Murder Strikes Again
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
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:
‘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
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
‘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
‘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.’
Back to Drumshee Timeline Series booklist