Excerpt – A Mass for the Dead

Prologue

Scotland 1373

The body floated, limbs tangled in strands of reddish dulse and yellow bladderwrack.  Salt water washed over it, then receded.  The tide left the flotsam lying on wet sand, sightless eyes staring into obscurity and fingers just grazing the large stone Celtic cross that stood halfway across the Strand.

A hungry gull alighted, and pecked at one eye with interest.  Others joined it, eager for breakfast, and their cries rang through the salt smelling air as they fought over the carrion.  The first gull, satiated, took flight as the sky lightened and the sun began to rise.  Beating its wings against the damp air, the bird circled over the expanse of wet sand, pooled water and black rocks that now separated the tidal island of Oronsay and its gray stone Priory from the larger green hills and more mundane concerns of Colonsay.

The sun tried to burn through the mist, but failed, leaving the body wrapped wetly in fog like a winding sheet, with the keening of the gulls for a requiem.  It wasn’t until Alasdair Beag came down to dig oysters for the monks and nearly bumped into the corpse, that his brethren learned what had happened to the Prior and why it was that he had not shown his face at Matins the night before.

Chapter 1

A sprig of heather poked me in the side.  Unable to ignore it, I tossed and burrowed into the piled heather and bracken covered with a blanket that served as my bed, trying in vain to find a more comfortable spot.  So Seamus found me awake that morning, when he came to tell me my father was dead.

I sat up and stared at him.  Seamus’s fourteen-year-old form looked dark against the morning light from the open door of the blackhouse behind him.

“Muirteach, did you no hear me?”  He shook me again.  “I said your father’s dead.”

My dog woke from the noise, rose, and licked my face, by way of a morning greeting.

“No, now, Seamus,” I said.  I patted Somerled’s large shaggy head a bit absently before I waved the dog away, thinking Seamus must somehow have gotten the news wrong.  “That’s never true.”

”No, it is true, Muirteach.  You must be believing me.”

“No,” I said again, stupidly, but something in Seamus’s high-pitched tone, his voice just cracking as he spoke, stopped me in mid-phrase, and made me begin to believe the lad.

“What was it?” I asked, after another moment, my mind racing.  “A fit?”

“No.”  Seamus paused.  “He was murdered.”

My hands went cold, and I almost choked on my own spit.  “Murdered?”

“Aye.”

I wondered which of his women had finally killed him.  The Prior of Oronsay, dead.

I stood up, and began to dress, pulling my linen shirt over my head and throwing my brat over my shoulders.  The rough wool of it fell about me warmly in the morning chill.

I watched Seamus squat on my stool next to the remains of the fire on the open hearth. The morning sun filtered through the doorway of the blackhouse and picked out a few details, my leather satchel thrown carelessly on the floor, Seamus’s brown hair untidy, the sharp angles and freckles of his boy’s face.

I thought of my own father’s face, his voice, scornful when he spoke of his bastard son.  I would never hear that voice again.

“What else do you know of it, Seamus?” I finally asked him when I could speak.

“A messenger came from the Priory, for your uncle, and himself told me to fetch you.  He has already gone to the Canons, on his galley.”  Seamus’s words tumbled out, one upon the other, in his eagerness to tell me the tale.  Stunned, I stood and listened, trying to make sense of what he said.

“Old Alasdair found him. He’d gone down to get oysters, but there he was—the Prior, I mean,” added Seamus unnecessarily.  “Face down in the Strand he was, with his hands nearly touching the sanctuary cross.”

I filled the basin with water from the jug that sat by the hearth, splashed some on my face, and took a drink.

“His mouth was full of sand.  He’d been choked with it,” Seamus added.

I gagged and spat the water out upon the hearth.  It sizzled on some still warm embers and I watched a faint trail of white steam rise, watched it wend its way up and out through the darkness of the thatch overhead, while I fought down my desire to be sick.

Seamus picked up a stick, tracing idle designs in the ashes.  “You’ll be wanting a fire,” he finally said, awkwardly, to break the silence.  He poked at the peat in the fire pit.  “It’s cold this morning.”

“I’ll be wanting to see him, I’m thinking, not a fire.” I spoke more harshly than I’d realized and Seamus put the stick down hastily.  “Where is he?”

“They took the body to the Priory.”

Aye, I thought, with some bitterness.  Where else would they take him?  Certainly not here, to his own son.

“We’d best be going, then Seamus.  That is, if you’re coming with me.”

The lad nodded eagerly.  I found his hero-worship oddly comforting this morning, misplaced though it seemed most of the time.

I grabbed another drink of water from the wooden cup that sat by the jug, and managed to swallow it this time.

“Let’s be off then,” I said and lifted aside the flap of cowhide that served as a door on my fine house.

“I will just be telling my mother,” Seamus said, darting next door.  I nodded.  Somerled tried to follow, but I told him to stay and for once he obeyed me, whining a bit as he skulked back inside the hut.

