Murder at Drumshee
'I'll kill him,' said Mahon, his voice rough and choked with emotion.
The other six students from Drumshee law school stood around awkwardly. They had been searching for Mahon for the last quarter of an hour and now they didnít know what to say to him. He was standing under the big ash tree his arms hooked over a low branch. His face was hidden in his arms but they could hear from his voice that he had been crying.
'He's a swine,' agreed Cathal, his face almost as red as his shock of flaming red hair.
'He had no right to beat you like that just because you had forgotten some of the honour prices,' said Ninian, quietly.
'He seems to be worse than ever before these days,' said Diarmuid. 'You're having a real bad time of it this week,' he added sympathetically.
'It's because your father is away, Ita,' said Fergal. 'He isn't so bad when the Brehon is here.'
'I suppose not,' said Ita doubtfully. Her father, Flann, was in charge of the law-school, but he was also the Brehon for all the district of the Burren along the west coast of Ireland and he was so often away on the king's business that Gabur, his assistant, did what he wished with the boys. The morning he had beaten Mahon so savagely that Mahon had run out of the school house and they had eventually found him under an ash tree beside the shrine of the goddess Brigit.
'I'll talk to him when he comes back,' she said resolutely. This could not go on, she knew that. Mahon could not help having a bad memory and he was being made worse by these continual beatings.
'It's no good,' said Mahon despairingly. 'I can't learn all this stuff. I can't even remember whether a harpist is worth five sets or three. I wish that my father had never got the idea of making me a lawyer.'
The others were silent. It was true. All the knowledge which they chanted gaily, and almost without thinking, Mahon found virtually impossible to learn.
'But you're not stupid,' said Fergal thoughtfully. 'You're really good at chess. You beat us all at chess; you're even better than Ita and she's been playing with her father since she was about two years old.'
That was a nice thing to say, thought Ita. Fergal is so nice, and so sensible, too. It was true; Mahon was not stupid, he just had a bad memory. He was beginning to look a bit better now. He had unclenched his fists and his face was less flushed. In a while they might coax him to come back and to allow old Ita, who looked after the boys, to put some soothing ointment on his back. She looked at Diarmuid. He was usually the leader of the younger students at the law school. He was fourteen and the other boys were only thirteen and she herself was only twelve.
'Diarmuid,' she began but then Aidan interrupted her. It was a pity that he had come, she thought afterwards. He was a great joker and the best fun of them all, but he wasn't the sort of person you wanted to have around when you were in trouble.
'Look, Mahon,' he was saying. 'Look, there he goes.'
They all followed the direction of his pointing finger. The tall, heavy figure of Gabur, the assistant Brehon, was striding down the lane towards the Isle of Maain. His burly body was dressed in his newest saffron tunic and his bratt, or cloak, was trimmed with pine marten fur.
'Look at the style of him,' continued Aidan, combing his own glib, or fringe, with his fingers and smirking in a way that made them all giggle. 'Look at him. He's off to see his sweetheart. Look, Mahon!. Why don't you chuck a stone at him? You'll easily hit him. You're great with your sling. You can run away afterwards. We'll all swear that we don't know where you are.'
Mahon picked up a stone, his face dark with anger.
'Don't, Mahon,' said Fergal, quickly. 'Don't be stupid, Aidan. He'd know it was Mahon and there would be no saving him then.'
'Drop that stone, Mahon,' said Diarmuid, catching his wrist. 'Drop it. You'd kill a man with a stone like that. Cathal, help me to hold him.'
Cathal jumped up to help and Mahon, glad of an excuse to get rid of some of his temper, promptly kicked him. Cathal gave a shriek of fury and butted his red head into Mahon's stomach. Mahon went down like a log and then Fergal sat on his chest while Diarmuid and Cathal held his wrists flat against the grass and Ninian worked the stone free from his grasp and rolled it away into a near-by ditch. Ita looked on philosophically. The boys were always fighting. She was used to it. They would all be friends again in a few minutes. The important thing was that Mahon had not been allowed to do anything stupid.
