When a woman’s body is discovered, strangled and bound with rope to the stone torso of Fár Breige, the ancient stone god which stands sentinel above the haunted caves and ancient fortifications of the Atlantic cliffs, the locals believe it was the god who killed her.
In life, Clodagh O’Lochlainn had been a disgrace to her clan, tormenting her former priestly lover, jeering at her husband, robbing her relatives: but could she really have been slaughtered by a vengeful god, as the local population believes? Abandoning preparations for the celebration of her fiftieth birthday, Mara, Brehon of the Burren, with the assistance of Fachtnan and her scholars, takes up the task of solving the murder. Ignoring the ancient legends, she concentrates instead on bringing a mortal killer to justice. But it’s only when Fachtnan’s small daughter is lost in the labyrinth of passages among the caves that the horrifying truth begins to emerge.
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A Fatal Inheritance
A Burren Mystery
By Cora Harrison
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2015 Cora Harrison
All rights reserved.
An Seanchas Mór
The Great Ancient Tradition)
The fine for killing a person is fixed at forty-two séts, twenty-one ounces of silver or twenty-one milch cows.
To this is added the honour price of the victim.
An unacknowledged killing is classified as duinethaoide and this doubles the fine to be paid.
For a moment it looked to Mara as though the figure of the Fár Breige had suddenly come to life. A slight breeze from the Atlantic blew into the valley and stirred some strands from the petrified head of the god – not tightly curled filaments of lichen, but something more impossible, more supernatural. Tresses of real hair, iron-grey in colour, were blowing out from the skull. As Mara came nearer she could see arms clasped around the stone torso. And she could see colour and texture: woven wool dyed in various hues. Previously there had been only dark grey stone but now, in some strange way the stone seemed to have been turned into flesh. The mist was thinner here and allowed her to distinguish clothing – the white linen fringe of a léine, an over-garment of nettle-green, glimpsed from within a faded, multicoloured cloak, a real head, bowed down, boots half covered with the coarse winter grass. One of the scholars' ponies gave a high-pitched whinny and even Mara's well-trained horse rose upon its hind legs, its ears laid back, spooked by the weird sight. She dismounted, feeling rather than seeing her eldest scholar, Domhnall, take the reins from her hand, and walked up the slight slope. The breeze faded away and the sea mist swirled down again, for a moment shutting out the two figures, but then it lifted and she could see that this was no apparition.
The woman who, ten days ago, successfully laid claim to these ancient lands, to dún, caiseal, cairn and to the spectre-filled caves in Oughtdara, a valley that from time immemorial had been haunted by the ancient wraiths of the Tuatha Dé; now stood in the centre of her property, clasped to the torso of the Fár Breige. Mara reached out and touched the clammy flesh of the woman's face. Clodagh O'Lochlainn was as stone-cold as the fearsome god, the Fár Breige himself.
'We thought that we should fetch you, we thought that was the best thing to do. We saw that you were up there in the castle.' The voice, tentative and deprecating, came from behind her. Pat, the dead woman's cousin, had said nothing on the way down. Indeed, it would have been hard for him to have entered into any explanations as the sea fog had made their descent so difficult along the narrow stony path from the heights where the Ballinalacken Castle was built above the little valley of Oughtdara. The Atlantic lay only a few hundred yards to the west, but tall cliffs sheltered the place from the wind and the heavy mist had screened sight and sound. It was only when they were quite close that they saw the body.
Mara stood very still for a moment. From behind her she heard a short gasp, the sound of a breath drawn in, but no words from her six scholars. Her position of Brehon of the kingdom of the Burren and her dual role as investigating magistrate, as well as teacher, meant that all of her pupils were used to death.
But not perhaps, to a horror such as this. She cast a swift, worried glance back over her shoulder at them, Domhnall, Slevin, the two eldest would be all right, but there were also thirteen-year-old Art O'Lochlainn, who was a very sensitive boy, her own son, twelve-year-old Cormac, and the MacMahon twins, a year older than Art. But all had their ponies under control and were sitting very straight, gazing directly ahead with inscrutable expressions on their faces. Mara felt proud of them. In all of her almost thirty years in office, she had not seen such an abnormal sight.
