The Scottish Prisoner (Page 35)

The Scottish Prisoner (Lord John Grey #3)(35)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

He plucked a discolored chunk of what looked like ivory out of the clutter on the shelf and put it into Jamie’s hand. It proved to be an enormous tooth, long and curving to a blunt point.

“Recognize that, do you?”

“It’s the tooth of something verra large that eats flesh, Father,” Jamie said, smiling slightly. “But I couldna tell ye is it a lion or a bear, having not had the advantage of bein’ bitten by either one. Yet,” he added, with a discreet sign against evil. “But as I havena heard that there are lions in Germany …”

The abbot laughed.

“Most observant, mo mhic, a bear is just what it is. A cave bear. You’ll have heard of them?”

“I have not,” Jamie said obligingly, recognizing that this apparently idle chat was in fact the abbot’s means of walking up and down while turning over the question of the poem in his head. Besides, he was in no hurry to return to his companions. With luck, one of them would have killed the other before he came back, thus simplifying his life. At the moment, he didn’t much mind which one survived.

“These would be the massive things, sure. Stern gave me the measurements he’d taken of the thing’s skull, and I tell you, man, ’twould be as long as the distance from your elbow to the tip of your longest finger—and I do mean yours, and not mine,” he added, twinkling and flexing his wee arm in demonstration.

“All gone now, though, alas,” he said, and shook his head regretfully. “There are bears still in the German forests, the creatures, but nothing on the lines of the fellow that bore that tooth. Stern thinks it’s some thousands of years old.”

“Oh, aye?” Jamie said, not knowing quite what to say to that.

His eye had caught the glint of metal on the shelf, and he squinted, trying to make it out. It was a glass box, with something dark inside, and the gleam of gold within that. But what—

“Oh, you’ve spotted our hand!” said the abbot, delighted at the chance to show another of his curiosities. “Now, there’s a thing!”

He stood on his tiptoes to reach down the box and beckoned Jamie over to the broad table, washed in sunlight from the open window. There was a flowering vine of some kind twining round the window, and the monastery’s herb garden was visible outside. The fine spring day washed in on a tide of sweet scent—all of these overpowered when the abbot opened the box.

“Peat?” Jamie said, though there could be no doubt about it. The curled black object—which was indeed a human hand, broken off at the wrist and dried in some way—gave off the same acrid tang as the peat bricks that graced every hearth in Ireland.

The abbot nodded, moving the hand delicately so the ring wedded to the skin of one bony finger showed more clearly.

“One of the brothers found it in a bog. We didn’t know whose it was, but clearly ’twas no peasant. Well, we poked about a bit more and found butter, of course—”

“Butter? In the bog?”

“Beannachtaí m’ mhic, everyone puts their butter into the bog in summer to keep cool. Now and then, the woman o’ the house forgets just where she put it—or maybe dies, poor creature—and there it sits in its wee bucket. We often find butter when the lay brothers cut peats for the fire. Not often edible,” he added, with regret. “But recognizable, even after a great long while. Peat preserves things.” He nodded at the hand. “And as I was saying, we went back and prodded and cut a bit, and eventually we found the rest of him.”

Jamie had a sudden odd feeling that someone was standing just behind his shoulder, but fought back the urge to turn round.

“He was lying on his back, as though he’d been laid out dead, and he had on rough breeks and a cloak with a small gold brooch to fasten it at the throat. Speaking of throats, someone had cut his for him, and had bashed in his head for good measure.” The abbot smiled, though without his usual humor. “And to make quite sure of the thing, there was a thin rope wrapped tight round his neck.”

The feeling of someone behind him was so strong that Jamie shifted his position, as though to relieve some stiffness, and took the opportunity for a quick glance. No one there, of course.

“You’ve not the Irish, you say—so I suppose you’ll not know the Aided Diarnmata meic Cerbaill? Or Aided Muirchertaig meic Erca?”

“Ah … no. Though … does aided mean, perhaps, ‘death’?” It was nothing like the Gàidhlig word for it, but he thought he’d maybe heard it from Quinn, muttering about Grey.

The abbot nodded, as though this ignorance was forgivable, if regrettable.

“Aye, it does. Both those poems tell of men who suffered the threefold death—that being a procedure usually reserved for gods or heroes, but, in the case of Diarnmata and Muirchertaig meic Erca, was imposed for crimes committed against the Church.”

Jamie backed a little away from the table and leaned against the wall, folding his arms in what he hoped was a casual manner. The hair still prickled under the clubbed queue at his neck, but he felt somewhat better.

“And ye’re thinking that this”—he nodded at the hand—“gentleman had done something o’ the sort?”

“I shouldn’t think so,” the abbot said, “but the sorry fact is, we don’t know.” He put down the lid of the glass box with gentle fingers and left them resting there.