'You're a bird-brain,' she said scathingly to Aidan.
'I was only joking,' he said, lamely, but he gave a rather worried glance at the size of stone which Mahon had snatched up.
'Get off me,' grunted Mahon.
Cathal looked at Diarmuid, who nodded.
'Yes, get off him. He's probably sore enough anyway, without your weight on top of him.'
Cathal got off cautiously, keeping a wary eye on Mahon. Diarmuid and Fergal loosened their grip and stood up also. Mahon lay there for a minute with his eyes closed. He did look rather white now, thought Ita. He looks sick. She reached out and touched the sleeve of his leine, or tunic.
'Mahon...' she began, but he shook off her hand.
'Leave me alone, all of you,' he bellowed. Painfully, he pulled himself to his feet and set off at a shambling run in the direction towards Tullagh and Ballycashin.
'He's gone for the day, now,' said Fergal. 'He's got some sort of hiding place over there. I don't know where it is. Do you know, Cathal?'
'I followed him one day,' said Aidan. 'I kept dodging behind the bushes and I thought I'd find it easily, but he suddenly disappeared. I asked him about it afterwards, but he just got into a temper with me. That was one of the days when Gabur had beaten him for not knowing what the fine was for a secret killing.'
There was another silence as they all thought about the many beatings that Mahon had endured at the hands of Gabur.
'Does he go home, do you think?' asked Ninian, eventually. 'His home is somewhere over that direction, I think.'
Ita shook her head.
'No,' she said. 'He doesn't go home. I'm sure of that. He told me that his father never welcomes him. He's disappointed that he is getting on so badly at law-school after all the silver he paid for his training. He told Mahon that he never wants to see him again until he is a lawyer. The farm is for the other two brothers.'
'He'll never be a lawyer while Gabur is here,' said Fergal thoughtfully. 'Gabur has only to look at Mahon and every little bit of knowledge goes out of his head. Do you remember, Ita, how you taught Mahon that a boaire (a rich farmer) has an honour price of 5 sets or two and half cows, and an ocaire (a small farmer) has an honour price of 3 sets or one and half cows. He knew it perfectly because you made him imagine the farmers with their cows and Aidan was joking about the half cows with two legs. Yet the minute he went into the school room and Gabur asked him, it just went right out of his head.'
Ita nodded, 'I know,' she said. 'Do you remember the time when Gabur's father was dying and Gabur went to stay with his brother, Colm the physician, to be with his father for a few days and Owen was the teacher? He taught us all to read and write Ogham and Mahon learned it nearly as easily as the rest of us.'
'Well, that's the solution, then,' said Aidan lightly. 'If Gabur were gone, your father would probably appoint Owen as his assistant. Owen is twenty one now and he will soon be a qualified lawyer. You shouldn't have stopped Mahon hitting Gabur with that stone, Diarmuid. That's the only way out for him now. He has to kill off Gabur.'
Supper was over and finished and still there was no sign of Mahon. Gabur had not appeared either, but that was not surprising as everyone knew that he was soon to be married. Emer, his bride-to-be was not very keen. She had wanted to marry a young harpist, but her father had insisted on the match with Gabur and the wedding was to be soon. Gabur often took his evening meal with Emer and Dara, her father.
'Great to be without Gabur, isn't it?' asked Cathal, jumping over a stool and swinging from the cross-beam of the little house where they had all their meals. Ita had gone back to her own house leaving Owen in charge. Owen, however, was too busy studying for his last examinations to take too much notice of the thirteen and fourteen year olds. He sat next to the light from the fire, his fingers in his ears and his lips busily muttering words like fingal and cumal.
'Perhaps he'll stay out all night,' said Aidan, gleefully catching hold of Cathal's legs and trying to swing from them.
'You'll bring the house down,' observed Diarmuid. 'I swear I saw the thatch shake there.'
'Draw your legs up, Aidan,' shouted Cathal. 'Now hold on tight and I'll give you a great swing.'