Clodagh O'Lochlainn, Pat's cousin, wife of the shepherd Aengus O'Lochlainn, had been bound to the Fár Breige, one cheek pressed into the stone, her arms tied around the torso in a ghastly simulation of an embrace. The woman's eyes protruded from the waxy-white face and the mouth was wide open, almost as though it uttered a shrill scream. A rope had been pulled tight in a noose around the neck and then wound around the body and the wrists were tied together on the back of the stone god. From one wrist was suspended a large iron key. Mara gazed at her for a long minute and then beckoned to her scholars to come forward. They were, she reminded herself, all being trained not just in memorizing of legal texts and in the skills of oratory and debate, but also to investigate crimes, and she rarely excluded them from any part of her work as Brehon and investigating magistrate of the kingdom.
'Strangled,' murmured Slevin to Domhnall and he nodded in agreement. In a business-like way they tied the ponies and horses to a willow stump. Cian directed Art's attention to the dangling key with a quick nod of his head and Cormac, Mara's son, leaned over to examine the rope with a knowledgeable air.
Cael, Cian's twin, the only girl present, murmured in Mara's ear, 'May I touch the clothing, Brehon?' and then after a nod of permission, felt, between finger and thumb, a thick fold of the cloak. 'Sopping wet,' she whispered and Mara nodded.
It wouldn't tell them too much about the time of death, she thought. The rain had been so heavy that it would be hard to know whether the body had been out all night in the rain, or just for an hour. After the glorious sunshine of St Patrick's Day, there had been an abrupt change in the weather. Day after day the winds tore up from the Atlantic at gale force and the rain fell without ceasing. Fields were flooded as the limestone gave up its accumulated water from the caves that lay below the grass. Lakes with stately swans sailing across their surface appeared in fields. The sodden trees creaked and their black, bare branches streamed away from the storm winds. The small birds ceased to sing and even the blackbirds skulked beneath bushes. By noon as they rode across to Ballinalacken Castle, the sky was so dark that it felt like twilight and the distant hills were blotted out by a grey and lowering sky. But, on their arrival, the rain had stopped quite abruptly and the deep heavy mist had descended, blanketing out hills and valleys, changing trees into ghostly spectres and imposing a strange silence on the landscape. Mara shivered slightly, wishing she had had time to change her wet clothes before Pat had come to fetch her. She turned her eyes from the grotesque sight of the dead woman pressed flat against the stone god, in a ghastly simulation of an embrace, and began to plan the next steps.
'Slevin, would you go and fetch the physician,' she murmured in his ear as he bent down towards her and he nodded instantly, unhitching his pony and leading it back up the steep path that led to the roadway towards Rathborney. Nuala, once she had a chance to examine the body, would be able to give a close approximation of the time of death. It was one of the skills that the young woman had learned from her studies in Italy. Hopefully, Nuala's husband, Mara's law assistant, Fachtnan, would have returned by now. She had lent him for the morning to the elderly and rather infirm Brehon of Corcomroe, directing him to go straight home when the case had been heard. Fergus MacClancy was no longer capable of conducting a day of judgement without tactful help.
'Who found her?' she asked aloud.
'Pat did,' said Deirdre, and Pat nodded in silent agreement with his wife's words.
'Saw the crows from the hill,' he said after a minute, finding that Mara's eyes were fixed upon him.
'And then he came to find me,' put in Deirdre and Pat nodded again. 'Terrible shock, I got,' she continued. Her eyes slid over the dead woman for a moment and then came back to Mara. 'God have mercy on her soul, misfortunate creature,' she said piously.
'And Pat hollered for me,' said Gobnait with a jerk of the thumb towards his older brother, 'and I sent the dog for Dinan, told him it was urgent, and off he ran; and now he's gone for Finnegas; he's like a human, that dog; he'll do anything you ask,' he said and the other brothers nodded gravely. All of them shared his pride in the almost legendary cleverness of the sheepdog, Ug.
'Bit of a shock for us, all,' said Anu, Gobnait's wife.
