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The tall figure of the cowled religieux was hurrying down the darkened corridor, the soles of his sandals slapping against the granite flagstones with sharp cracking sounds which one might have believed would rouse the entire abbey from its slumbers. The man held a thick stub of tallow candle in front of him, its flame flickering and dancing in the draughty passageways but providing just enough gloomy illumination to light his way. It reflected on his gaunt features, etching them and distorting them to make his face appear like some nightmarish vision of a demon conjured from hell rather than a servant of God.
The figure came to a halt before a stout wooden door and hesitated for a moment. Then he clenched his free hand into a fist and pounded twice upon it before, without waiting for any response, he swung open the round iron latch and entered.
Inside, the room was in darkness, for night's mantle still shrouded the abbey. He hesitated on the threshold and held up the candle to illuminate the room. In one corner, a recumbent figure lay on a small bed covered in a blanket. The religieux could tell by the continued heavy, regular breathing, that his knocking and abrupt entry had failed to rouse the room's sole inhabitant.
He moved towards the bed, placing his candle on the bedside table. Then he leant forward and shook the shoulder of the sleeper roughly.
`Father Abbot!' he called urgently, his voice almost cracking in suppressed emotion. `Father Abbot! You must awake!'
The sleeping man groaned a moment and then camereluctantly awake, eyelids blinking rapidly and trying to focus in the gloom.
`What ...? Who ...?' The figure turned and looked up, seeing the tall religieux standing over his bed. The man flung back his cowl in order to be recognised and a frown crossed the hawk-like features of the disturbed sleeper. `Brother Madagan. What is it?' The figure struggled to sit up, his eyes observing the night sky at the window. `What is it? Have I overslept?'
The tall monk shook his head in a quick, nervous gesture. His face was grim in the candlelight.
`No, Father Abbot. It still lacks an hour until the bell tolls the summons for lauds.'
Lauds marked the first day hour of the Church when the brothers of the Abbey of Imleach gathered to sing the psalms of praise which opened the day's devotions.
Ségdae, abbot and bishop of Imleach, Comarb, or successor to St Ailbe, eased himself up against his pillow with the frown still furrowing his features.
`Then what is amiss that you should rouse me before the appointed time?' he demanded petulantly.
Brother Madagan bowed his head at the sharp tone of rebuke in the abbot's voice.
`Father Abbot, are you aware what day this is?'
Ségdae gazed at Brother Madagan, his frown of annoyance giving way to bewilderment.
`What sort of question is this that you must awake me to ask it? It is the feastday of the founder of our abbey, the Blessed Ailbe.'
`Forgive me, Father Abbot. But, as you know, on this day, following lauds, we take the Holy Relics of the Blessed Ailbe from our chapel to his grave in the abbey grounds where you bless them and we offer thanks for Ailbe's life and work in converting this corner of the world to the Faith.'
Abbot Ségdae was increasingly impatient. `Get to the point, Brother Madagan, or have you awakened me simply to tell me what I already knew?'
`Bona cum venia, by your leave, I will explain.'
`Do so!' the abbot snapped irritably. `And your explanation better be a good one.'
`As steward of the abbey, I was making the rounds of the watch. A short while ago I went to the chapel.' The monk paused as if to give dramatic effect to his words. `Father Abbot, the reliquary of the Blessed Ailbe is missing from the recess wherein it was kept!'
Abbot Ségdae became completely alert and swung out of his bed.
`Missing? What's this you say?'
`The reliquary is gone. Vanished.'
`Yet it was there when we gathered for Vespers. We all saw it.'
`Indeed, it was. Now it has been removed.'
`Have you summoned Brother Mochta?'
Brother Madagan drew his brows together as if he did not understand the question. `Brother Mochta?'
`As Keeper of the Holy Relics of the Blessed Ailbe he should have been the first to be summoned,' pointed out Ségdae, his irritation growing again. `Go ... no, wait! I'll come with you.
He turned and slipped his feet into his sandals and took down his woollen cloak from a peg. `Take the candle and precede me to Brother Mochta's chamber.'
Brother Madagan took up the tallow candle and moved into the corridor, closely followed by the agitated figure of the abbot.
Outside, a wind had started to rise, whispering and moaning around the hill on which the abbey stood. The cold breath of the wind penetrated through the dim corridors of the building and Abbot Ségdae could almost feel the rain it was bringing with it. With a sense born of experience the abbot could tell the wind was sweeping up from the south, bringing up the clouds that had lain across the Ballyhoura Mountains on the previous evening. By dawn it would be raining. The abbot knew it from long experience.
