Recent Historical Mystery Titles by Cora Harrison
MY LADY JUDGE
A SECRET AND UNLAWFUL KILLINGWRIT IN STONE
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First world edition published 2009
in Great Britain and in the USA by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
9–15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF.
Copyright © 2009 by Cora Harrison.
All rights reserved.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Writ in Stone.
1. Mara, Brehon of the Burren (Fictitious character) –
Fiction. 2. Women judges – Ireland – Burren – Fiction.
3. Burren (Ireland) – History – 16th century – Fiction.
4. Detective and mystery stories.
ISBN-13: 978-1-7801-0091-3 (ePub)
ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-6812-1 (cased)
ISBN-13: 978-1-84751-176-8 (trade paper)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.
This ebook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.Contents
The Burren, on the west coast of Ireland, is a land of white stone and dark green-blue sea, encircled by swirling terraced mountains of gleaming limestone, soft fertile grass and hard rock; tiny jewel-bright flowers and wind-torn asymmetrical trees; great pagan stone monuments and small ruined Christian churches and abbeys.
To the north of the Burren, between the mountains, lies a valley, its vivid emerald-green grass neatly segmented into oblongs and squares by low white limestone walls. At the head of this valley, sheltered from north, east and west by the towering hills, sits a Cistercian abbey, dedicated to
Sancta Maria Petris Fertilis
, Our Lady of the Fertile Rock. Now it is a majestic ruin, but from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century it was a prosperous place. Within its peaceful walls monks of the Cistercian order worked, lived and eventually died. Their lives are largely unknown, their deaths soothed by the rites of the church, and their bones now lie among the small humps and hollows outside the abbey.
But at the Christmas festival of the year 1509 a death occurred in the abbey that was not the result of illness, plague or of old age. A man kneeling in prayer beside the tomb of an ancestor was brutally and violently battered to death. And it was Mara, Brehon of the Burren, who had to investigate this secret and unlawful killing.
(Triumphs of Turlough)
In that year of 1317 they came through Burren’s hilly grey expanse of jagged points and slippery steeps, a land nevertheless flowing with milk and yielding luscious grass. Then they passed out into the clear land of the abbey, Our Lady of the Fertile Rock, and inside the smooth-walled monastery’s stone-fast precinct they bestowed their lifted kine. Themselves, that night, they harboured within the sumptuous abbey’s best and most comfortable buildings.
Written by Séan Mac Rory Mac Craith, Bard to the O’Briens, in the year of Our Lord 1459
The church was very cold. The sun had just risen on this the twenty-third day of December in the year of 1509. Clear white light slanted through the three tall pointed windows behind the altar illuminating the finely cut ashlar limestone and the delicately moulded flower heads that decorated the tall columns. The carved vaulting of the sanctuary roof stood out like the skeleton ribs of a long-beached whale and in the chancel the marble effigy of a dead king lay tinged with pink light from the rising sun. All was very quiet and very still.
The day before had been a day of contrasts. Every few minutes strong gleams of pale winter sunshine had slanted streaks of glittering silver across the mountain flanks and then inky black clouds cast shadows over them, reflected on to a gleaming background like insubstantial, wavering goblin shapes. The sky continually darkened and quite suddenly lightened again. The cattle in the fields moved uneasily in and out of the shelter of the wind-torn hedges. Gulls flew in from the Atlantic with raucous shrieks of warning and small brown birds clumped defensively among the gnarled branches of the stunted holly trees.
But a few hours after nightfall, the wind had suddenly died down and Gleann na Manach (the valley of the monks) had become very still. Then the snow began, not a few blown flakes dancing in the air, but a steady, solid, curtain-thick downpour. By dawn the valley was choked with it, the mountain pass completely blocked, the mountains themselves smoothed and rounded, the fields and lanes filled to wall-height. The Burren was no longer a place of hard, grey stone, but a fairy kingdom of soft dazzling whiteness.
The small church at the abbey was so bathed in bright light that the red sanctuary light in the chancel had faded to a dull glow before the altar. The place was empty except for one man on his knees before the tomb of his ancestor. King Turlough Donn had made it plain the night before that he, and he alone, would take the first hour of the annual vigil to commemorate the death of his great ancestor, Conor Sudaine O’Brien, so no one disturbed the peace of the church. Even his bodyguards stood outside the western door of the church, checking the roads, the snow-filled fields, and scanning the distant mountain passes.
The assassin stood in the shadow of one of the floral-capped pillars and watched the dawn light illuminate the cloaked and hooded figure of the praying man. Nothing was to be heard; the abbot and his monks had sung the office of prime and then had gone back to their beds – the monks in their dormitories, the abbot in his house. The many noble guests who had come to commemorate the anniversary of the dead king and the Christmas-tide marriage of the living king were sleeping within the guest houses. Although the air was cold and chill, it still bore the scent of the incense of the last service.
There was something deeply inhibiting about the silence and immobility of the praying figure, thought the assassin. Perhaps the deed should not be done. Perhaps the wisest, and the best, course of action was to leave the chapel and go back to bed.
