donnchad must have worn out many a pair of sandals since leaving the Holy Land on his homeward journey. The sandals that traversed the roads that were once walked by the Saviour would have long been discarded for more serviceable wear.'
Brother Lugna frowned slightly, examining Abbot Iarnla's features suspiciously. He could not make up his mind whether the abbot was being humorous at his expense or not. Abbot Iarnla's chubby features bore no sign of amusement and the abbot was not usually given to humour. The steward shrugged slightly and dismissed his suspicion.
'So,' the abbot was saying, 'what do you think is the causeof this melancholy that Brother Donnchad has displayed since his return?'
'I cannot say. Brother Donnchad has made little effort to reintegrate with the community. He spends most of his time in his cell in contemplation of some ancient books that he brought back with him, books in languages that I do not recognise. He pores over them, as if searching for something. He has even been known to miss the call to the refectorium for meals and, of late, Mass.'
'This is not the first time that we have spoken of his behaviour, ' said the abbot with a small sigh. 'I believe that you also spoke to Brother Gáeth about it.'
'I did, but Brother Gáeth has no coherent explanation as to why Brother Donnchad now rejects his friendship as his anam chara. I am told that they were the closest of friends before the pilgrimage, a relationship, as I have said, that I consider unhealthy. I am informed that Brother Donnchad has now forbidden Brother Gáeth to so much as approach him.'
'For what reason?' demanded the abbot in amazement.
'That is the essence of the puzzle for it seems there is no reason that can be offered. Had it not been for the fact that Brother Donnchad was displaying his curious behaviour to everyone in the community, I would have thought the ending of that particular relationship was to be applauded. The fact is that his behaviour is worsening. He has ceased to come to services in the chapel and will not give a reason why. Then, several days ago, he absented himself from the abbey for a full day and refused to say where he had been. To my certain knowledge, he has not eaten since yesterday and the door of his cell remains locked, contrary to the Rule and custom.'
'Yet at your request, Lady Eithne has come twice to see him because of his distressed state,' Abbot Iarnla said.
'It was in the purview of my office to suggest it,' the steward said defensively.
'So what was resolved by her visit?'
'After a short time alone with Brother Donnchad last evening, Lady Eithne met me at the gate. She was in an agitated condition. Plainly she had been reduced to tears by her encounter. I feel that I must insist that we take some action. The Rule of the abbey must be obeyed. Because of Brother Donnchad, many of the brethren are restless and uncertain as to their behaviour. There is an air of anarchy that is spreading. I find that I need your authority to take some action to rectify this situation.'
Abbot Iarnla nodded. 'Yet it is of Brother Donnchad that we speak. He is not only a great scholar but also a hero to the younger brethren, an exemplar to the others ...'
'All because of his successful pilgrimage to the Holy Land,' pointed out Brother Lugna. 'It is because of this that his behaviour is so destructive. It cannot be allowed to continue.'
The abbot sat upright suddenly, as if making up his mind.
'You are right, Brother Lugna. I am at fault for allowing too much tolerance of Brother Donnchad's behaviour. My excuse for my delay is my respect for his achievements. Now I must confront him and demand his acceptance of the Rule of our community.'
Abbot Iarnla rose abruptly from his seat and Brother Lugna, surprised by his action, followed his example. Without a further word, the abbot turned and led the way from the room. Outside, they passed the wood-bearing Brother Gáeth, now red-faced, as he struggled with an armload of dry wood for the abbot's smouldering fire. He pressed himself against the wall to allow their passage, his head bowed. They passed by without acknowledging him.
Across the main stone-flagged quadrangle, in whose middle a fountain had been constructed around a natural spring, stood a new three-storey building made of stone. It was set in one corner of the quadrangle and two of its grey walls stood on theedge of the abbey complex. From the walls of the building the land sloped steeply down to the dark waters called An Abhainn Mór, The Great River, which marked the northern borders of Lios Mór. It was an unusual building, for most of the others in the complex, except the chapel, were made of wood. But it was clear that there was much new building work taking place across the abbey where the elderly wooden structures were replaced with ones of stone.
Abbot Iarnla moved swiftly for an elderly and rather portly cleric. Without pausing in his pace, he entered the stone building and climbed the flight of stairs to the upper floors with Brother Lugna hurrying after him. The door at the far end of the corridor on the top floor was the entrance to Brother Donnchad's cubiculum, literally a 'sleeping room' in Latin. Abbot Iarnla halted before it but did not knock, as was the custom. He seized the handle and turned it. The door failed to open; it was locked.
Irritated, the abbot took a step back and raised his fist, giving three sharp blows on the dark woodwork.
'Open, Brother Donnchad. It is I, Abbot Iarnla.'
He waited a few moments but there was no response.
Behind him, Brother Lugna coughed nervously. 'As I told you, this aberrant behaviour is now usual. He does not respond to any of our entreaties to open.'
Abbot Iarnla raised his fist again and gave several sharp blows to the door. Then he paused and announced in a stentorian tone, 'This is the abbot, Brother Donnchad. You are commanded to open this door.'
There was still no response. The abbot's features grew grim and bright spots of red on his cheeks showed his mortification.
'Brother Donnchad, if you do not open this door, I shall summon the means to break it open.'
As the silence continued, the abbot turned to Brother Lugna.
'Summon Brother Giolla-na-Naomh.'
Brother Lugna hurried off. When he eventually returned with the Abbey's blacksmith, Abbot Iarnla was waiting impatiently.
'Break it open,' he ordered.
Brother Giolla-na-Naomh was a tall, muscular man, as befitted his calling. His strength and willingness to do hard physical work had earned him his name 'Servant of the Saints' soon after he had arrived at the abbey and his original name had long been forgotten. The blacksmith examined the door critically for a moment. Then, waving the others to stand aside, he turned his back to the door, balanced on his left foot and with his right foot gave the lock a powerful back kick. There was a splintering of wood around the metal lock and the door crashed inwards. The lock hung for a moment from the jamb before it slowly fell with a clatter to the floor.
'You may go,' Abbot Iarnla told the blacksmith, before proceeding across the threshold. 'Brother Donnchad, I warned you'
The abbot's voice stopped abruptly.
Brother Lugna peered into the room over his shoulder.
They could see inside clearly, for a window lit the cubiculum. Below it was the wooden cot and on it was stretched the occupant of the room, lying as if asleep, quiet and still.
Brother Lugna squeezed past the frozen figure of the abbot and moved to the bed. He bent down and touched the features of the man who lay there, withdrawing his hand quickly as if he had been scalded. He looked at the abbot.
'Brother Donnchad is dead,' he said flatly.
'Attende Domine, et miserere ...' The abbot began to softly intone the injunction for God's mercy.
To the abbot's surprise, Brother Lugna turned the body over on to its side so that the back was towards him. He stared at it for a moment and finally let it fall back into its original position.
The abbot paused in his prayer. 'What are you looking for, Brother Lugna? Do you think he took his own life?'
The steward stood upright and turned to the abbot. His face was paler than usual and he wore a troubled expression.
'Took his own life? Not unless he was able to stab himself twice in the back before he climbed on to the bed and lay down,' he rejoined drily.
The abbot's ruddy face blanched and he performed the sign of the Cross.
'Lux perpetua lucent eis. Qui erant in poenis tenebrarum ...' he began to mutter. 'Let perpetual light shine unto them which were in the pain of darkness.'
Copyright © 2010 by Peter Tremayne.