Hemlock at Vespers: Fifteen Sister Fidelma MysteriesHemlock at Vespers: Fifteen Sister Fidelma Mysteries
Peter Tremayne
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Sister Fidelma-an Eognacht princess and sister to the king of Cashel, a religieuse of the Celtic Church and an advocate of the Brehornn court-is one of the most interesting and compelling figures in contemporary mystery fiction. In this collection of short mysteries, Tremayne fills in many of the background details of Fidelma and seventh-century Ireland not found in the novels, and weaves his always-beguiling mix of history and mystery.

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Hemlock at Vespers
Peter Tremayne



"There is no question of Brother Fergalís guilt in this crime," said the Brehon with assurance. "He clearly murdered the girl."

He was a stocky man, this chief judge of the clan of the Eóghanacht of Cashel. His round, lugubrious face was betrayed by a pair of bright, sharp eyes. His slow-speaking meticulous mariner disguised a mind that was sharp and decisive. Here was a man who, as his profession demanded, looked at life carefully and weighed the evidence before making a decision. And he was no oneís fool.

Sister Fidelrna, tall, green-eyed, stood before the Brehon with hands folded demurely in front of her. Her robes and hood, from under which wisps of rebellious red hair stuck out, scarcely disguised her youthfulness nor her feminine attractiveness. The Brehon had placed her age in her mid-twenties. He noticed that her stance was one of controlled agitation, of someone used to movement and action in life. The habit of a religieuse did not suit her at all.

"The Abbess has assured me that Brother Fergal is no more capable of taking life than a rabbit is capable of flying through the air."

The Brehon of the Eóghanacht of Cashel sighed. He made little effort to conceal his irritation at the young womanís contradiction.

"Nevertheless, Sister, the evidence is plain. The man Fergal was found in his bothan, the cabin he had rebuilt, on the slopes of Cnocgorm. He was asleep. By his side was the body of the girl, Barrdub. She had been stabbed to death. There was blood on Fergalís hands and on his robes. When he was awakened, he claimed that he had no knowledge of anything. That is a weak defense."

Sister Fidelma bowed her head, as if acknowledging the logic of the Brehonís statement.

"What were the circumstances of the finding of the body of the girl Barrdub?"

"Barrdubís brother, Congal, had been worried. The girl, it seems, had been smitten with a passion for this Brother Fergal. He is a handsome young man, it must be admitted. That night, according to Congal, his sister went out and did not return. Early in the morning, Congal came to me and asked me to accompany him to Fergalís bothan to confront them. Barrdub is not yet at the age of choice, you understand, and Congal stands as her guardian in law for they have no other relatives living. Together we found Fergal and the body of Barrdub as I have described."

Sister Fidelma compressed her lips. The evidence was, indeed, damning.

"The hearing will be at noon tomorrow," the Brehon went on. "Brother Fergal must give account to the law for no one can stand above the jurisdiction of the Brehons, either priest or druid."

Sister Fidelma smiled thinly.

"Thanks be to the holy Patrick that it is two centuries since the druids of Ireland accepted the teachings of the Savior of this world."

The Brehon returned her smile.

"Yet they say that many who live in the mountains or in remote fastnesses still practice the old ways; that there are many whom the teachings of Christ have not won from the worship of The Dagda and the ancient gods of Ireland. We have such a one even here, in our territory. Erca is a hermit who also lives on the slopes of Cnocgorm and claims to practice the old ways."

Sister Fidelina shrugged indifferently.

"I am not here to proselytize."

The Brehon was examining her carefully now.

"What precisely is your role in this affair, Sister? Do you simply represent the Abbey which, I understand, now stands in place of Brother Fergalís fine or family? Remember, in law, the fine must ensure that the penalties are provided when judgment is given by the court."

Sister Fidelma. "The Abbess has sent me to this place in the capacity of a dalaigh; an advocate to plead before the court on behalf of Brother Fergal."

The Brehon raised an eyebrow, slightly surprised. When the girl had come to him, he had assumed that she was simply one of Brother Fergalís religious community who had come to find out why he had been arrested and charged with murder.

"The law requires that all advocates must be qualified to plead before the Dal."

Sister Fidelma drew herself up, a little annoyed at the patronage in the manís voice, at his arrogant assumption.

"I am qualified. I studied law under the great Brehon Morann of Tara."

Once again the Brehon barely concealed his surprise. That the young girl before him could be qualified in the law of Eireann was astonishing in his eyes. He was about to open his mouth when the girl pre-empted his question by reaching within her robes and passing him an inscribed vellum. The Brehon read quickly, eyes rounded, hesitated and passed it back. His glance was now respectful, his voice slightly awed.

"It states that you are a qualified Anruth."

To have qualified to the level of Anruth one had to have studied at a monastic or bardic school for between seven to nine years. The Anruth was only one degree below the highest qualification, the Ollamh, or professor, who could sit as an equal with kings. The Anruth had to be knowledgeable in poetry, literature, law and medicine, speaking and writing with authority on all things and being eloquent in debate.

"I was with the Brehon Morann for eight years," Fidelma replied.

"Your right to act as advocate before the court is recognized, Sister Fidelma"

The young religieuse smiled.

"In that case, I call upon my right to speak with the accused and then with the witnesses."

"Very well. But there can be only one plea before the court. The evidence is too damning to say other than that Brother Fergal is guilty of the murder of Barrdub."