And then the kneeling figure sighed, stirred uncomfortably and swept a hand over his forehead. The candlelight brought sparks of coloured light from the jewel-studded ring on the first finger. The assassin knew that ring: the three lions was the symbol of the O’Briens. The sight of it rekindled the desire to kill. The slow fire of bitter resolve, that had begun to subside, now surged up at the sight of this symbol of wealth and power.
The moment of doubt passed quickly. There was a mason’s hammer lying at the foot of a pillar. The mason had been working late into the night repairing the decorative stone frieze of drooping-headed harebells before the Christmas festivities had begun and the hammer had been forgotten. The assassin snatched it; swung it. The weight of the mallet seemed to make it take on a life of its own as it swung in a wide arc and came crashing down on the skull of the kneeling man. There was surprisingly little noise, just a sharp crack like the sound from a hazelnut trodden on a stone pavement.
For a second the assassin hesitated. Blood flowed down over the white marble tomb and then on to the grey limestone flags underfoot. Should the murder weapon be concealed? It, too, was coated with thick clots of blood and shards of bone; no, better to drop it. It would be essential to retreat from the chapel before the bodyguards chanced to look in.
These bodyguards watched over the door to the outside, the western door, but the other two doors stood open. One led to the bell tower, the monks’ dormitory and to the lay dormitory and the other one to the cloister and from thence to the abbot’s house and to the guest houses. The choice was obvious and it was made without a second’s hesitation. Within three seconds the church was empty of all living presence: just two dead members of the O’Brien royal family, the one lying within his centuries’ old marble tomb and the other on the floor beside it.
‘For what qualifications is a king elected over countries and clans of people?’ asked Cairbre.
‘He is chosen,’ said the king, ‘from the goodness of his shape, and the nobility of his family, from his experience and wisdom, from his prudence and magnanimity, from his eloquence and bravery in battle, and from the number of his friends.’
Mara, Brehon of the Burren, abruptly sat up in bed. As the cold air puckered her bare skin she slid down again under the covers. But the voices were too insistent and the message they screamed was too strange, too appalling to ignore. Once more she pulled herself up and this time picked her night robe from the sheepskin rug on the floor, slid it over her head and then listened intently. Yes, she had made no mistake. The words were as she had heard them. Already steps were pounding up the stone staircase towards her room. In the case of a violent death then the first person to be summoned would be the Brehon. Her position meant that she would be responsible for finding the criminal and imposing the punishment. Quickly she turned to the sleeping man at her side and shook his bare shoulder.
‘My lord,’ she said calmly. ‘They are crying your death.’
King Turlough opened one sleepy eye and reached up for her.
‘Come here,’ he said softly.
The voices were louder than ever, and now the abbey bell began to toll. Both of the king’s eyes snapped open and he stared at her in bewilderment.
‘Stay there,’ said Mara warningly, pulling the warm blankets and sheepskin covers over him, even above his head. She took her fur-lined mantle from a peg behind the door and wrapped herself in it, hastily sliding her bare feet into soft leather shoes. Then she opened the door just at the moment that the feet had reached the top landing.
There was a crowd of them: the abbot, obviously hastily dressed, some monks, some lay brothers, even some guests, but Fergal, the king’s bodyguard, was first. His was the voice that she had heard calling, but now faced with her calm countenance, he suddenly fell silent. Tears welled up in his eyes and he looked as young as one of her students. He, above all, would know how much the king meant to Mara, Brehon of the Burren. He, and Conall, the other bodyguard, had been a tactful and silent presence at the many meetings between the king and his Brehon, the midnight strolls, the long suppers at her house, the visits. Now Fergal turned helplessly towards the abbot and stood back to allow him to break the appalling news.
‘Brehon,’ said the abbot, ‘something terrible has happened. The king has been killed by an assassin as he knelt in prayer beside the tomb of our great ancestor, Conor Sudaine O’Brien.’
Interesting how he never missed an opportunity to tell the world that he, too, was one of the
, the royal branch of the O’Brien clan. He didn’t look too upset at the news of the death of his king, either, she thought angrily. His sharp face, with the high-bridged O’Brien nose, wore its usual expression of sanctimonious self-satisfaction. Mara’s agile mind recorded an instant impression of the other upturned faces before her, before turning rapidly to Turlough’s predicament. If she could move the crowd from the royal lodge he could get back to his own room quickly.
‘I must go to the church,’ she said decisively. ‘Come with me, everyone.’
The crowd parted, squeezing up against the smooth stone walls as she swept down the stairs. They followed her tall slim figure obediently. At the doorway, she hesitated for a moment, looking out at the thick layer of heavy snow that blanketed the grass between them and the west door to the church. She wished that she had put on her boots, but it was too late to think of this. Only the Brehon, her servants and King Turlough with his two bodyguards had been housed within the royal lodge, the most sumptuous of the abbey’s four guest houses. Once she had taken the crowd across the grass and gone into the cloister, Turlough would be able to get back to his own bedroom in privacy.