Fidelma of Cashel - sister to the King of Muman, a religieuse of the Celtic Church and an advocate of the Brehon courts - returns in this new collection of fifteen tales. These stories of murder, mayhem, and mystery are not merely spellbinders but also provide insight into the ways and mores of the complex, fascinating society of seventh century Ireland as well as heretofore unrevealed background details of Fidelma herself.
About the Author
Peter Tremayne is the fiction pseudonym for Peter Berresford Ellis, a prominent authority on the ancient Celts and author of numerous works of history and scholarship. As Tremayne, he is the author of eleven books featuring Sister Fidelma, including Our Lady of Darkness. He lives in London.
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Whispers of the Dead
Fifteen Sister Fidelma Mysteries
By Peter Tremayne
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Peter Tremayne
All rights reserved.
WHISPERS OF THE DEAD
Abbot Laisran sat back in his chair, at the side of the crackling log fire, and gazed thoughtfully at his cup of mulled wine.
"You have achieved a formidable reputation, Fidelma," he observed, raising his cherub-like features to his young protégée, who sat on the other side of the fireplace, sipping her wine. "Some Brehons talk of you as they would the great female judges such as Brig or Dari. That is commendable in one so young."
Fidelma smiled thinly. She was not one given to vanity for she knew her own weaknesses.
"I would not aspire to write legal texts as they did, nor, indeed, would I pretend to be more than a simple investigator of facts. I ama dálaigh, an advocate. I prefer to leave the judgment of others to the Brehons."
Abbot Laisran inclined his head slightly as if in acceptance of her statement.
"But that is the very thing on which your reputation has its foundation. You have had some outstanding successes with your investigations, observing things that are missed by others. Several times I have seen your ability firsthand. Does it ever worry you that you hold so much responsibility?"
"It worries me only that I observe all the facts and come to the right decision. However, I did not spend eight years under instruction with the Brehon Morann of Tara to no avail. I have come to accept the responsibility that goes with my office."
"Ah," sighed the abbot. "'Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.' That is from —"
"The Gospel of Luke," Fidelma interrupted with a mischievous smile.
Abbot Laisran answered her smile.
"Does nothing escape your attention, Fidelma? Surely there must be cases when you are baffled? For instance, there must be many a murder over which it is impossible to attribute guilt."
"Perhaps I have been lucky," admitted Fidelma. "However, I do not believe that there is such a thing as a perfect crime."
"Come now, that must be an overstatement?"
"Even when we examine a body with no evidence of who he, or she, was in life, or how and when he, or she, died, let alone by whose hand, a good observer will learn something. The dead always whisper to us. It is our task to listen to the whispers of the dead."
The abbot knew it was not in Fidelma's nature to boast of her prowess; however, his round features assumed a skeptical expression.
"I would like to make a wager with you," he suddenly announced.
Fidelma frowned. She knew that Abbot Laisran was a man who was quick to place wagers. Many was the time she had attended thegreat Aenach Lifé, the fair at the Curragh, for the horseracing and watched Abbot Laisran losing as well as winning as he hazarded money on the contests.
"What manner of wager had you in mind, Laisran?" she asked cautiously.
"You have said that the dead whisper to us and we must have ears to listen. That in every circumstance the body of a person will eventually yield up the information necessary to identify him, and who, if anyone, is culpable for the death. Have I understood you correctly?"
Fidelma inclined her head in agreement.
"That has been my experience until now," she conceded.
"Well then," continued Abbot Laisran, "will you take a wager with me on a demonstration of that claim?"
"In what circumstances?"
"Simple enough. By coincidence, this morning a young peasant woman was found dead not far from this abbey. There was no means of identification on her and inquiries in the adjacent village have failed to identify her. No one appears to be missing. She must have been a poor itinerant. One of our brothers, out of charity, brought the body to the abbey. Tomorrow, as is custom, we shall bury her in an unmarked grave." Abbot Laisran paused and glanced slyly at her. "If the dead truly whisper to you, Fidelma, perhaps you will be able to interpret those whispers and identify her?"
