Drumshee series Cora Harrison, Children's Author Dragonfly books

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Treachery at Midnight

Prologue

Detail from coverAnd I took his body in my arms, and I carried him up to the top of Mount Callan.

And I laid him in the shallow grave that I had hollowed out of the stony soil.

And Sorcha bent over him and smoothed the dark curls from his face. She took off her purple cloak and laid it over his face and body.

And then I shovelled the earth over him and hid him for ever.

I carried over a heavy flagstone and placed it on the mound.

And with my knife I carved these words.

‘Here lies Conan, the fierce and turbulent.’

Then I climbed back down the mountain again. Sorcha followed me. She made no sound, but I knew she was weeping. When we reached Liscannor Bay, I turned and looked at her for the last time. But she would not look at me. She shook her fair hair over her face and walked away and left me on the sands by myself.

I was not alone, though. The priest was there. He was looking at me. He stood beside his boat – that small frail cockleshell of boat made from hazel branches and covered with ox-skins. Could a boat like that ever last against the mighty thunder of the Atlantic waves? I shrugged my shoulders. What did it matter, anyway?

‘I have come,’ I said.

He nodded. He said nothing. I laid my shovel on the golden sand and stepped into the boat beside the others. He followed. Neither of us spoke again, and the waves took us and tossed us on the glittering blue of the ocean.

 

Chapter One

I have always been cursed. When I was born my mother screamed at the sight of me.

‘He’s got the mark of the devil on him,’ she wept. ‘Look at his shoulder! Look at that red mark! That’s the imprint of the devil’s claw.’

‘No, no,’ said the priest when I was brought to the church at Clogher. ‘That’s the mark of God. We’ll christen him Columba after the saint that established our order here. Saint Columba will protect him and keep him for himself.’

My mother still wept, though, when they brought me back.

‘Take him and put him out under the statue of St Brigid,’ she said. ‘If the mark is still there in the morning it will be a sign that he is the devil’s child.’

‘He may die out there,’ said my father.

‘It’s a summer’s night,’ said my mother harshly. ‘Wrap him warmly.’

‘But the mark was still there in the morning, so you are the devil’s child, Columba,’ finished Conan. He had told me the story again and again. I knew it by heart, but I still listened to it. I never wondered how he knew – after all he was less than three years old when I was born. I never wondered whether the story was true. I knew it was true. It explained everything.

I often went and sat under the statue of St Brigid under the old ash tree outside our enclosure. It was quiet and peaceful there with the high wall shutting out the sounds of my mother’s harsh voice calling from our house to my aunt’s house, the clanging of the metal being beaten out at the forge, the hiss of the hot iron being plunged into the water, my father’s laughter and words of praise for Conan. I just sat there and looked into the strange old face of the stone statue and wondered why I was so hated.

Conan wasn’t hated. Conan was loved. And yet, he was the foster-child and I was the only living child of my parents. Even though I was only five years old this puzzled me. He had come when my elder brother was still alive – they had been babies together; I knew that. My brother had died and Conan had lived. I could hear his voice now:

‘Look, Father, I’m strong enough to lift the hammer. Soon I will be able to hammer out the iron.’

‘You will, too,’ my father’s voice was laughing but there was pride in it. ‘Look at those muscles, Aidan,’ he was talking to my uncle now. ‘He’ll make a great smith, won’t he?’

My uncle’s voice was low, but I knew what he said because my father’s voice answered him.

‘You’re right, Columba will never be much use. Look at the size of him – six years old and he has the strength of a new-born kitten. I don’t know what I’ll do with him. He’s useless.’

It was my birthday. I was six years old; I had forgotten that it was my birthday until my father had spoken my age. Conan was eight. He would be nine at Lunasa, at the time of the harvest. There would be a great feast when it was Conan’s birthday. But never for mine. My birth brought no joy to anyone. My mother could hardly look at me and my father despised me. I know all that now, but when you are six years old you don’t always realise that there are some things that you can’t change.

