The Comb Bag
by Peter Tremayne
Art by Allen Davis
“This will be your room during your first years at the college of Brehon Morann,” the middle-aged woman with the rotund, homely features announced, as she stood aside to allow her charge to enter.
The young girl who stood on the threshold was about sixteen years of age, with long red-golden tresses that curled softly and framed her face. Her complexion was of smooth ivory, faintly tinged with rose on the cheeks, with a faint splattering of freckles across her nose. Her lips were well defined; a wistful mouth which held a hint that it could quiver into an expression of sudden mischief. The eyes were light blue, although in certain light there appeared a flicker of green in them; a curious combination of colours which could change depending on her mood. Her eyelids could droop demurely and, at that moment, her face seemed to present the impression of innocence, of complete sweetness of temperament. Yet a careful observer might observe that behind that expression was a resoluteness of purpose that was, perhaps, unusual in one of such tender years.
She glanced swiftly around the room, briefly observing its contents, including the four beds within.
“So I am to share this room.” She made an observation rather than a question.
Her guide indicated one of the beds; a plain wooden bed in the far corner of the room with a cupboard by the side of it.
“That is your bed. You will meet your three companions shortly.” Then she paused and added, “There are no individual rooms until you pass five years of study here and take the degree of Cana. After that you may aspire to be a senior student and have your own room. At the moment, you should think only of obtaining the degree of Ollaire and passing your first year of study here.”
The woman’s voice was sympathetic, almost apologetic as she made the explanation. The young girl did not reply but carried her bags to the bedside.
“You will keep all your personal possessions there,” the woman instructed, pointing to the cupboard by the side of the bed. “Even your ciorbholg, your comb bag, must be kept there, for we do not allow our young students to carry such items about the college. Brehon Morann, our miasghist, maintains this as a steadfast rule.”
The “comb bag” was a small handbag which all women carried. It usually contained a scathán or mirror, deimess or scissors, a bar of sleic or soap, a small linen cloth, and, in Fidelma’s case, a phal of a fragrance distilled from honeysuckle. The young girl did not use the berry juices to redden her lips nor blacken her eyebrows, as many older women did. But she did have a few personal items of jewellery such as emerald ear clips and a gold-leaf brooch which had been the property of her late mother, which she kept for sentimental purposes. Her mother had died shortly after her birth.
Such little handbags were an essential item of feminine attire. No woman over “the age of choice” was seen without one. Not to constantly carry the comb bag with her seemed an odd rule and the young girl frowned at the thought for a moment before dismissing it with a shrug.
“I will, of course, obey all the rules,” the girl acknowledged. A rule, after all, was a rule.
Her guide nodded approvingly.
“Just so, just so. I expect you will find that difficult, but our chief professor, the Brehon Morann, has found that young ladies can use their comb bags as a distraction in class. That is why he forbids them. The time to attend to cleanliness or to personal adornment is at the prescribed washing times. I am afraid that there are no special privileges for you.”
“Why would I need special privileges?” demanded the girl in surprise.
The chubby matron grimaced.
“I do not mean any slight to you. Only a few of us know that you are Fidelma of Cashel. We do not have many king’s daughters studying at this college, although we have the daughters of several nobles.”
The girl flushed defensively.
“My father, Failbe Flann, died when I was a baby. So I hardly grew up as a king’s daughter. My cousin, Máenach mac Fíngen, is king of Muman now.” There was just a trace of irritability in her voice. “I assure you that I am just another student. Who one’s family is does not elevate one to rank and privilege. That has to be earned.”
“You sound wise for your youthful years,” the matron replied. “However, Brehon Morann often says that wise sayings and wise practice do not often go hand in hand. That reminds me: You will be expected to attend his formal greeting to new students shortly.” She turned to the door. “Get yourself unpacked and rested. It will soon be the end of today’s classes and your dormitory companions will be returning shortly. They will make themselves known to you and tell you what is expected of you. They are instructed to take you to the main hall to hear Brehon Morann’s greeting. Any other questions you have may be addressed to me as bean phósta, the matron of the female students. My name is Fuicne.”
Before Fidelma could say another word, the matron had disappeared, closing the door behind her.
