Drumshee series Cora Harrison, Children's Author Dragonfly books

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Murder Strikes Again

Chapter One

Murder Strikes Again‘Ita, quick! Look! Look at the altar table!’

Ita had dawdled, studying the sundial outside the little church, when the urgency of Fergal’s shout made her turn. Nearly noon, her mind noted automatically as she dashed into the church. It was the first time she had been in there – her father had not wanted to become a Christian after Patrick’s visit to Coad – and for a moment she didn’t know where to look for the altar table. Then her eyes adjusted to the grey light coming in through the little window on the eastern side of the church. She took a hesitating step forward and then stopped, a sick feeling in the bottom of her stomach.

There in front of her was the altar table It was made from white marble, but the marble was not white now. It looked as if someone had taken a paintbrush and smeared blobs and stripes of red paint over it.

But it was not red paint; it was blood.

And on the altar lay a man – a very small, thin man. The head had been beaten in, but the face was recognisable.

‘Is it Cetterick, the priest?’ she whispered.

Fergal nodded. He seemed to have difficulty in speaking and he cleared his throat noisily once or twice before the words came out.

‘It’s Cetterick all right,’ he said.

‘Is he...’ Ita stopped, feeling that the solid lump of porridge that had been lain in her stomach since breakfast was starting to rise up. She swallowed hard. She kept her eyes fixed on a small dark piece of wood on the floor stirring it around and around with her foot until her she felt she could trust her voice.

‘Is he dead?’ she went on as steadily as she could.

‘He’s dead all right,’ said Fergal heavily. ‘He’s been dead for a while, I’d say.’ He reached out and carefully touched the hand that dangled over the side of the altar. ‘Yes, the body is cooling. The question is who has killed him?’

Many names could have come to their minds. Cetterick, the priest, had been the most hated man in the area around Drumshee. When Patrick had baptised King Carthen, King of Corcomroe, eighteen months ago, a large number of people had become Christians. When the king had taken land from one clan to give to the priest who had been appointed, there had been a certain amount of bad feeling, but if a different man had been priest that might soon have been forgotten. Unfortunately, Cetterick had been arrogant and cruel and soon everyone hated him. Many of the people who had become Christian had now gone back to the old religion.

Nevertheless, only one name sprang immediately to their lips as they stared at the battered body of the priest - and they said it almost at the same moment:

‘Britus!’

‘I hope it isn’t,’ added Ita in a low voice.

‘I wouldn’t blame him,’ said Fergal tensely, ‘not after the way Cetterick has treated him. Ever since he bought him as a slave in the market at Kinvarra, Cetterick has done nothing but beat that poor boy. He doesn’t feed him enough, either.’

‘We’d better look for him,’ said Ita reluctantly. Her legs trembled and suddenly she was not sure that she wanted to find Britus. Who ever had battered in the head of the priest had done so in a frenzy of rage. Perhaps Britus might harm them, also? Perhaps, at this very moment he was hiding in the shadowy corners of the little church with a sledge hammer in his hand ready to strike.

‘We’ll have to let your father know,’ said Fergal. Ita’s father was the Brehon, the judge and lawgiver for the kingdom of Corcomroe. All crimes had to be reported to him.

Ita nodded. The mention of her father steadied her. She and Fergal were both students at the Drumshee Law School. They also had to take part in keeping law and order.

‘Let’s try the house,’ she said bravely.

Cetterick’s small stone cottage was empty of everything except a cat washing its whiskers in front of the fire.

‘Of course,’ said Fergal. ‘Britus must be with Mahon. He helps him with building his house every Saturday morning.’

‘I’d forgotten,’ said Ita.

Up until eighteen months ago Mahon had been a student at the law school of Drumshee, but then he had got a rich gift from the king, had abandoned the studies that he hated, and had bought a small farm by Lough Fergus. Until very recently he had still lived at Drumshee, but now he lived on his own farm and most of his days were spent in building his own house on the farm. He hired Britus from Cetterick once a week to help him.

