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In January of 668 A.D., Fidelma of Cashel - sister to the king of Muman, an advocate of the Brehon law courts and a religieuse in the Celtic Church - is called to investigate the brutal murder of Abbess Faife and the mysterious disappearance of six young female religieuse accompanying her on a short pilgrimage away from her abbey. When Sister Fidelma and her husband, Brother Eadulf, arrive they find that there has been another death under mysterious circumstances, one of the senior scholars of the abbey has been bludgeoned to death. These two seemingly unrelated deaths - and the further mysteries of the trade ship lured to its doom on the rocky western shore of Ireland and the rumored figure of "The Master of Souls" wrecking havoc and raising rebellion - combine to create on the the most perplexing mysteries ever faced by the redoubtable Fidelma.
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Peter Tremayne is the fiction pseudonym of Peter Berresford Ellis, a renowed scholar of the ancient Celts with over thirty books on the topic. As Tremayne, he is best known for his stories and novels (most recently The Leper's Bell) featuring seventh-century Irish religieuse, Fidelma of Cashel. He lives in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Master of Souls
Esumaro turned, frowning slightly. His weather-beaten face was raised towards the dark, lowering clouds. He let out a soft hiss from between crooked, blackened teeth and shifted his balance on the swaying deck before glancing swiftly about him. The seas around the broad-beamed ship were already reflecting the blackness of the clouds and the surface of the water was broken by short, choppy, white-crested waves. The seas were becoming angry and threateningly alive, although partially shrouded by sheets of gusting rain.Esumaro moved his thoughtful gaze to the straining sails above him. The wind was increasing rapidly from the north-west causing even the mainmast to groan, protesting against the onslaught.Beside him, Coros, his mournful-featured first mate, stood uneasily by the tiller, keeping an anxious eye on the captain.'That's Inis Mhic Aoibhleain ahead,' he ventured, shouting to make himself heard above the moaning winds and breaking sea. He had stretched out a hand towards the dark outline of an island, almost obscured by the rain but slightly to portside of the vessel's bows. 'The wind is turning us to the east, captain. We won't be able to weather the island in these seas and if we keep it on our larboard we shall be driven on the rocks.'Esumaro did not reply immediately. Already the motion of the squat timbered vessel had changed and the deck was bucking beneath his feet as if the ship were a horse not yet reconciled to its rider. The Sumerli was a sturdy high-bowed Gaulish merchantman, made for use in the heavy seas and violent gales of the ocean. It was a descendant of the ships that the Veneti of Armorica had used against Julius Caesar and his Roman invaders, built in the image of those solid oak, heavy vessels that had caused the lighter Roman war galleys so much hardship.Esumaro had spent his life in such ships, and he had not been sailing these waters for twenty years without becoming familiar with the coastline and its dangers. He had already seen that they would not be able to beat around the islands of which Inis Mhic Aoibhleáin was the southernmost. The Gaulish captain knew every cross-timber and joint of the Sumerli, her iron bolts and chains and her heavy sails. He was sensitive to every protesting creak and groan of her timbers, and knew that this storm, which had suddenly arisen out of the darkening Atlantic with no more than a few minutes' warning, could dash her to pieces on any one of the numerous rocky islets that dotted this particular stretch of the coast of the kingdom of Muman. He had already estimated the dangers and had decided his next course of action. He did not need Coros to advise him. However, the first mate was only doing his duty.'We'll turn and run before the wind,' Esumaro shouted back. 'We'll keep south of the islands and turn into the bay for shelter.''Those are dangerous waters, captain,' Coros called. 'That's Daingean Bay.'Esumaro frowned in irritation.'I know it well enough. I know these waters. I intend to run the Sumerli right up to the abbey of Colmán. I've traded there before. They'll take our wine and silver in exchange for wool, salted hogs and otter skins.'The first mate looked surprised.'But are we not supposed to be trading with Mugrón of An Bhearbha?' Coros was nothing if not conscientious. 'We can find a sheltered bay and ride out the storm.'Esumaro grinned in the driving rain.'We'll lose days if we wait for this blow to end. And we'll be trading with the devil if we try to beat around the islands to the land of the Uí Fidgente before we get a calm sea.' He shook his head in emphasis. 