The brightness of the June day was blinding after the dimness inside my hut and I stood for a moment outside, waiting for Seamus and letting my eyes adjust.

The village of Scalasaig looked much as usual this morning, the stone huts, with their heather thatch, snug against the damp and the breezes from the bay.  I smelled the scent of peat fires and baking, mingled with the more aromatic smells of my neighbors’ middens.

Seamus emerged from the house he shared with his mother and father with two bannocks in his hands.  He crammed one into his mouth while we set out walking.

“Mother gave me this for you,” he said between mouthfuls, handing me the other bannock.  “She said you should be eating something.”

Cattle going to pasture earlier that morning, and folk going about their business, had already churned up the mud in the street leading through the center of the village to a fine morass.  We left and headed south, down the track leading through the low hills the two miles or so to the Strand.

The dew hung heavy on the bracken and pink thistle that lined the track. Among green rushes and bog cotton, a single yellow iris stood alone and I marveled at the beauty of it. Perhaps it was the shock of that morning that made me notice it so, petals curling away from the center of the flower, dew drops dripping from the softness of them like crystal tears.

Mist rolled in as we passed Loch Colla, muffling sound and sight so that we could not even see the walls of the Church of the Glen.  The lowing of some cattle grazing in the uplands echoed mournfully.  I shivered, my bad leg began to ache, and I wished I had thought to borrow a horse.  We saw few people about.  Even the death of the Prior of Oronsay, and himself an island man, wasn’t enough to drag most folk from their tasks on this June day.

“It was your uncle, Muirteach, that told me of it.  He said to come and find you.”

I realized Seamus was speaking.  I had not been listening.

“And himself?” I asked, finally, trying to collect my thoughts.  “Where is the MacPhee?”

“He’ll aye be there now, settling it all with the brothers.”

That was right, I remembered.  Seamus had already told me my uncle had gone on his galley to see to things at the Priory.

And good luck to him there.  My uncle Gillespic was always one to try and get things settled, one way or another, as quickly as ever might be.  But the death of his own brother, a prior, for all that he had had two handfasted wives, a full-grown bastard son, and some other bastards as well, might not be so easily settled.

“The MacDonald will be needing to know of it all,” I commented darkly, “and he’ll not be pleased.”

The sun glowed brighter, burning through the remnants of the fog, against the hill behind us to the east.  To the west, I saw the green bulk of Oronsay across the Strand and beyond that the sea towards Ireland.

We made our way past the glistening black rocks that lined the Strand.  Seamus headed for the old coracle beached on the damp sand.  “The brothers will not mind if we take this over.”

“No,” I agreed.  “They’ll be thinking of other things the now.”

We pushed the boat into the water and jumped in.  The tide was full in and just starting to turn.  I glimpsed the stone bulk of the carved Sanctuary Cross standing above the waters, marking the boundary between secular and sacred land.  I thought of my father lying there dead, and shuddered.

The heavy wooden weight of the oars in my hand comforted me.  Strange I should feel it so, the death of a father who had only tolerated me at best.  At worst, I had always felt he hated me.  I had not been the son he’d hoped for, and he had made no secret of it. A cripple, good for nothing except scriving, and hating that.  And being a cripple, I had not even had the grace to settle quietly into the life of the Priory, as would have been only proper and seemly.  Neither a fish nor a fowl.  The spray touched my cheek like a benediction but I pulled hard at the oars, trying to out row my thoughts.

The bottom of the coracle scraped the sandy bottom as we neared the other side.  I pulled it onto the bank and followed Seamus up the hill towards the Priory, feeling the rays of the sun hit the back of my legs with a faint warmth as I walked, the water and sand drying off in the cold wind.

The sun struck the gray stone walls as we crested the hill and passed piles of stone lying on the grass, ready for the masons.  No workers were about and I guessed they would not labor today.  Behind the walls, we could see the newly finished chapel, chapter house, and cloisters, all built of the same stone. Inside the new chapel, with its fine slate roof, candles burned, their light glowing through the tall slit windows, but we turned towards the infirmary.

“That’s where he’ll be, I’m thinking,” said Seamus, his fourteen year old bravado somewhat cowed by the atmosphere of the Priory.  Having lived here for ten years I did not share his illusions, and led the way past the dormitory to the infirmary.  I did not see my uncle, or the sub-prior.  Perhaps they spoke privately on the event.

My steps slowed, not wanting to see what I knew awaited me, yet fascinated, too; that awful fascination one feels for the final mystery.

And may he rot in whatever Hell he’s gone to, I found myself thinking as I finally gazed on the sandy, dirtied body of my father.  It lay on a plinth, the rough boards covered with a linen cloth, while next to it a canon chanted prayers for the dead.  The body lay on its back, pale, waxen, looking in some weird stony fashion like a grave-slab carving.  It was my father, and yet not my father.

