An Excerpt from Anne Emery’s New Historical Mystery: The Keening
It’s 1595 in County Fermanagh, Ireland, and the ruling Maguire family have invited everyone to the castle for a lavish banquet. But one guest has more on her mind than dinner and drink. Sorcha the prophetess sees harrowing times ahead for Ireland. The morning after her prophecy, Sorcha is found dead in an oak grove. A witness claims he saw Shane O’Callaghan, one of Maguire’s soldiers, near the murder scene. Shane lives with Brigid Tierney in the Tierney guesthouse; Brigid desperately wants to believe he is innocent. Together they call upon lawyer Terence Blake to defend him at his trial.
And now it was Terence’s turn to present evidence. All he had was Shane O’Callaghan himself, to deny the killing, and Fiach O’Moylan to say he was at Sorcha’s place and did not see Shane there. Two witnesses taking that weakest of all positions: trying to make a point on the strength of what they had not seen. Just because you don’t see someone doesn’t mean he isn’t there. But Terence had nobody who could make a positive identification of O’Callaghan in some other place at the likely time of the killing. So he had to make do with what he had.
He called O’Moylan to rise and give his evidence. Fiach had been married to Sorcha, and was now a priest. Terence asked him to identify himself and then asked about the night of the banquet at the Maguire castle. Father O’Moylan told the court that he had enjoyed the banquet, that he had spoken to Sorcha briefly there, but that there was no opportunity for a private conversation. He therefore decided to go to her house, and when he got there, she was outside in a trance-like state talking about –– Fiach and Terence had agreed to tone down what the seer had foretold –– her fears of what the English were doing to the people of Ireland. And fears that they might do worse. Fiach had decided that it was not the time to engage his former wife in a conversation about family matters, so he left without speaking to her.
“Father O’Moylan, did you see anyone on Sorcha O’Cassidy’s property, aside from Sorcha herself?”
“I did not.”
“Had you seen anyone while you were on your way there, or anyone when you were leaving?”
This may have been the feeblest evidence Terence had ever put before the court on a judgment day, but it was all he had, aside from the testimony of the accused man himself. He indicated to the judges that he was through with this witness, and the O’Cassidy family’s lawyer moved forward to question him.
“Father O’Moylan, where were you when you were listening to your former wife speaking about her fears?”
“Behind a stand of trees.”
“Hidden like a guilty man,” the aigne said.
“Not a guilty man, but a craven man, I suppose I was.”
“Why were you there, spying on your former wife?”
Fiach looked down at his hands and then up at the brehon. “I was not spying on her at all. I had hoped to talk to her after the banquet.”
“About what?” asked the lawyer.
“We have a child together, Ónora, in fosterage like so many children in this country. Our daughter is nearly twelve years old now, and she hopes to follow the profession of her mother. She wants to become a physician like Sorcha. And I had been thinking it was time to move her out of the foster family, bring her back home, and have her start training with her mother. Of course, that’s not going to happen now––” O’Moylan’s voice faltered, and he looked down at his hands.
Úna O’Hanlon knew there was nothing to be gained by intruding on the priest’s genuine grief, so she held off for a minute or so before asking in a gentle tone, “Could you not have spoken to her about the child while you were both at the banquet?”
“I wanted a private conversation with Sorcha.”
“Which she refused?”
“I did not bring up the subject at all while we were still at the castle. But I had the impression from previous conversations with her that she was thinking the same way I was. I anticipated a pleasant conversation, in the comfort of Sorcha’s house. I thought––” The priest’s voice failed him again, and he waited for a couple of seconds. “I simply thought I’d go see her afterwards, as I have done before.”
“All right. Now, Father, you say Sorcha was giving voice to images or ideas that were in her mind, that she was in a trance of sorts.”
“She was. And I knew that whenever she was like that, she was not to be interrupted. I’d never had to be told that; I just knew from long experience. No one was to stop the flow of her … the information that was coming through her. And if I did interrupt, she would be unsettled, would not be able to direct her mind to whatever I might have brought to her attention.”
“Tell us again what kinds of things she was saying.”
Fiach went through it once more, making sure again to avoid telling the chieftain, the judges, and the people of Fermanagh that the wise woman had foreseen abandonment and conquest, subjugation and banishment. Again, he referred only to her distress about England’s efforts to take control of Ireland and her fears that things might get worse as time went on.
“Thank you, Father O’Moylan. Where was she looking while she uttered these words?”
“She seemed to be looking in the direction of another stand of trees on her land, not in my direction. Her face was partly turned away from where I was.”
“Did you have the impression that she was talking to herself or talking to some other person?”
That was a question Fiach might not be qualified to answer; how could he know what she was seeing in the trees, if anything? But Terence did not object. As long as Fiach didn’t say “I thought she was talking to Shane O’Callaghan,” there was little harm in it.
Fiach simply responded, “I don’t know.”
“Now,” said the lawyer, “was there anything else she said, apart from her worries about our difficulties with the English, anything more specific or personal?”
Fiach had a wary look about him then, and Terence didn’t like it. Fiach said, “What do you mean?”
“I mean, did she say anything about any particular person?”
The answer was a hasty “Nothing.” The lawyer eyed him for a few seconds and then said, “I have no more questions.”