‘Well, if Britus is with Mahon, he can’t have killed Cetterick,’ she continued with relief.

‘We’ll go over to Lough Fergus and see. We’d planned to go there anyway, after we had delivered your father’s message to the priest,’ said Fergal. ‘Mahon will wonder where we are if we don’t turn up and it won’t take us too much out of our way if Britus is not with Mahon. We can just go back to Drumshee along the river bank and tell the Brehon what has happened.’

But Britus was with Mahon. Small, dark, very thin, very frightened-looking, he was scuttling around with buckets of lime mortar which Mahon was plastering between the stones of his house.

‘Britus,’ said Fergal getting off his pony and walking across to the lime heap, ‘was your master Cetterick all right when you left home this morning?’

‘Don’t be scared,’ added Ita. The slave boy stared at Fergal as if he could not understand the words.

‘What’s wrong?’ asked Mahon coming across with the trowel still in his hand.

‘Cetterick is dead,’ whispered Ita in his ear.

‘What!’ said Mahon. He stared Britus with horror in his eyes. Suddenly he took a few steps forward, snatched the boy’s hand and held it up.

The slave boy’s arm was filthy. He looked as if he had not washed for a month. Here and there, showing even blacker than the dirt, there were the marks of bruises. But that was not the only thing that showed on skinny arm. On his wrist and on the upper arm and on the ragged edge of his tunic were the marks of dried blood.

‘I wondered what had happened to him,’ said Mahon to Ita and Fergal. ‘I thought he must have had to kill a lamb or something before he came, but he arrived so late and he seemed in such a state that I just set him to work straightaway.’

‘What time did he come?’ asked Ita.

‘Nearly an hour ago,’ said Mahon briefly. He turned to the boy, ‘Britus,’ he asked. ‘Did you kill Cetterick? Did you kill your master?’

The slave boy shook his head wordlessly. He looked as if he were unable to speak, almost unable to stand. His legs shook under him and quite suddenly his teeth began to chatter.

‘Put him on my pony, Fergal,’ said Ita looking at the boy compassionately. ‘We must get him back to Drumshee. My father will have to see him. I’ll walk back with Mahon. You’ll come, won’t you, Mahon,’ she added.

‘I’ll come,’ said Mahon tensely. ‘I’m the only one that Britus knows now.’

It was true. Britus had been working for Mahon for a couple of months now and Mahon had gradually taught the frightened, abused boy to trust him.

‘You ride, Ita,’ said Fergal. ‘I’ll walk.’

‘No,’ said Ita decisively. She wanted the opportunity to talk to Mahon. He was so busy with his house that she hardly saw him these days. And yet, less than two years ago, he had wanted her to marry him. They had seemed to grow apart gradually. She would be glad of the opportunity of being with him with no one else around.

‘You go ahead with Britus, Fergal,’ she added. ‘He’s shivering. Tell Fionnuala to give him something hot to drink.’

I hope he’s safe on that pony, she thought as she watched Fergal and Britus canter away up the hill towards Drumshee. It hadn’t occurred to her that Britus might not be able to ride. He had been captured from a settlement near the sea in Britain, she remembered hearing. Perhaps he had never ridden before. Mahon had told her that Britus was very clever with a boat and caught all the fish that his master could eat from Lough Fergus. He’ll be all right, she comforted herself; my pony is as old as the hills and is very gentle and sure-footed. Fergal will look after him, anyway. Her eyes followed him until he reached the top of the hill and then she turned back to Mahon.

‘He looks so sick,’ she said in a worried way. ‘Do you think that it was the shock of finding Cetterick? I would have thought that he would be quite glad to find him dead. Unless...’

‘Unless he was the one who killed him,’ finished Mahon. ‘The shock of what he had done might be enough to make him look like that’

‘Do you think that he killed Cetterick before he came to you, then?’ asked Ita.

‘Probably,’ said Mahon. ‘I don’t blame him,’ he added. ‘I felt like killing him myself at times. Most people have.’

Ita was silent. There was no doubt that Cetterick, the priest, had been the most hated man in the area.