With a shout of glee, Aidan drew up his legs and Cathal bent down so that the red head almost touched the black head. They swung together and then, with a gust of wind that blew the smoke from the fire, the door swung open.
Instantly all was silent. There was such a change that even Owen took his fingers from his ears and looked around in a bewildered way. Cathal and Aidan landed with a thud on the floor and stood there guiltily, staring at the door. It could only be Gabur who would burst through a door like that.
But it wasn't. For a moment they could see nothing, but then a small sandy-haired boy slid around the door, a smirk on his pale freckled face.
'I scared you,' he said triumphantly.
'It's only Ciaran,' said Fergal with disdain. 'It's the physician's brat of an apprentice. Go away, Ciaran. No one has got a cough or the sniffles here. We don't need you.'
'I was sent with a message to Ita,' replied Ciaran, sidling into the room, his pale, boiled-gooseberry-coloured eyes flicking over everyone there.
'Tell us, and we'll tell her,' commanded Diarmuid.
Ciaran seemed inclined to argue about that for a moment, but they all closed around him so he thought the better of it.
'My master, Colm the physician, told me to tell Ita that his brother, Gabur the lawyer, will not be back at Drumshee until quite late to-night,' he recited in the tones of someone who had learnt a lesson off by heart.'
'Oh brilliant!' said Ninian.
'Where's he gone then?' asked Cathal.
'My master did not tell me,' said Ciaran nervously. 'His brother came to see him, but then he went away with Brendan.'
'He won't stay long with him,' said Diarmuid wisely. 'Brendan hates him. He was one of Gabur's clients. I'm not sure what happened, but Brendan lost a lot of money. I heard the Brehon being very angry with Gabur about that. Where were they going, Ciaran?'
Ciaran thought for a moment and then said. 'I think that they were going towards the little house near the bogland. You know, the place where Deirdre lives.'
'Well....!' said Cathal. The boys all looked at each other. Ita felt puzzled. There was some secret about Gabur and Deirdre. She had noticed them doing that before. She would ask Ita, she decided.
'I wouldn't think that it was likely he would go there,' said Diarmuid thoughtfully. 'Or at least if he did, he wouldn't stay all the evening.'
'More likely that he's gone off, lovey-dovey, with Emer,' said Aidan, kissing the air in a way that made them all laugh.
'We're going to have a great evening,' said Fergal. 'It's a pity that poor old Mahon is not here. Someone should go and look for him. Cathal and I will go. We'll keep shouting for him. He might come back if he knows that swine Gabur is not going to be about for a few hours.'
'Gabur gave me a piece of silver,' said Ciaran, smugly.
'What!' Aidan stared at him, open-mouthed. 'What on earth did he do that for?'
'He said that I was a clever boy and he gave me the silver. He said that he had never met such a clever boy.'
Everyone stared at him in disbelief.
'You couldn't be cleverer than Ninian,' said Diarmuid eventually. 'He has only to hear something once and he remembers it for ever. Did anyone ever remember hearing Gabur praise Ninian and say that he was clever?'
'Never,' chorused all the law students. Even Owen was listening with interest.
'And does anyone ever remember Gabur giving someone a piece of silver?' continued Diarmuid.
'Never!' repeated everyone.
'You're a liar, Ciaran' said Aidan.
'No, I'm not,' said Ciaran indignantly, opening his pouch. 'Look, you can see for yourselves. There's the piece of silver.'
Everyone gazed at it. A piece of silver it definitely was.
''Well, you'd better tell us what that wonderful piece of knowledge was that made Gabur give you a piece of silver,' said Fergal sarcastically.
'I told him that too many of the seeds of a foxglove could kill a man,' said Ciaran proudly.
There was a silence. Everyone stared at Ciaran in a puzzled way. Why on earth did Gabur find that so interesting.
'We're wasting our evening,' said Ita. 'Fergal, you and Cathal go and see if you can find Mahon. I'll go and give Ita the message from Gabur and I'll see if she will give us some honey cakes and perhaps a little mead so that we can have a party.'