`What can have happened to the Holy Relics?' Brother Madagan's voice interrupted his thoughts almost like a wail of despair as they hastened along the corridor. `Can some thief have broken into the abbey and stolen them?'
`Quod avertat Deus!' intoned Abbot Ségdae, genuflecting. `Let us hope that Brother Mochta was simply early abroad and decided to remove the relics in preparation for the service.'
Even as he spoke the abbot realised that it was a vain hope for everyone knew the order of the service of remembrance for the Blessed Ailbe. The relics remained in the chapel until after lauds and were then taken out, carried by the Keeper of the Holy Relics. They would be followed in procession by the community firstly to the holy well, in the abbey's grounds, where the abbot would draw fresh water and bless the relics, as Ailbe had once blessed his new abbey over a hundred years ago. The reliquary, and a chalice of the blessed water, would then be carried to the stone cross which marked the grave of the founder of the abbey and there the service of remembrance would be conducted. That being so well known, why would the Keeper of the Holy Relics have removed them from the chapel at such an early hour?
The abbot and the anxious steward halted before a door and Brother Madagan raised his fist to knock. Abbot Ségdae, with a sigh of impatience, pushed him aside and opened the door.
`Brother Mochta!' he cried as he entered the small chamber. Then he halted, his eyes widening. He paused for a few moments, while Brother Madagan tried vainly to peer over his shoulder to see what was amiss in the gloom. Without turning, the abbot said in a curiously quiet tone: `Hold the candle higher, Brother Madagan.'
The tall steward did so, holding the candle high above the abbot's shoulder.
The flickering light revealed a tiny cell. It was in total disarray. Items of clothing lay discarded on the floor. It appeared that the straw mattress had been almost dragged from the tiny wooden cot that provided the bed. A stub of unlit candle lay in a small pool of its own grease on the floor with its wooden holder a short distance away. A few personal toilet items were scattered here and there.
`What does this mean, Father Abbot?' whispered Brother Madagan aghast.
Abbot Ségdae did not reply. His eyes narrowed as they fell on the mattress. There appeared to be a discolouration on it that he could not account for. He turned and took the candle from Brother Madagan's hand and moved forward, bending to examine the stain more closely. Tentatively, he reached forward a finger and touched it. It was still damp. He took his fingertip away and peered at it in the flickering candlelight.
`Deus misereatur ...,' he whispered. `This is blood.'
Brother Madagan did not hide the shiver that passed abruptly through his body.
Abbot Ségdae stood frozen for several moments. It seemed a long time before he stirred himself.
`Brother Mochta is not here,' he said, stating the obvious. `Go, Brother Madagan, arouse the abbey. We must start a search immediately. There is blood on his mattress, his cell is in disorder and the Holy Relics of Blessed Ailbe are missing. Go, ring the alarm bell for there is evil stalking this abbey this night!'
Copyright © 2001 Peter Aleshire. All rights reserved.
Posted December 9, 2008
The seventh century in Europe became known as the Dark Ages yet Ireland remained a beacon of light where learning and enlightenment continued unabated. Rulers from around the known world sent their leading scholars to learn so that they could return home and educate the leaders. Women were treated as equals and even held office in the church. Sister Fidelma, daughter of a king and sister of the current monarch, is both a religieuse and an advocate of the law. <P>Long time enemies the Prince of Vi Fidgente and Colgu of Cashel the King of Muman seek a truce. As they near Colgu¿s home, an assassin hits both men with arrows. The Prince¿s men kill the culprit before anyone can question him. The King and the Prince accuse each other of duplicity and attempted murder. Unless Sister Fidelma can prove otherwise, her regal brother will be considered guilty and punished under Irish law. However, the clues take her to the Abbey of Imleach where a monk and relics connected to the case are missing with little hope of eminent discovery. <P> THE MONK WHO VANISHED is a fascinating mystery filled with unexpected twists that often lead to false clues and the wonderful Sister Fidelma, sleuth extraodinaire. However, the true beauty of the tale lies in the descriptions of seventh century Irish life as seen through the eyes of the religious and aristocratic leaders. Peter Tremayne is a gifted storyteller who provides his audience with a vivid view as if the reader is actually there. Even after a delightful decade of the Sister¿s stories, the latest entry remains fresh and hopefully means the start of another decade of tremendous historical mysteries from Mr. Tremayne. <P>Harriet Klausner
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