‘Britus has blood all over him,’ continued Mahon. ‘I saw some on the back of his leg, also, when he got on your pony. I’d say he did kill him.’

Suddenly Ita was conscious of a spurt of anger. ‘Why are you so sure?’ she Mahon shrugged his shoulders. He seemed amused by her anger. ‘You have to face facts,’ he pointed out. ‘Just because you’re sorry for him, doesn’t mean that he didn’t kill Cetterick. Anyway, don’t worry. He has no goods, no land, no family. He can’t pay a fine. The only one who would have to pay a fine for a slave is his master and his master is dead. I remember that much from my days at law school.’

‘That’s Brehon law,’ pointed out Ita. ‘Brehon law says that a person, or the person’s family, or clan, has to pay a fine for any wrongdoing. Will this be judged by Brehon law, though? You know King Carthen is a Christian, himself. What if the king decides that since Cetterick was a Christian priest that Britus will have to pay the penalty that the Christian church has fixed for murder?’

‘What!’ Mahon stopped so abruptly that he almost lost his balance on the rough ground.

‘Well, you know what the Christians say,’ continued Ita looking at him intently. ‘An eye for an eye; a life for a life; Britus would be condemned to death by their laws if he has really killed Cetterick.’

‘Oh, rubbish,’ said Mahon uneasily. He flung a stone at a passing crow and then started to walk so quickly that Ita had to run to keep up with him. ‘Your father would never allow that to happen,’ he added as she tucked her hand into his.

‘Well, he is having a very difficult time protecting Finn, the goldsmith,’ said Ita. ‘You remember what happened. Finn killed that coppersmith from Liscannor after a drunken fight and Cetterick was trying to persuade the king that Finn should be hanged. He even offered to do the deed himself.’ She shuddered as she thought of the scene. Her father, quietly watchful as usual, standing in the doorway of the schoolhouse within the enclosure of Drumshee and Cetterick, the Christian priest, his voice rising to the pitch of a scream, demanding the sacrifice of Finn’s life.

‘Cetterick’s dead now, anyway,’ muttered Mahon after a few minutes’ silence. ‘There’s no one to look for Britus’s life.’ He walked on very fast. Ita let go of his hand. She would walk at her own pace, she decided stubbornly. Let him wait for her or go ahead as he pleased. The noonday sun was hot on her head and she suddenly felt tired and depressed.

‘Did I tell you how much silver I got for those calves that I sold in Kinvarra?’ asked Mahon, suddenly stopping and turning around to wait for her.

‘No,’ said Ita sulkily. How could he talk about calves when poor Britus was in such trouble?

‘Two ounces,’ said Mahon proudly.

‘Oh,’ said Ita. She did not look at him and she made no effort to run to his side. She began to wish that she had allowed Fergal to walk back with Mahon and she herself had ridden back with the slave boy. Mahon seemed to think of nothing but making money and building a splendid house, these days. He seemed so changed from the boy that she had known for six years at Drumshee law school. She turned her thoughts from Mahon and began to worry about Britus. She felt a great sense of pity for him. She herself had so many friends: a father who was devoted to her; Fionnuala, her nurse, who would do anything in the world for her; the boys at the law school who were all like brothers to her. Britus had nothing; had no one. He had looked so ill, too. Would he fall from the pony? Would he suddenly get overwhelmed by everything and run away to hide? In a fit of despair would he gallop down to the sea and throw himself in? Still, she comforted herself, Fergal was very kind and sensitive; he would be careful of Britus. And once he got back to Drumshee, old Fionnuala, who had been her nurse – and mother ever since Ita’s own mother had died – would look after Britus.

‘I’m going to buy a pony for myself, next week,’ said Mahon, waiting for her. ‘I won’t have to ride on the old farm horse, then.’ She could see him looking sidelong at her to see whether she was impressed, but she ignored him and walked past him.

‘Hurry up,’ she said curtly. ‘I must see my father. We have to make sure that Britus is looked after.’


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