Ireland, A.D. 671. An Anglo-Saxon delegation arrives in Cashel to debate the new religious rules that have been handed down from Rome. The Abbot of Imleach leads the Irish delegation, which is hostile to the new rules from outsiders. Among the Anglo-Saxon group is Brother Eadulf's own younger brother, Egric, whom Eadulf hasn't seen for many years.
When the debate quickly becomes acrimonious, a local abbess has to step in as a mediator between the two sides. But not even a day later her body is discovered, bludgeoned to death. The Chief Brehon Aillín accuses young Egric of murder, and suspicions and tempers run high. With the war of words threatening to spill over into bloodshed, Fidelma is sure there is something more sinister behind the murder than religious differences, and she is resolved to find out what really happened-and why.
About the Author
PETER TREMAYNE is a pseudonym of Peter Berresford Ellis, a renowned scholar who has written extensively on the ancient Celts and the Irish. As Tremayne, he is best known for his stories and novels featuring Fidelma of Cashel, beginning with Absolution by Murder. He lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
The Devil's Seal
A Mystery of Ancient Ireland
By Peter Tremayne
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Peter Tremayne
All rights reserved.
The three horsemen halted their mounts on the hillside and gazed down into the river valley. Below them, an expanse of trees formed a barrier between the hills and the broad, sedately flowing river to the south. The scene was a patchwork of greens, yellows and browns depending on the varied species and condition of the arboreal canopy and its foliage. The trees were mainly broad-trunk oaks, with their massive crooked branches and spreading crowns. Here and there were blackthorns, with tough yellow wood and long cruel thorns; and then appeared grey-brown rowans and even willows. They all crowded together, pressing towards the river as if seeking its nourishing waters.
The day was unusually warm for the time of year. Patches of blue with hazy sunlight appeared now and then behind the slow-moving grey-white clouds. For what was supposed to be the darkest days of the year, it was pleasantly light and mild.
The three riders were young men, warriors by their style of dress and weapons, and each wore the distinctive golden necklet that denoted that they were members of the élite bodyguard of the King of Muman, the most south-westerly and largest of the Five Kingdoms of Éireann. Their leader, Gormán, leaned forward and patted his horse on its neck. His eyes glanced quickly to the east and then, as if following the sun, which had drifted behind the clouds, moved westwards. He finally gave a satisfied nod.
'We will be at the Field of Honey long before sundown,' he announced to his companions. Cluain Meala, the Field of Honey, was a settlement further to the west, on the northern bank of the river called the Siúr whose waters lay before them. 'We'll stay there and ride on to Cashel tomorrow.'
'I shan't be sorry to get home,' sighed one of his companions. He glanced nervously back in the direction from which they had come, back to where the hills rose to a dark, impressive mountain.
The leader chuckled as he caught the young man's expression. 'Did you expect to be enchanted by the women of the Otherworld while we were crossing the mountain, Enda?'
'All very well for you, Gormán,' replied the other indignantly, 'but the old stories are often true ones.'
'So you really believe that Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his warriors were enchanted by women of the Otherworld as they crossed the mountain?' enquired Gormán, his tone edged with derision.
'Is it not called Sliabh na mBan – the Mountain of Women?' protested Enda. 'And the entrance to the underground sanctuary of the Otherworld women is known to be located near its summit.'
The third member of the party interrupted with a snort of exasperation. 'Stories for the campfire! If we grew cautious when approaching the site of every weird tale, we would never move from our own thresholds. Anyway, we've crossed the mountain without problems, so there's no need to worry about Otherworld entities now. Let us move on, for the sooner we get to the Field of Honey, the sooner we can relax over a beaker of corma, a good meal and a bright fire.'
'Dego is right,' agreed Gormán. He was about to nudge his horse forward when a sudden cacophony of bird cries caused him to glance across the tree-tops towards the river. His keen eyes caught a rising circle of alarmed birds in the distance.
'Something has startled them,' muttered Enda, following his gaze.
'Birds are always being startled,' Dego said indifferently. 'Maybe a wolf or a fox has taken its prey.'
Gormán did not bother to comment further but led his companions down the hillside into the woods below. He knew the narrow track which descended towards the river. It was not long before the trees gave way to scrubland and then stretches of sedges and reeds which lined the banks of the broad river. They walked their horses westward, becoming aware, as they did so, of the still-wheeling birds ahead of them. Now and then, black-headed Reed Buntings went skimming by, barely above the level of the water, with a frightened repetitive cry. Gormán could pick out the hoarse, laughing chatter of magpies, as they fluttered against the cloudy sky above them. Then his eyes narrowed. Among the wheeling birds were large black ones with diamond-shaped tails.
'Ravens!' he muttered. His tone indicated his dislike of the creatures, for ravens were the symbols of death and battle; evil carrion which were said to feed off the corpses of the slain.
'Some creature must have been killed, as Dego said,' Enda observed. 'That is probably why the birds were making such a noise. And now the eaters of dead flesh have come to claim their share of the kill.'
