The Subtle Serpent

The Subtle Serpent - Peter Tremayne

A Celtic Mystery featuring Sister Fidelma

 

Ireland , AD 666

 

Sister Síomha turned slowly wondering what Brónach was staring at in such a horror-struck fashion.

What she saw made her raise a hand to her mouth as if to suppress a cry of fear.

Hanging by one ankle, which was secured to the rope on which the pail was usually suspended, was a naked female body. It was still glistening white from its immersion in the icy water of the deep well. The body was hanging head downwards so that the upper part of the torso, the head and shoulders, were beyond their view being hidden in the well-head.

[...]

Sister Síomha moved to the well-head and peered down, hands reaching forward to swing the body out of the well. Then, with a sharp cry which she could not stifle, she turned away, her face becoming a mask of shocked surprise.

Curious, Sister Brónach moved forward and peered into the well-head. In the semi-gloom of the well she saw that where the head of the body should have been was nothing. The body had been decapitated. What remained of the neck and shoulders were stained dark with blood.

 

In the Abbey of the Salmon of the Three Wells, the naked and mutilated corpse of a young woman is discovered in one of the wells. She had been whipped, her head had been hacked off – so there was no means of identifying her – and tied to her left arm was a stick of aspen wood on which Ogham characters had been carved. The Ogham read: "Bury her well. The Mórrigú has awakened!" In her other hand, by contrast, she still clasped a copper crucifix.

 

A great mystery, and Fidelma is sent to try to solve it. She travels by ship, for the abbey is on the coast, and as they are nearing their destination they sight  a French merchant vessel heading erratically towards some submerged rocks. Ross, the captain of Fidelma's ship, investigates.  It turns out that the French ship has been abandoned. Apart from a few traces of blood, there is no sign of either crew or passengers, or of cargo.

 

Another great mystery.

 

But then Fidelma finds a Missal she recognises. She had given it to her friend Brother Eadulf when she parted from him in Rome. How had it come to be here? Yet another mystery – and now Fidelma has a personal interest in solving it.

 

Those of us who have read later stories in the series will by now be completely hooked, for we already know that Eadulf is fated to become Fidelma's "Watson". Will it happen here, in this book, we wonder – our sympathies all with Eadulf, for Fidelma can be quite as clever, as arrogant and as sarcastic as Sherlock Holmes ever was.  

 

As always with this series, then: highly recommended.