Fidelma considered for a moment.
"You say that she was a young woman? What was the cause of her death?"
"That is the mystery. There are no visible means of how she died. She was well nourished, according to our apothecary."
"No signs of violence?" asked Fidelma, slightly bemused.
"None. The matter is a total mystery. Hence I would place a wager with you, which is that if you can find some evidence, some cause of death, of something that will lead to the identification of the poor unfortunate, then I will accept that your claim is valid. So, what of the wager?"
Fidelma hesitated. She disliked challenges to her abilities but, on the other hand, some narcissistic voice called from within her.
"What is the specific wager?" she asked.
"A screpall for the offertory box of the abbey." Abbot Laisran smiled. "I will give a screpall for the poor if you can discover more about the poor woman than we have been able to. If you cannot, then you will pay a screpall to the offertory box."
A screpall was a silver coin valued to the fee charged by a dálaigh for a single consultation.
Fidelma hesitated a moment and then, urged on by her pride, said: "It is agreed."
She rose and set down her mulled wine, startling the abbot.
"Where are you going?" he demanded.
"Why, to view the body. There is only an hour or two of daylight left, and many important signs can vanish in artificial light."
Reluctantly, Abbot Laisran set down his wine and also rose.
"Very well," he sighed. "Come, I will show you the way to the apothecary."
A tall, thin religieux with a beak of a nose glanced up as Abbot Laisran entered the chamber where he was pounding leaves with a pestle. His eyes widened a little when he saw Sister Fidelma enter behind the abbot. Fidelma was well known to most of the religious of the Abbey of Durrow.
"Brother Donngal, I have asked Sister Fidelma to examine our unknown corpse."
The abbey's apothecary immediately set aside his work and gazed at her with interest.
"Do you think that you know the poor woman, Sister?"
Fidelma smiled quickly.
"I am here as a dálaigh, Brother," she replied.
A slight frown crossed Brother Donngal's features.
"There is no sign of a violent death, Sister. Why would an advocate have an interest in this matter?"
Catching the irritable hardening of her expression, Abbot Laisran intervened quickly: "It is because I asked Sister Fidelma to give me her opinion on this matter."
Brother Donngal turned to a door.
"The body lies in our mortuary. I was shortly to prepare it for burial. Our carpenter has only just delivered the coffin."
The body lay under a linen sheet on a table in the center of the chamber that served as the abbey's mortuary where bodies were prepared for burial.
Sister Fidelma moved toward it and was about to take a corner of the sheet in her hand when the apothecary coughed apologetically.
"I have removed her clothing for examination but have not dressed her for the coffin yet, Sister."
Fidelma's eyes twinkled at the man's embarrassment, but she made no reply.
The corpse was that of a young woman, perhaps no more than twenty years old. Fidelma had not entirely hardened herself to premature death.
"She is not long dead," was Fidelma's first remark.
Brother Donngal nodded.
"No more than a day and a night, I reckon. She was found this morning and I believe she died during the night."
"By whom was she found?"
"Brother Torcan," intervened Abbot Laisran, who was standing just inside the door observing them.
"Where was she found?"
"No more than a few hundred paces from the abbey walls."
"I meant, in what place, what were the conditions of her surroundings?"
"Oh, I see. She was found in a wood, in a small clearing almost covered with leaves."
Fidelma raised an eyebrow.
"What was this Brother Torcan doing there?"
"Gathering edible fungi. He works in the kitchens."
"And the clothes worn by the girl ... where are they?" Fidelma asked.
The man gestured to a side table on which clothing was piled.
"She wore just the simple garb of a village girl. There is nothing to identify her there."
"I will examine them in a moment and likewise will wish to speak to this Brother Torcan."
She turned her gaze back to the body, bending forward to examine it with careful precision.
It was some time before she straightened from her task.
"Now, I shall examine the clothing."