They had been moving at a walking pace along the northern bank of the river and now, as the water course made a slight bend, they could see what it was that had alarmed the birds.
Gormán was not alone in catching his breath and sharply drawing rein.
Four corpses lay sprawled on the river bank among scattered items of clothing, remains of burned papers and other detritus. Nearby, not even secured to the bank, was a sercenn, a river craft with a single sail which, if the wind and current were contrary, was hauled in so that ramha or oars could be used to propel it. Now the sail hung limp and torn, and one of the oars, smashed and splintered, was floating in the water beside the boat.
Misfortune had certainly overcome the occupants of the craft. Two of the corpses were clad in leather jerkins and had the appearance of boatmen. One had bloody wounds to the skull while the other, who lay face down, had an arrow still impaled between his shoulderblades.
Gormán's mouth tightened as he realised that the other two corpses were clad in the torn and bloody robes of religious.
Enda and Dego had already unsheathed their swords and were peering cautiously around them, ready to respond to any threatening danger.
Gormán shook his head. 'It must have happened when we first heard the noise of the birds. The attackers are long gone.'
The heavy black ravens had withdrawn a little at the men's approach but remained watching them with unblinking malignancy. As the three riders had made no aggressive moves towards them, they had begun to edge back towards the corpses. With a sudden shout, Gormán jumped from his horse and picked up a few loose stones, which he threw at the birds. They retreated with a flapping of their dark wings to a safe distance, and then stopped to stare back at the creatures that had come between them and their food. They were obviously not to be removed so easily from the prospect of a meal.
Enda joined Gormán in surveying the scene. Dego had descended and stood holding the horses' reins, watching as his companions examined the bodies.
'Robbers?' he asked morosely.
'It would seem so,' replied Gormán. 'If there was anything valuable in this boat, then they have taken it.' He dropped to one knee by the corpse of one of the two religious. 'The crucifix that this one was wearing has been removed by force.'
'How can you tell?'
'A little trick the lady Fidelma taught me. Observation. See that weal on the neck? That would have been caused when the thieves tore off the crucifix. What else would a religieux be wearing around the neck but a crucifix?'
'Who was he? Someone local?' asked Enda, staring down at the corpse.
The man lay face down, and they noticed that part of his garments had been ripped away, revealing a number of criss-cross scars on his back. But they were old and healed wounds, as if he had been scourged some years ago. Gormán turned the body over. The victim was an elderly man, with sallow skin. There was something foreign in his appearance that Gormán could not quite place. His tonsure was certainly cut in the manner of Rome rather than that of the Five Kingdoms. The other body was that of a younger man, who also wore the tonsure of Rome.
'Strangers, I would guess,' Gormán said. 'They were probably travelling upriver when they were attacked. Robbery appears to be the motive. I can't see any signs of personal valuables or even a cargo on the boat. And before you ask, Dego, the boat's bow is facing upriver. It is logical that they were moving in that direction.'
Enda grinned. 'You have indeed been taking lessons from the lady Fidelma.'
Dego, having tied the horses to a nearby bush, had come forward and started turning over the remains of the burned pieces of vellum or papyrus with his foot. 'Well, there are not enough of these pieces surviving to make sense of any of them. I wonder why they burned them? Vellum and papyrus are so hard to come by that a scribe would offer much merely to re-use them; to clean and write over the old text. I've seen it done. And ...'
He suddenly bent down and picked up something. He came to his feet squinting at a small round object between his thumb and finger.
'What is it?' Gormán asked.
'I thought it was a silver coin,' replied the other in disgust. 'But it is just a round piece of lead. There are some letters on it as if it was a coin, but no one would use lead as currency.' He squinted at it more closely. 'V ... I ... T ... A ...' he read aloud. 'I can't make out any more.'
'Vita is Latin for life,' declared Gormán knowledgeably.
'Well, it's not worth anything.' Dego tossed it in the air and caught it deftly. 'I can use it as a weight for my line when I go fishing.'
'But who do you think was responsible for this?' Enda demanded.
'I heard that there was a band of Déisi youths who are in rebellion against Prince Cummasach,' Gormán replied. 'It might be their work.'
The Déisi comprised a small principality south of the river whose princes owed allegiance to the King of Muman.
'Could rebellious youths have committed such butchery?' Enda asked dubiously.
'I have heard that there was bloodshed over a cattle raid these youths carried out near Garbhán's fort. They have been proclaimed élúdaig, absconders before the law, outlaws, losing their rights in society. This is why they have probably taken to murder and brigandage,' replied Gormán.
Enda glanced round and noticed some lengths of rope still coiled on the boat.
'The best thing to do is get these corpses onto the boat and cover them as decently as we can. That way, we can protect their bodies from the ravens. Then, if I am not mistaken, we are only a short ride from the chapel of Brother Siolán. We can use the rope to tow the boat along the river with our horses from the bank. I am sure that the good Brother Siolán will offer these men a Christian burial.'
Gormán agreed and waded to the boat to pull it closer to the bank. Enda and Dega lifted the first corpse, the elderly religieux, and placed it in the vessel while Gormán was securing one end of the rope to the bow.