I jumped to my feet – I’ll always remember the sweet smell of the meadowsweet herb under my feet as I jumped up and I ran around the high circular wall of the enclosure and in through the gate. The three houses – ours, my uncle and aunt’s and my grandparents – were shining gold where the new thatch reflected the hot June sun. I looked at nothing but ran as fast as my small thin legs would carry me across the grass of the enclosure over to the forge near the north wall.

‘I’m strong, too,’ I gasped – running always left me breathless. ‘I’m as strong as Conan. Look at my muscles!’

I held up my puny arm, clenching my fist the way that Conan did and tried to make the little knobs of muscles stand out.

My father began to laugh but then his face darkened. The short sleeve of my brown wool tunic fell back when I lifted my arm and the red birth mark on my shoulder – the mark of the devil’s claw – stood out. He looked at it and his face darkened.

‘Get off to your mother,’ he said roughly.

My eyes filled with tears – I know they did because I remember that when I looked towards my mother she seemed to blur and shift and then when I blinked the tears away she was gone. She had gone back into the house and shut the door. I turned away. I went back through the gate and out to the stone shed where our dog had her puppies. I bent down and tried to pick out one of the puppies – I liked the warm soft feel of his silky fur – but his mother snarled and growled at me so I put him back. I walked away, but then I returned and snatched him up again. I liked this puppy the best of all. His mother didn’t like him as much as the other puppies. He was smaller and thinner than his brothers and sisters. I tucked him under my arm and went back to sit under the statue of St Brigid in her little wedge-shaped house of stone.

‘Please, St Brigid, could you get rid of that mark from my shoulder,’ I whispered.

St Brigid stared back at me with her stone-blind eyes.

‘Go on, St Brigid, you could do it if you tried,’ I whimpered.

Still she stared at me. I fixed my eyes on the red mark on my shoulder. There was no change. The mark did not get smaller.

‘I don’t care,’ I said aloud, blinking my tears away. ‘I don’t care. I’ve got this puppy all for my own. He’s my puppy.’

‘No, he’s not,’ said a voice. It was Conan. ‘That puppy is going to be sold. The only one we’re going to keep is the one that I like. It’s the white one with the patch over one eye. I’m going to call him ‘Patch’.

‘No, we’re going to keep this one,’ I said obstinately. ‘Father said so.’

‘I bet he didn’t,’ said Conan. He knew that I lied, of course. I would never have the courage to ask, and even if I asked I would be refused. I was old enough now to know that.

‘Anyway, what’s his name?’ he asked.

I thought for a moment. It was obvious that a puppy that was going to be kept would have a name.

‘Devil,’ I said after a moment. I hugged the puppy. ‘You’re the devil’s child,’ I whispered to him. ‘I’m not going to let you go back to your old horrible mother. She lets all the other puppies bully you.’

I remember that I kept that puppy with me all day. When I was called in for my dinner I put him back for a while with his mother while I took my dinner but I snatched a lump of meat from the table on the way out and lifted him from his bed and fed it to him piece by piece.

No one had ever loved me the way that puppy did. He never ran away and played with his brothers and sisters who were staggering around the yard; he always ran straight to me and snuggled in with his little tail wagging and his brown eyes full of love.

It didn’t last, of course. It couldn’t last. Things never went well for a devil’s child. One by one the puppies went to new homes – everyone wanted one as our dog was famous for herding – until only Patch, Conan’s puppy – a bold, cheeky, bully of a puppy – and my little fellow, Devil, were left.

And then they came. Jarlath of Clogher, his wife Dervilla, and their little foster-daughter, Sorcha. They wanted a puppy. Patch was the one that caught their eye. I hugged Devil to me. They didn’t want him. I could keep him for ever and for ever.

‘You can’t have that one,’ said my father picking up Patch. ‘The young lad,’ he pointed to Conan, ‘he has a mind to train that one. I wouldn’t like to take him away from him now.’