'And I'll just hang Ciaran by his heels from the crossbeam,' said Aidan. 'Perhaps some of his brains will leak out on top of me and then Gabur will give me some silver to-morrow.'
Ciaran did not wait, but was out of the door in a flash. Ita laughed and followed him out.
The law school was built inside the ancient walls of Drumshee fort. There were four buildings there. There was the school room, the boys' house where Ita and her deaf old husband lived, the kitchen, and then the house where Ita and her father lived. Ita's mother had died when Ita was only four years old and her father had kept her with him, not allowing her to be fostered by another family as the custom was. He had not wanted to be parted from her and as Ita grew older she joined in with the work at the lawschool and he was very proud of her cleverness.
'You won't be the first woman Brehon, though,' he had told her. 'I've never met one myself, but there is something in the judgement texts about a female judge.'
Well, if I'm ever in charge of the lawschool I'll make sure that I don't have someone like Gabur bullying the students, thought Ita as she crossed the yard towards Ita's house.
'Ita,' she said, as she went into the house, 'Gabur has sent a message to say that he will be late back this evening.'
Ita rose up from the fire, her small round face filled with pleasure.
'Well, praise to the Sun God,' she said. 'I wouldn't mind doing without him for ever. How's that poor boy, Mahon?'
'Oh, he ran away and hid, but Cathal and Fergal have gone to look for him. They'll find him, and Ita, could we have a few honey cakes if you can spare them. We thought that we would have a little party.'
Ita beamed. Ita was like her own child. She had looked after her when she was a small child and she loved her more than anyone else in the world.
'You can, indeed. It is not often that you all have a bit of fun. I'll give you something nice to drink, too. It's got some mead in it,' she added, lowering her voice to a whisper.
Ita smiled with pleasure. Mead was strong stuff. It was made by fermenting the honey and you didn't need much to make you feel very merry, indeed.
'Where's Gabur then?' asked Ita, bustling around the little house and taking things from the cupboards.
'Ciaran thought that he went towards Deirdre's house,' said Ita.
Ita stopped, her mouth open in surprise.
'Never!' she said.
There it was again, thought Ita. There's definitely a mystery here. She slipped an arm around the old woman.
'Ita,' she said coaxingly. 'Tell me about Gabur and Deirdre. What happened.'
Ita looked at her doubtfully. She loved to gossip, Ita knew that the old woman was only looking for an excuse to tell her everything.
'Oh, go on, Ita, tell me. After all, I'm nearly thirteen now. I could be married soon.'
'I don't know what you're father would say if he knew that you had been listening to these old stories,' said Ita, obviously weakening.
'Oh, he wouldn't take any notice,' said Ita scornfully. 'He never notices anything that is not to do with the law.'
'Well, in a way, this is,' said Ita. 'You know the way that the law says that if a man has a child by a woman that he is not married to, he can acknowledge this child for his own and the child can inherit the man's property?'
Ita nodded. This was one of thousands of laws which she had memorised from an early age.
'Well,' continued Ita. 'When he was a young man, Gabur lived with Deirdre as man and wife, but he never married her and when Deirdre had a son, Gabur left her and he said that the baby was not his. That's young Lorcan. He must be about seventeen years old now. He is Gabur's son. You only have to look at the two of them to see how alike they are. But Gabur has never acknowledged him, and Deirdre and Lorcan are as poor as poor can be and Gabur does nothing for them. They both hate Gabur as much as any living creature can hate another.'
'I think that everyone hates Gabur,' said Ita taking the basket of honey cakes and the flask of mead. 'All of us do, anyway.'
'So do I,' whispered Ita. 'Do you know what he is up to now? He is trying to make the Brehon turn myself and Donogh out of this house. He says that Donogh is no good for work now that he is so deaf. I keep hoping that one dark night he'll fall into the river Fergus and get himself drowned. There won't be many would miss him. I can tell you that.'