'Her being a cousin, when all is said and done,' put in Deirdre. 'Terrible thing to happen, and after all of her trouble to get hold of the place; I wouldn't live there, now, if you paid me thirty pieces of silver,' she added with a vague memory of a Palm Sunday sermon about the betrayal of Jesus, Mara guessed. She didn't suppose that Deirdre or her husband had ever handled even a single piece of silver. They were poor struggling farmers, desperately trying to make a living from barren rock and salt-soaked grass, and, of course, since the result of the court case a few weeks ago, they were even poorer. Her words, though, brought back the recollection of judgement day only ten days previously.
'She didn't enjoy her property for long, Brehon, did she?' remarked Gobnait.
'Poor misfortunate creature,' repeated Deirdre, but this time there was a slight note of triumph in her voice. The brothers and their wives had been thunderstruck at Mara's verdict giving possession to Clodagh of the property which had been promised to them. They had cared for Clodagh's senile father for years, but before he lost his wits, he had promised them the farm to be divided amongst the four of them after his death. Deirdre's eyes were surveying the property which would now revert to the brothers.
'The gods are not mocked; so they say,' she said after a minute and her eyes moved sideways, half-looking at the woman's body bound to the stone figure.
'Gobnait always said that he never passed that fellow without a prayer to St Patrick when he was going in and out of his father's house and Dinan used to make a special sign to keep the evil from touching them all and bringing bad luck,' said Anu, in a whisper. She indicated the Fár Breige with a slight lifting of her smallest finger and then looked hastily at her brother-in-law's face. A very interesting man, Dinan, thought Mara. Though unable to read or write he had a huge knowledge of all the old tales about the ancient peoples, the Fír Bolgs and the Tuatha Dé, who had come to this small valley of Oughtdara in the west of Ireland.
Pat, Dinan and Gobnait who farmed the hilly land around the valley, were brothers and first cousins to the dead woman. There were four boys in the family and the small patrimony of the father had been split into four equal shares. In accordance with Brehon law, the youngest, Finnegas, had made the division and then in order of seniority, the brothers had picked their share, Pat, as the eldest, picking the richer portion of land in Oughtdara valley, Gobnait, the grazing land below Ballynahown Hill, Dinan, the ancient bawns high up on the north-western slope, just above his Uncle Danu's lands of Dunaunmore.
Finnegas, the fourth brother, had been the lucky one. He had picked the barren land of Ballyryan, near to the sea, discovered a rich source of lead there, built a mine and had become rich and prosperous while his brothers struggled to earn a living from rocky pasture in valley and cliffs.
'And Finnegas, where is he?' she enquired aloud and once again the brothers looked at each other, each waiting for the other to answer. Domhnall sank to his knees beside the stone pillar, examining the rope that bound the body. Cael picked an uprooted primrose from the ground, its delicate beauty marred by the smears of wet mud on its pale yellow petals. She held it up towards Mara and then flushed crimson at a frown from Domhnall and replaced the tubular root in the exact position where it had lain. Mara nodded to show that she understood the point that Cael was making. It did appear from the state of the churned-up earth that Clodagh O'Lochlainn could have been still alive when she had been gagged and noosed and tied to the stone pillar; that she had frantically squirmed, twisted and writhed. How long had the terrible agony lasted and was there added to the torture of the body, the anguish of mind, resulting from knowing that a relation had done this terrible deed? In life, Clodagh O'Lochlainn had been greedy and quarrelsome and had shown no feelings for her family, but that did not excuse anyone who had done such a terrible deed. The dead woman must have struggled wildly while the murderer stood and waited for the end to come. Mara repeated her question about Finnegas, the youngest brother, suppressing a note of impatience from her voice.
'We sent the dog for him,' said Gobnait. 'Knowing you'd want to talk to us about what happened. He's the boy who can talk to anyone,' he added and then looked embarrassed. His wife, Anu, glared at him. Pat and Deirdre looked at their feet, while Dinan seemed mesmerized by a solitary crow that circled around their heads.