'Believe me, I know these waters. The good merchant Mugrón won't miss one cargo and we can still make a profit from the abbey of colmán. Swing her on to the starboard tack, Coros. We'll run before the storm into the bay.'Coros hesitated barely a moment.'Aye, captain. Starboard it is,' he shouted back as the wind increased its tempo.He signalled to the two sailors who stood at the tiller, for it needed at least two of them to steer in the heavy seas, and together they pulled the great wooden arm across the deck.Immediately, as she turned broadside on to the storm, the howling winds crashed against the larboard side of the vessel with terrific force. The sails shuddered and the wind, whipping through the rigging, screamed in protest.Esumaro seemed to keep his feet on the deck with the same dexterity as if the ship was in still waters. His gaze was fixed on the straining sails. He knew he was going to put the ship into some heavy weather before they reached the safety of the calmer waters of the bay.'Rig the lifelines fore and aft,' he called, sending Coros running forward to oversee the task.Now the wind was like a musician in the taut weather rigging, plucking at the tightened strings like a maniacal harpist. Great frothy grey waves began to pound the side of the vessel and the ship heeled a little before coming upright again. Then she heeled again as once more the wind drove into her. In spite of the men at the tiller, the vessel swung awkwardly and the stern rose ponderously while the bow dipped dangerously towards the water. The captain knew that he must reduce the amount of canvas that the ship was carrying or the increasing winds would cause them to capsize.'We'll take in a reef on the mainsail, Coros. Steady!' This last instruction was to the men on the tiller. 'Keep her stern to the wind.'Each sail was divided into horizontal portions, called reefs, which could be rolled or folded to reduce the area of the canvas exposed to the wind. Each reef was marked by a reef-band, a strengthened portion of perforated canvas used for securing the sail to the sheets, or stay ropes, by means of reef knots.Coros was already calling for the hands to shorten sail.It was not long before the straining of the ship eased, but the wind was still vibrating through the rigging like fingers strumming against harp strings. The Sumerli was running quickly now into the broad entrance of the bay. The land on either side would eventually narrow like a funnel. Once they passed beyond the finger of land called simply Inis, 'the island', they would be in the calm sheltered waters of Loch na dTri Caol, approaching the harbour for the abbey of Colman. Esumaro had entered that harbour many times, though never with a darkening sky and in such a storm.To larboard, Esumaro could begin to make out the dark jagged shapes of the mountains that, like a lizard's spine, ran along the peninsula there. To starboard, similar dark mountain tops could be seen through the rain. He could sense the bay narrowing from its broad entrance.As the dusk of the winter's evening settled in, combining with the dark storm to create an impression of night, the wind was unabating. It hummed and groaned through the rigging. The ship still heaved and pitched and the heavy seas continued to batter against the stern timbers. He glanced back and clenched his jaw as he saw a wave rolling towards them like a large black mountain with a combing white top, threatening to overwhelm them. Then it crashed down under the stern, lifting the ship up and sending it speeding forward. Starboard and larboard Esumaro could see the white fringes that edged the breakers, the rocks that marked the shoreline, with the high dark land looming up behind.Esumaro's eyes rested for a moment on the pale-faced sailors clinging to the tiller and he smiled to hearten them with a reassurance that he did not feel himself.'We'll soon be sheltered,' he shouted. 'Ahead of us are two points of land which will bring us into a stretch of quiet water where we can make landfall.'Suddenly there came a roaring gust and the sound of tearing, and for a moment the men on the tiller nearly lost their hold of the beam of wood, which suddenly became alive and threatened to wrench itself out of their grasp. They recovered even as Esumaro sought to regain his footing, for he had stumbled against the rail. It had prevented him from being tossed overboard, but it had winded him for the moment. He stood gasping, having to swallow mouthfuls of salt spray and rain. Then his eyes went searching upwards. The storm staysail had become a series of tattered ribbons fluttering on the yards. He could feel the ship swinging round as if it had a mind of its own and wanted to lay its bow back to the sea.'Bring her around!' Esumaro did not mean to scream the order but he saw the danger of capsizing before many more moments had passed.The men on the tiller, already alert to the danger, were throwing their weight against it, defying the rage of wind and sea. The waves were coming higher and were more curling than before, throwing themselves at the ship like anxious, clawing hands, accompanied by a deafening shrieking wind. Esumaro was praying silently, his skin cold and not from the weather conditions. His breath came in quick, short gasps. For a moment or two, the ship seemed to stand still, defying man and weather to move her, and then, reluctantly, slowly, she swung her bow back on course.Esumaro's jaws clenched tight and he peered anxiously forward. They must be nearing what the locals called Island Point and Black Point. He knew there were shallow banks there but with such a sea running he should be able to negotiate his way through with plenty of water under his keel.'A light dead ahead, captain!' cried Coros.Esumaro stared in surprise into the blackness of the sheeting rain.He thought that he was near the turning point where the land called Inis jutted out into the bay. It was a small islet separated from the northern mainland only during the high tides, and he had to steer south to avoid it. But there was a light to the south and it was bobbing up and down. Only another vessel could cause that motion. What was a ship doing there and in this weather? It must be anchored in the shelter of the southern shore. He decided that he must be too far to the south.'We'll pass her on our starboard side,' he yelled quickly. 