‘No, surely, surely,’ said Jarlath, his eyes going to me. ‘But what about the other pup? Columba seems to have a fancy for him.’

‘That’s nothing, just a thing of the moment, he’s just a child, he’ll forget him tomorrow,’ said my father roughly ‘No, he’s not up to training a dog. He’ll ruin him.’

‘Very well, then, we’ll have the small one. I suppose he’ll grow. What do you think, Dervilla?’

The quiet, smiling-face woman lifted the puppy gently from my arms and felt his ribs. ‘He’ll grow,’ she said handing him to her husband. ‘Just needs a bit of feeding-up, that’s all.’

‘Not worth a cart-load of turf, though,’ said Jarlath. ‘I’ll give you half a cart-load for him.’

‘Done!’ said my father.

‘No,’ I screamed. ‘No, you can’t take him. He’s mine. He’ll die without me. He loves me. He loves me more than anyone else in the world.’

‘We’d better not take him,’ said Jarlath. Even though the tears blinded my eyes, I could hear the kind note in his voice and I knew that he was looking at me with his gentle brown eyes. I blinked away the tears and looked back at him. A small whisper of hope was rising inside me.

‘Take him, or take him not, it’s whatever you wish,’ said my father’s harsh voice. ‘I’ll drown him in the rainwater barrel if you don’t want him. Columba can do it for me; he’s strong enough for that, I suppose.’

He would do it too; I knew that. With his unpleasant laugh ringing in my ears I held out the puppy to Jarlath. I could say nothing. My throat was swollen into a hard lump. He took the puppy from me gently and then knelt down beside me.

‘Do you know where Clogher is?’ he asked.

I nodded. I knew Clogher. It was a settlement of monks, each one in their small round stone house, grouped around the church and bell tower. It was called Clogher because ‘clogher’ was the old word for ‘bell’. Jarlath’s farm was beside the settlement.

‘Well,’ he went on, ‘I’ve got a little girl there,’ and he smiled over at Sorcha who came over and put her hand confidently in his, ‘and this little girl has no playmate. How about you coming over to play with her today and then the puppy will be happy to come with us? You can run over to us any day when your father doesn’t need you and you can play with Sorcha and with the puppy. You’ll like that, won’t you, Sorcha?’

Sorcha nodded. She put her finger shyly in her mouth but then she took it out and she smiled at me. She was a little older than me and she had just lost her front teeth. When she smiled she showed all the gaps, but I had never seen a smile so beautiful. She had corn-coloured hair braided into two plaits and her eyes had the blue of a summer’s sky.

‘What’s the puppy’s name?’ she asked.

I opened my mouth and then shut it again. I didn’t want to say that his name was ‘Devil’. I was sorry now that I had called him that. He was such a sweet puppy. The name had brought him bad luck.

‘You give him a name,’ I said looking into those huge blue eyes.

‘We’ll call him Honey,’ she said decisively. ‘He has honey-coloured fur.’

My heart warmed at that word ‘We’. I was still going to have a share in the puppy.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘We’ll call him Honey.’

‘It’s a good name for him because he is very sweet,’ said Sorcha confidently

Jarlath put the puppy back into my arms and lifted us both up and placed me in the cart beside Dervilla. Dervilla put her arm around me and gave me a brief hug. Then Jarlath swung up Sorcha, making her shriek with laughter and pretended fear, and she snuggled in on the other side of me, leaning across my lap to stroke the puppy.

‘I’ll give the lad his dinner and then he’ll be able to run back home to you,’ said Dervilla speaking to my father. ‘sure, it’s only a step from here to Clogher.’

‘Keep him as long as you like,’ said my father curtly. ‘He’s no use here, that’s one sure thing.’

I looked back as the cart went down the lane. My father was still there but he wasn’t looking after me; his arm was around Conan’s shoulders and he was bending down talking to him. The noise of his laugh echoed in my ears as we went around the corner.


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