'It's a light craft, therefore I think we can get away with one horse pulling it,' he said with satisfaction, stepping back onto the river bank.
It was while his companions were lifting the next corpse, that of one of the boatmen, that a movement caught the corner of Gormán's eye. At first he thought it was one of the intimidating ravens and turned to meet the threat. Then his eyes widened. It was coming from the body of the younger religieux.
In a moment, he had fallen to one knee beside the man and was feeling for a pulse point in the neck.
'By the powers!' he exclaimed in a shocked voice. 'This one is still alive.'
Enda brought the goatskin water bag immediately from his horse and poured some of the liquid across the lips and face of the man. He was a handsome fellow with dark hair. There was bruising on the side of his head, but Gormán's trained eye observed that there were no other deep cuts or abrasions.
The trickle of the water brought momentary consciousness, and suddenly the young man was striking out and moaning as if in the belief that he was still under attack. But he had no strength and Gormán was easily able to contain his threshing arms.
'It's all right, all right.' His voice was calm and reassuring. 'You are among friends.'
The young man coughed, muttered something in a harsh-sounding language that Gormán felt was familiar but did not understand, then he relapsed into unconsciousness.
'Will he survive?' demanded Enda, peering over Gormán's shoulder.
'We must get him to Brother Siolán,' replied Gormán. 'He has the knowledge of healing.'
Enda was frowning at the face of the young religieux.
'He is a stranger to me and yet ... yet I swear those features are familiar. What language was it he spoke?'
Gormán shrugged, disclaiming knowledge. Then: 'Help me place him in the boat. It will be an easier way of transporting him than trying to put him on a horse.'
The young man did not recover consciousness while he was settled in the boat away from the three corpses that had been his companions.
Enda volunteered to stay on the boat with one of the oars to help guide it while Gormán, having had one last look at the debris on the bank, to make sure that they had left nothing of importance behind, took the other end of the rope and secured it to his saddle. Enda, using the oar, and with the help of Dego on the bank, pushed the craft away from the muddy bank. Gormán then began to walk his horse along the water's edge. It was difficult at first, and now and then Enda had to use the oar to keep the boat from embedding itself into the mud. It was not long, however, before Gormán and Enda achieved a means of hauling the boat along at a reasonable pace. Behind Gormán rode Dego, leading Enda's horse and ready to help should difficulties arise. All were uncomfortably aware that behind them, the dark ravens seemed to be following as if reluctant to part with their intended meal – the corpses in the boat.
Cill Siolán, the little chapel of Brother Siolán, was situated on a straight stretch of the river and marked by a wooden quay from which a path led to the nearby chapel and the cabin where Brother Siolán lived. As well as the path from the river, there was a track which led to the large settlement called the Field of Honey, which lay further to the west. Set apart from the river and track, Siolán's hut was nestled in the surrounding forests that spread over the hills towards the distant prominence of the Sliabh na mBan.
The three warriors guided the boat, with its grisly cargo, to the quay. As Gormán secured the craft, Enda looked up at the sky.
'We have no hope of reaching the Field of Honey before nightfall now.'
'At least we don't have to camp in the open,' Dego said. 'I've heard Brother Siolán is quite hospitable.'
A voice hailed them and a stocky figure in religious robes came trotting down the path to the quayside. He was a fleshy-faced man with bright blue eyes and a mass of sandy hair. By his side moved a large wolfhound, with wary eyes.
'Gormán! It is good to see you again. What brings ...?' The greeting stopped short as his eyes fell on the contents of the boat. 'In God's name, what has happened?'
'Brigands,' explained Gormán succinctly. 'Probably those Déisi outlaws that there has been talk about. But one of the victims still lives and so we need your immediate aid.'
Brother Siolán did not waste time with further questions.
'Bring him up to the cabin so that I may examine him.' He turned and gave staccato orders to his hound; the beast loped off back to the cabin porch and lay down, ever-watchful.
Gormán turned to Enda. 'We two shall carry him. Dego, you see to the horses. We'll help you later with the burial of the corpses,' he added to Brother Siolán.
Gormán and Enda lifted the unconscious young religieux from the boat and, between them, carried his inert body up the pathway to Brother Siolán's cabin. He let them in and pointed to the bed, asking, 'How long ago did this happen?'
'We are not sure, Brother,' Gormán said breathlessly. 'But it can't have been that long ago. Will the man live?'
Brother Siolán was bending over the young religieux, examining him.
'The only wound seems to be the abrasion on the side of his head. Has he regained consciousness at all?'
'Only momentarily,' Gormán replied.
'A good sign anyway. It seems that the blow rendered him unconscious, which probably saved his life as the attackers may have thought they had killed him. Let us hope that the blow has caused no internal injuries. However, he will doubtless suffer headaches when he recovers consciousness.'
Excerpted from The Devil's Seal by Peter Tremayne. Copyright © 2014 Peter Tremayne. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Another good read but not as rich story wise as others in the series (I've downed 25). Then again not every potato chip in the bag is as good as the first few...but still you can't stop eating them!