The gulls had gotten to the body, before Alasdair Beag had found him, and the corpse was the worse for it.  A bloody depressed area on his head showed where someone had struck him, from behind. His face and neck had an ugly, bluish cast to them, and a fine thin mark around his neck looked pale by comparison with the surrounding skin.  His neck and jaw were bruised, his mouth stuffed with sand.  Grains of sand spilled out from his mouth onto his lips.

Whoever had done this had battered him after stuffing the sand in, hitting again and again. Some seaweed still lay tangled in his hands and the hair around his tonsure lay wetly against the cold skin. My own throat closed and I felt myself choking as I looked at the body.

I covered the body again with the linen sheet and turned to go.  Tears filled my eyes.  I swallowed them tightly.  He was dead, and I need never bear the humiliation of hearing him refer to me as “his bastard son, the cripple” again.

My uncle stopped me as I left the infirmary.

“Muirteach.”
“Aye, Uncle?”

During the years I had spent in his home as his foster son I had learned to be wary of Uncle Gillespic when he had that tone in his voice, and I was not wrong now.  He pulled me to one side, just inside the dormitory, empty except for old Brother Augustus, where we could speak more privately.

“Wait outside for us Seamus, there’s a good lad,” Gillespic dismissed the lad and turned towards me, his hand on my arm for comfort.

My uncle was a broad shouldered man, with long chestnut hair and a full beard, and penetrating eyes that now rested upon me thoughtfully a moment before he spoke again.

“This is a bad thing, Muirteach, very bad, I’m thinking.”

I shrugged my shoulders, not wanting to show him my feelings, but my uncle continued.  “The MacDonald will not be liking it.”

“And so?  It does not matter if he likes it or no, the man is dead, Uncle.”  I must have sounded more sullen than I meant to, for Gillespic stopped for a moment and looked me full in the face.

“And harder on you than you’d admit.”

I nodded, forced to the admission by his gaze.  Sure, that was one of the talents of my uncle, that gift of seeing the best in you that you’d been trying to hide, even from yourself.  As a boy fostered into his household, those years before I had gone to the Priory, my uncle’s hazel eyes had seemed to see right to the root of my soul, somehow finding good in his crippled and angry nephew.

It was a pity my father hadn’t had shared that trait.  The hot lump in my throat got the better of me for a minute, and I looked away and out the dormitory door, studying the new carvings on the pillars of the cloister, until my eyes cleared.

“Well, it’s as I said, Muirteach,” my uncle continued in a kinder tone.  “The MacDonald himself will not be liking this, his own Prior killed in his own backyard, so to say, and will be wanting some answers to it.  And for myself, he was my brother after all, and I’ll be having to ask the honor price from whoever is responsible.  Or you should be asking.”

“I’m asking for nothing,” I said stubbornly.

“Who did do it, then?” I asked, after a moment when my uncle did not answer.  “Do they know?”

Gillespic shook his head.  “Nary a clue.  Just a big bloody blow to his skull, and a mouth choked full with sand, like, with not a person near by to see or hear any thing at all, at all.”

“That’s always the way of it,” I said with much more nonchalance than I felt.  I shuddered, unable to keep up the pretence.  “My mother’s kin, they could have done it.”

“Aye, or Sheena’s kin, or even yourself.  Crispinus had a rare talent for making enemies.”  My uncle crossed himself and added, “God rest his soul,” in a rare show of piety, yet somehow I sensed it was heartfelt.  Then he stared at me suddenly with those remarkable eyes he had.  “Where were you, the last night?”

“At home, drinking.”

“Alone then.”

“Seamus was with me.  And Aorig saw me.”  I was suddenly angry.  “What are you saying, Uncle? By Christ’s Holy Blood, I had no reason to love my father, but I did not kill him, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Brother Augustus looked up at us sharply as he heard my outburst, but my uncle continued without sparing the monk a glance.

“No, now, Muirteach” Gillespic said soothingly, “I’m not saying that at all.  Muirteach, you must control yourself the now, and not be swearing here in the Priory.  You’ll be giving the poor brothers here fits, as if it were not bad enough for them to have a dead prior to be dealing with.”

Brother Augustus returned to his prayers and after another minute my uncle continued.  “Every man knows you had little reason to love your father, what with the way he treated your poor mother, God rest her soul.  And you, as well.  And for that, I’m thinking you might come under suspicion, that’s all of it.”

“Well, Uncle, you can rest your mind.  I did not do it.  And whyever should I, with half of the population of the Isles ready to do it for me?”

Gillespic shook his head.  “It’s a bad thing, that it is Muirteach.  And I’m thinking you should be the one to carry the news to His Lordship himself.”

“Me?”

“Aye, whoever better to do it than the man’s oldest son.”

And whoever better to do it than someone not my uncle, I thought, but I kept my thoughts to myself.  Gillespic had that amazing quality, he could get you to do something you had no desire to do, and somehow you’d find yourself happy to be doing it for him.  And, even though I protested, I knew I’d be setting sail before much more time had passed, southward towards Islay, to take the news to the Lord of the Isles.

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