'Give her sea room.'They pulled the tiller over a little to pass north of the light.A moment later there came a panic-stricken cry from Coros.'Oh, God!'Esumaro heard the cry a split second before he saw the white line in front of the Sumerli's bows. Then there was an awesome crashing sound, the vessel swung round in her own length and rolling waves crashed against her wooden planking, carrying her sideways against a shallow rocky shoreline. Now he could not hear the screams of his men at all but saw several of them simply washed away even as the deck slid from under him and he grabbed out at the ship's rail to prevent himself from following them.The merchantman heeled over on its port side, broadside on into the shallows with monstrous seas washing over her. There came the sound of cracking as the masts broke with a splintering crash. Then a cataract of solid water was rending the wood of the vessel. Plank after plank was ripped away under this assault of Nature. With the deck at a forty-five-degree angle, clinging with both hands to the taffrail, Esumaro realised not only that his ship had been driven aground but that he and his crew were lost.Around him, the sea was like a boiling cauldron. He could hear the fearful roar of the undertow sucking the pebbles from the shore, before another great wave smashed over the vessel.Esumaro glanced around, trying in vain to look for survivors, but he was alone. He gave a gasping cry, begging God for help, and knowingthat there was no reasonable chance of survival. The ship was breaking up, that was for certain. He would not have long to cling to his precarious hold. Indeed, his arms were aching already as he tried to prevent the cascading weight of water from tearing him away. The wrenched muscles in his upper arms and shoulders were making him feel like screaming in pain. There was only one thing to do. As soon as the next wave started to recede he would have to slide down the deck into the shingle and run for the shore before the subsequent wave hit. How long he would have he was not sure. Everything was in darkness. He could not even judge the high water mark.Esumaro was not one to be sentimental but now the images of his wife and children back in his home port of An Naoned swam before his eyes and he sobbed with a great, choking sound. Yet it was no good feeling sorry for himself. Even a rat fought when it was drowning. Now was the time to fight, whatever the outcome.Once he heard that grim, sucking undertow passing below, he let go his hold, trying to control his forward motion as best he could as he slithered down the sloping deck. He hit one knee painfully on the far rail and then leapt over it, landing on all fours in the shingle. Fear drove him on. He was up, scrambling through the wet, slippery pebbles which did their best to clutch at his ankles and delay him. Several times he fell, yet terror forced him to pick himself up and move painfully forward. He could hear the roar of the approaching wave, hear it smashing the timbers of the ship behind him.He restrained himself from looking round but he knew the wave was close. Immediately in front of him a sharp rock rose up, and he flung himself down, clasping his arms round it as one would hug a beloved after a long separation, as the raging, foaming waters hit and flooded over him. For a long, long time, or so it seemed, the waters boiled over him and he became desperate for air. He was tempted to release his clasping hands and try for the surface. Then he felt the powerful tug of the water as it began to recede. It was dragging him, dragging his hands apart. He exerted all the power he could to keep them clasped tight together. Abruptly, the water was gone and he heard the ominous grinding sound of the pebbles as the tide dragged them down in its wake.Gasping, spluttering, moaning involuntarily in his fear, Esumaro clambered to his knees, peering round to get his bearings and then scramblingforward towards the beach again. He was among rocks, crawling upwards. He could hear the next wave coming in but then he was on sand and then grass. Even then he did not stop but went lumbering forward until a thorny bush prevented his progress by tearing at him and he collapsed face down in its midst and passed out.It was still dark when he came to but the wind seemed to be dying away. He could hear the rumble of thunder in the distance and lightning silhouetted the tops of nearby mountains. Esumaro raised his head cautiously. He had been lying face down, where he had fallen, in the middle of an area of some undergrowth. He could hear voices in the distance and he blinked once or twice to clear his eyes. Then he made to get up but found he was quite weak with exhaustion.He levered himself up on his elbows and manoeuvred himself round to face the dark blustery sea. He was on a grassy knoll above a wide stretch of shoreline that faintly gleamed white with sand. Men were walking along with lanterns held high to illuminate the scene. The stretch of sand was littered with wreckage and bodies. To his right, where he had come ashore, the land rose up and was protected by a rocky coastline against which the Sumerli had been driven aground.He shook his head to clear it and was about to call out to the men below to ann...
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