'I'll talk to my father,' promised Ita, quite shocked. She could not imagine doing without Ita to mother her and to spoil her. 'I'm going to talk to him about Mahon, too. Gabur is ruining his life.'
'The world would be a better place without Gabur,' said Ita bitterly. 'No one would waste a tear if he were found dead.'
'He's dead,' screamed Mahon, bursting through the door of the little house. His face was as white as his linen leine and his rough dark hair was standing on end.
There was an instant silence. Fergal and Cathal had arrived back over an hour previously and although Mahon was nowhere to be found, the other six managed to enjoy themselves immensely. The house had filled with excited voices, laughter, snatches of song. Old Ita and her deaf husband had come over to enjoy the fun and had sat by the firplace smiling happily at the students.
Now, there was no smile on the face of anyone except old Donogh who was too deaf to hear what Mahon had said. Everyone else, just stood there, as if suddenly turned into stone. Each face turned the same white as Mahon's face as they stared at him incredulously.
'Who's dead?' asked Ita, eventually, but she knew the answer to her own question.
'Gabur,' whispered Mahon.
The other students took a step further back, staring at him in horror. Ita put her two hands across her mouth. Mahon held on to the still-open door. He looked unable to say anything else. He looked as if he would fall down in a dead faint at any moment. Owen got up from his seat by the fire and crossed the room. He took the door from Mahon's grasp and with an arm around the shaking boy he steered him across the floor and pushed him into the fireside seat.
'Give me some mead for him, Ita,' he said quietly.
Ita seemed unable to stir, so Ita went over and doing her best to keep her hand steady, she poured the mead into the wooden goblet and held it to Mahon's lips. He sipped some, and then drank thirstily. A little colour came back into his face. Ita took a honey cake from the basket and broke off a bit and fed him as if he were a starving bird. It was easier than saying anything; easier than asking him any questions. The other five younger boys came a step closer, still staring at him with pale faces.
It's funny how often we have all wished that Gabur was dead, thought Ita. And now he is dead and it's the most terrible thing. I wish my father were here. I wonder does Owen know what to do?
The same question had obviously occurred to Owen. He was nervously twisting his fingers and looking around him. Mahon sat with his head in his hands, but the others boys had gathered around and were all staring at him. Owen squared his shoulders and took a deep breath.
'Diarmuid,' he said quietly. 'Will you go and fetch Colm the physician. He needs to know....and perhaps Mahon is wrong, Perhaps Gabur is not really dead. Perhaps he is just unconscious.'
Mahon raised his head. A little colour had come back into his cheeks, Ita noticed.
'I'm not stupid,' he said harshly. 'I know a dead man when I see him. The back of his head has been completely smashed in by a big stone. He's dead all right.'
A shiver of horror went through the others. Ita took her hand off Mahon's arm and then put it back again. Whatever he had done, he needed comfort just now. Owen jerked his head at Diarmuid, and Diarmuid, with one backward glance at Mahon, slid out of the door. The others looked at each other, at the fire, or at the roof, but no one looked at Mahon. The picture of Gabur lying on the ground with his head broken by by a stone was vivid in all of their minds. Owen took a deep breath. The question had to be asked and it was up to him as the eldest to ask it.
'What happened, Mahon?' he asked.
Mahon shook his head in a bewildered way.
'I d..d..don't know,' he said, and his tongue seemed to stumble over these three simple words.
Ita got up from her seat by the fire and came across.
'Now, Owen,' she said authoratively. 'There's no need to make too much of all this. There's no one but ourselves need to know anything about this. We can all say that Mahon was here with us for the whole evening and then he and Aidan went out and they found Gabur and they came back here to tell us all. You'll say that Aidan, won't you?'
Aidan nodded. There was no trace of the usual fun and humour in his face. He looked strained and anxious.
'Then run after Diarmuid and tell him to tell Colm the same story,' continued Ita.
We can't do that,' thought Ita and even as the thought was crossing her mind, Owen put out a hand and held Aidan back.
'No,' he said decisively. 'We're lawyers, law students anyway. We can't do this. We can't start telling lies.'
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