“We dug quite a bit and harvested three months’ worth of peats for our trouble, which was quite enough reward in itself, as I told the brothers who did the work, but we found near the body the gold hilt of a sword—I’m afraid peat does not preserve baser metals at all well—and a cup, inlaid with jewels. And some little distance away—those.” He gestured toward the far wall of the study, where two large curving bits of metal gleamed in the shadow.

“What are they?” Jamie was loath to leave the shelter of his wall, but curiosity drove him toward the objects, which upon inspection proved to be a sort of primitive trumpet, though with a curved long stalk and a flattened end rather than a bell.

“A very old woman who lives near the bog told me that they’re called lir, but I’ve no notion how she knows, and neither did she. Obviously there was more ceremony than murder about this man’s death, though.”

The abbot rubbed a knuckle absently across his upper lip.

“Word got about, of course,” he said. “And the talk! The folk of the country thought he might be everything from the High King of the Druids—assuming there ever to have been such a creature—to Fionn MacCumhaill, though why he should be lying in a bog and not having it away with the female denizens of Tír na nÓg, I don’t know—to St. Hugelphus.”

“St. Hugelphus? Is there a St. Hugelphus?”

The abbot’s hand dragged down over his chin and he shook his head, defeated by the perversity of his flock.

“No, but not a whit of good does it do for me to tell them so. They were after building a special chapel and putting the poor fellow’s body in it in a glass case, with beeswax candles burning at the head and foot.” He glanced at Jamie, one brow lifted. “You say you’re newly come to Ireland, so you’ll maybe not know how it is with the Catholics here, since the penal laws.”

“I could maybe guess,” Jamie said, and the abbot smiled in wry response.

“Maybe you could, at that. Leave it that the monastery once owned as much land as a man could walk over in half a day. Now we’ve the buildings left, barely the ground to grow a few heads of cabbage, and lucky to have it. As to dealings with the government and the Protestant landowners, especially the Anglo–Irish settlers …” His lips tightened. “The very last thing I need is to have flocks of pilgrims making their way here to venerate a false saint covered in gold.”

“How did ye stop it?”

“We put the poor fellow back in the bog,” the abbot said frankly. “I doubt he was a Christian, but I said a proper Mass for him, and we buried him with the words. I let it be known that I’d taken his jewels off and sent them to Dublin—I did send the brooch and the sword hilt—to discourage anyone looking to dig him up again. We mustn’t put folk in the way of temptation, now, must we? D’you want to see the cup?”

Jamie’s heart gave an unexpected thump, but he nodded, keeping an expression of mild interest on his face.

The abbot stretched up on his tiptoes to reach down a bunch of keys that hung from a hook by the door and beckoned Jamie to come along.

Outside in the cloister walk, the day was fine, and fat bees buzzed over the herb garden that lay within the square of the cloister, dusted thick with the yellow pollen. The air was mild, but Jamie could not get rid of the sense of chill that had struck him at sight of that clawed black hand with its gold ring.

“Father,” he blurted, “why did you keep his hand?”

The abbot had reached a carved wooden door and was groping through his ring of keys, but looked up at that.

“The ring,” he said. “There are runes upon it, and I think them maybe done in the old Ogham way of writing. I didn’t like to take the thing off, for it’s plain to see that you couldn’t do it without pulling the finger to pieces. So I kept the hand, in order to make a drawing of the ring and its markings, meaning to send it to a fellow I know who claims to have some notion of Ogham. I was meaning to bury the hand with the rest of the body—and still am,” he added, finding the key he wanted. “I just haven’t found the time to do it. Here, now—” The door swung open, silent on leather hinges, revealing a set of steps, and a smell of onions and potatoes floated up from the depths of a dark cellar.

For an instant, Jamie wondered why one would lock a root cellar but then realized that, with the famine Quinn had spoken of still green in the memory of Ireland, food might be the most valuable thing the monastery had.

There was a lantern and a tinderbox standing on the top step; Jamie lighted the lantern for the abbot, then followed him down, privately amused at the abbot’s practicality in finding a hiding place for a valuable thing, shoved casually behind a row of last winter’s apples wizened by now into wrinkled things the size of a cow’s eyeball.

It was valuable, too; a glance was enough to show him that. The cup was about the size of a small quaich and fit in the palm of his hand when Abbot gave it to him.

It was made of a polished wood, to his surprise, rather than gold. Stained and darkened by immersion in the peat, but still beautifully made. There was a carving in the bottom of the bowl, and gemstones—uncut, but polished—were set round the rim, each one sunk into a small carved depression and apparently fastened there with some sort of resin.

The cup gave him the same feeling he’d had in the abbot’s study: the sense that someone—or something—was standing close behind him. He didn’t like it at all, and the abbot saw that.

“What is it, mo mhic?” he asked quietly. “Does this speak to you?”

“Aye, it does,” he said, trying for a smile. “And I think it’s saying, ‘Put me back.’ ” He handed the cup to the abbot, repressing a strong urge to wipe his hand on his breeks.