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Peter Tremayne

Whispers of the Dead

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 am a 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 the great 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

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