Brother Donngal moved to a table and watched while Fidelma picked up the items. They consisted of a pair of sandals called cuaran, a single sole of untanned hide, stitched together with thongs cut from the same hide. They were almost worn through. The dress was a simple one of wool and linen, roughly woven and threadbare. It appeared to have been secured at the waist by a strip of linen. There was also a short cape with a hood, as affected by many country women. Again, it was obviously worn, and fringed with rabbit fur.
Fidelma raised her head and glanced at the apothecary.
"Is this all that she was wearing?"
Brother Donngal nodded in affirmation.
"Was there no underclothing?"
The apothecary looked embarrassed.
"None," he confirmed.
"She did not have a ciorbholg?"
The ciorbholg was, literally, a comb-bag, but it contained all the articles of toilet, as well as combs, which women carried about with them no matter their rank or status. It served women in the manner of a purse and it was often tied at the waist by a belt.
Brother Donngal shook his head negatively once more.
"This is why we came to the conclusion that she was simply a poor itinerant," explained the abbot.
"So there was no toilet bag?" mused Fidelma. "And she had no brooches or other jewelry?"
Brother Donngal allowed a smile to play around his lips.
"Of course not."
"Why of course not?" demanded Fidelma sharply.
"Because it is clear from this clothing, Sister, that the girl was a very poor country girl. Such a girl would not be able to afford such finery."
"Even a poor country girl will seek out some ornaments, no matter how poor she is," replied Fidelma.
Abbot Laisran came forward with a sad smile.
"Nothing was found. So you see, Fidelma, this poor young woman cannot whisper to you from her place of death. A poor country girl and with nothing to identify her. Her whispers are silent ones. You should not have been so willing to accept my challenge."
Fidelma swung 'round on him to reveal the smile on her face. Her eyes twinkled with a dangerous fire.
"On the contrary, Laisran. There is much that this poor girl whispers; much she tells us, even in this pitiable state."
Brother Donngal exchanged a puzzled glance with the abbot.
"I don't understand you, Sister," he said. "What can you see? What have I missed?"
"Practically everything," Fidelma assured him calmly.
Abbot Laisran stifled a chuckle as he saw the mortified expression on the apothecary's face. But he turned to her with a reproving glance.
"Come now, Fidelma," he chided, "don't be too sharp because you have been confronted with an insoluble riddle. Not even you can conjure facts out of nothing."
Abbot Laisran stirred uncomfortably as he saw the tiny green fire in her eyes intensify. However, when she addressed him, her tone was comparatively mild.
"You know better of me, Laisran. I am not given to vain boasting."
Brother Donngal moved forward and stared at the body of the girl as if trying to see what it was that Fidelma had observed.
"What have I missed?" he demanded again.
Fidelma turned to the apothecary.
"First, you say that this girl is a poor country girl. What makes you arrive at such a conclusion?"
Brother Donngal regarded her with an almost pitying look.
"That was easy. Look at her clothing — at her sandals. They are not the apparel of someone of high rank and status. The clothes show her humble origins."
Fidelma sighed softly.
"My mentor, the Brehon Morann, once said that the veil can disguise much; it is folly to accept the outside show for the inner quality of a person."
"I don't understand."
"This girl is not of humble rank, that much is obvious."
Abbot Laisran moved forward and peered at the body in curiosity.
"Come, Fidelma, now you are guessing."
Fidelma shook her head.
"I do not guess, Laisran. I have told you," she added impatiently, "listen to the whispers of the dead. If this is supposed to be a peasant girl, then regard the skin of her body — white and lacking color by wind and sun. Look at her hands, soft and cared for as are her nails. There is no dirt beneath them. Her hands are not calloused by work. Look at her feet. Again, soft and well cared for. See the soles of the feet? This girl had not been trudging fields in those poor shoes that she was clad in, nor has she walked any great distance."
The abbot and the apothecary followed her instructions and examined the limbs she indicated.
"Now, examine her hair."
The girl's hair, a soft spun gold color, was braided behind her head in a single long plait that reached almost to her waist.
"Nothing unusual in that," observed Laisran. Many women in the five kingdoms of Éireann considered very long hair as a mark of beauty and braided it in similar style.