Mara pondered this statement, ignoring the muttered conversation between Anu and Deirdre from which she only distinguished the words: 'Not a woman to be good to her own,' until the useful Ug came flying across the cliff, ears flapping and tail wagging with the happiness of a well-trained dog that has successfully followed a tricky command. From time to time he stopped and looked back to make sure of the presence behind of a small, squarely built man who strode in a leisurely fashion across the stone clints, walking with the sure-footed ease of those born in this rocky valley. Why, she wondered, as she watched Finnegas come, had the three older brothers felt they needed a smooth-talker to play the part of advocate between them and the Brehon? Had they something to hide?
And how had the dog, Ug, managed to convey to Finnegas that he was wanted by his brothers and make it sound urgent enough for the man to leave his business and come across the hills? Unless, of course, Finnegas had been awaiting the summons.
Finnegas was, she noted with interest, when he arrived, the only one of the family who did not express horror, pity or even voice a few words of sorrow. He surveyed the body from foot to head, walked around the back of the stone pillar, noted the bound hands and the dangling key and then came back again. Now he spoke, but only a monosyllable came from him: 'Well,' said Finnegas, cousin to the dead woman. And then, after a minute during which no one spoke, he added in a conversational manner, 'What do you make of this, Brehon?'
There was, thought Mara, an almost challenge in his words. She did not reply. The first discovery of the body was a time, she had often found, when the relatives and the friends of the murdered victim often said too much and it was always important to note their words and do nothing to stem the flow of speech. Now she simply looked from brother to brother and waited.
'Nothing to do with any one of us, Brehon,' said Finnegas after a minute. He was quick and sharp, she thought. He was remembering, as she had done, that on St Patrick's Day, on the seventeenth of March, the four brothers had battled with their cousin for the custody of the land where they now stood. And perhaps they, also, were remembering the curses that they had shouted at Clodagh. The words came immediately to her memory: 'May it never bring you a day of luck and may you rot in hell for all eternity!' That had been Pat, she thought, remembering the deep, rough voice. 'And may the land rise up against you and be barren for you and yours.' Gobnait had screamed that after Clodagh as she had brushed past the people standing by the entrance to the field where the dolmen of Poulnabrone stood. 'May the curse of the stone god of the old people take the breath from your body.' Dinan had uttered that last curse.
Mara had a sudden sharp vision of him on that day. He had gone very pale, she remembered, his face in contrast to his brothers' flushed visages, his brown eyes burning with intensity, his mellow, musical voice uttering the virulent words. Did he now feel that his curse had come true? Or had the curse put an idea into his head? She watched him now for a moment, but he wasn't looking at her, or even at his brothers. He seemed to be mesmerized by the solitary crow and so she turned back to the youngest brother.
'How do you know that, Finnegas?'
He was too clever not to see the implication and he came back immediately with: 'You saw me arrive, yourself, Brehon. I haven't been near this place for days, weeks, really, but I know my own family better than you do and I know that none of them could be guilty of an act like this.'
'No accusations have been made, Finnegas,' said Mara mildly.
'But you are bound to think that,' he retorted quickly. 'We all lost what we thought we possessed and we lost it to her.' He jerked his thumb towards the body and then looked at Mara. 'I'm not saying that you should not have given that verdict. The Brehon of Corcomroe being out of his mind, and his memory going was neither your fault nor was it ours. We told you the truth. We told you that our uncle had made a will leaving the land to be divided between the four of us and all four of us saw that will being locked into the chest in the Brehon's house at Corcomroe.'
Excerpted from A Fatal Inheritance by Cora Harrison. Copyright © 2015 Cora Harrison. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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Table of Contents
The Burren Mysteries by Cora Harrison,
Chapter One: An Seanchas Mór,
Chapter Two: Críth Gablach,
Chapter Three: Uraicecht Becc,
Chapter Four: Do Breathaib Gaire,
Chapter Five: Bretha Déin Chécht,
Chapter Six: Uraichecht Becc,
Chapter Seven: Crith Gablach,
Chapter Eight: Cis Fodhla Tíre?,
Chapter Nine: Bretha Étgid,
Chapter Ten: Cóic Conara Fugill,
Chapter Eleven: Bretha Crólige,
Chapter Twelve: Gúbretha Caratniad,
Chapter Thirteen: Gúbretha Caratniad,
Chapter Fourteen: Bretha Nemed Toisech,