"But it is exceptionally well tended. The braiding is the traditional cuilfhionn and surely you must know that it is affected only by women of rank. What this poor corpse whispers to me is that she is a woman of rank."
"Then why was she dressed as a peasant?" demanded the apothecary after a moment's silence.
Fidelma pursed her lips.
"We must continue to listen. Perhaps she will tell us. As she tells us other things."
"She is married."
Abbot Laisran snorted with cynicism.
"How could you possibly know that?"
Fidelma simply pointed to the left hand of the corpse.
"There are marks around the third finger. They are faint, I grant you, but tiny marks nevertheless which show the recent removal of a ring that has been worn there. There is also some discoloration on her left arm. What do you make of that, Brother Donngal?"
The apothecary shrugged.
"Do you mean the marks of blue dye? It is of little importance."
"Because it is a common thing among the villages. Women dye clothes and materials. The blue is merely a dye caused by the extract of a cruciferous plant glaisin. Most people use it. It is not unusual in any way."
"It is not. But women of rank would hardly be involved in dyeing their own materials and this dye stain seems fairly recent."
"Is that important?" asked the abbot.
"Perhaps. It depends on how we view the most important of all the facts this poor corpse whispers to us."
"Which is?" demanded Brother Donngal.
"That this girl was murdered."
Abbot Laisran's eyebrows shot up.
"Come, come, now. Our apothecary has found no evidence of foul play; no wounds, no bruising, no abrasions. The face is relaxed as if she simply passed on in her sleep. Anyone can see that."
Fidelma moved forward and lifted the girl's head, bringing the single braid of hair forward in order to expose the nape of the neck. She had done this earlier during her examination as Brother Donngal and Abbot Laisran watched with faint curiosity.
"Come here and look, both of you. What, Brother Donngal, was your explanation of this?"
Brother Donngal looked slightly embarrassed as he peered forward.
"I did not examine her neck under the braid," he admitted.
"Well, now that you are examining it, what do you see?"
"There is a small discolored patch like a tiny bruise," replied the apothecary after a moment or two. "It is not more than a fingernail in width. There is a little blood spot in the center. It's rather like an insect bite that has drawn blood or as if someone has pricked the skin with a needle."
"Do you see it also, Laisran?" demanded Fidelma.
The abbot leaned forward and then nodded.
Fidelma gently lowered the girl's head back onto the table.
"I believe that this was a wound caused by an incision. You are right, Brother Donngal, in saying it is like a needle point. The incision was created by something long and thin, like a needle. It was inserted into the nape of the neck and pushed up hard so that it penetrated into the head. It was swift. Deadly. Evil. The girl probably died before she knew that she was being attacked."
Abbot Laisran was staring at Fidelma in bewilderment.
"Let me get this straight, Fidelma. Are you saying that the corpse found near this abbey this morning is a woman of rank who has been murdered? Is that right?"
"And, after her death, her clothes were taken from her and she was hurriedly dressed in poor peasant garb to disguise her origin. The murderer thought to remove all means of identification from her."
"Even if this is true," interrupted Brother Donngal, "how might we discover who she was and who perpetrated this crime?"
"The fact that she was not long dead when Brother Torcan found her makes our task more simple. She was killed in this vicinity. A woman of rank would surely be visiting a place of substance. She had not been walking any distance. Observe the soles of her feet. I would presume that she either rode or came in a carriage to her final destination."
"But what destination?" demanded Brother Donngal.
"If she came to Durrow, she would have come to the abbey," Laisran pointed out. "She did not."
"True enough. We are left with two types of places she might have gone. The house of a noble, a chieftain, or, perhaps, a bruighean, an inn. I believe that we will find the place where she met her death within five or six kilometers of this abbey."
Excerpted from Whispers of the Dead by Peter Tremayne. Copyright © 2004 Peter Tremayne. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Whispers of the Dead,
Corpse on a Holy Day,
The Astrologer Who Predicted His Own Murder,
Dark Moon Rising,
Like a Dog Returning ...,
Who Stole the Fish?,
Gold at Night,
Death of an Icon,
The Lost Eagle,
About the Author,
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