Fidelma sat on the bed and heaved a deep sigh. For the first time since she had left Brother Ruadán’s school on Inis Celtra, she felt alone and nervous. She wondered if she had been right in deciding that she wanted to study law. Friends she had known, friends who had been educated with her, had simply married when they had reached the aimsir togu, the age of choice. Her closest friend, her anamchara or soul friend, Liadin, had gone to the neighbouring kingdom of Laigin where her father had arranged a marriage with a Gaulish chieftain named Scoriath. Other childhood friends had joined the religious. However, Fidelma had stayed on at school, learning more under the wise tutelage of the elderly Brother Ruadán. When she had reached sixteen years of age, Fidelma had finally realised that she wanted to study law more than anything; she wanted to become an advocate, a dálaigh, pleading in the law courts, prosecuting the guilty and defending the innocent.
She had appealed to her foster father, her father’s cousin Abbot Laisran of Durú, who had overseen her education since the death of her father King Failbe Flann. It was Abbot Laisran who had used his influence, which had resulted in her arrival in Tara at the great school of law run by Brehon Morann, one of the most famous professors in the five kingdoms of Éireann. She had been excited at being selected to become a student there. However, since she had entered the gates of the complex of buildings of the law school, an inexplicable wave of gloom flooded her thoughts. She felt suddenly isolated. She felt a curious longing for familiar sights and people. She tried to pull herself together and force herself to unpack and store her belongings.
She had barely finished the task when the door burst open and three girls not much older than herself pushed into the dormitory room. They seemed in high spirits, laughing at some joke they had been sharing. They halted and fell silent as they saw her. Their leader was a slightly older girl and she came forward, an arrogant look forming on her dark, saturnine features as she examined Fidelma.
“Are you the new girl?” she asked unnecessarily.
“My name is Fidelma,” Fidelma replied softly.
“We were told to expect you. I am the senior in this room. My name is Ainder of the Uí Thuirtrí of Tulach Óc. I hold the degree of fuirmithir, having completed three years’ study.” Her tone underlined the impression of arrogance.
Fidelma knew that the Uí Thuirtrí were one of the nine clans of the Uí Néill of the north. The other two girls appeared friendlier, perhaps a little embarrassed by their companion, as they came forward and introduced themselves. One was plump, with fair hair, not quite blonde, while the other was, in complete contrast, dark with angular features.
“I am Dubreasa and this is Beccnat,” the plump one announced with an engaging smile. She did not put a suffix to their names, unlike their companion. “We are second-year students and just sitting for the degree of fochluc.”
Fidelma was about to respond when Ainder cut her short in a curt tone.
“I am in charge of this room. As a newcomer you will obey my orders. As the youngest here, it will be your task to keep the room tidy and to make my bed and clean up every morning before the lectures start. Is that understood?”
Fidelma regarded the elder girl thoughtfully for a moment.
“If those are the rules of the school,” she replied, “then, of course, I shall do so.”
Ainder’s brows drew together in an expression of annoyance, hearing a questioning of her presumed authority in Fidelma’s voice.
“I have told you the rule of this dormitory. Do you doubt my word?”
“Is it not the first lesson in law that we should take nothing on trust but question all things?” countered Fidelma, calmly. “Naturally, if this is the rule of the school, then I shall willingly obey it.”
Dubreasa and Beccnat exchanged a glance and began to giggle. They fell silent when the dark, angry eyes of the senior girl fell on them.
“You are impertinent,” Ainder snapped at Fidelma.
“I am sorry if you think that I am not showing you the proper respect or manners. As I am new here, I will beg your pardon. I will make a point of ascertaining all the rules of the school that I must follow.”
“There is one rule in this dormitory, and that is to do whatever I tell you and without insolence,” replied Ainder, flushing angrily.
“If that rule is the rule of the school, then, I have said that I shall willingly obey it,” Fidelma repeated. Her voice remained even but there was a tone in it that made it clear that she was not to be pushed further.
For a moment, it looked as if the other girl, Ainder, would physically strike her. There was a tension in her body and she swayed backward slightly. Fidelma’s eyes narrowed. There was a slight movement, almost undetectable, as she rearranged her balance. The trained eye would have realised she was preparing to meet any aggression. Then the dangerous moment passed. Ainder swung away with some muttered but inarticulate remark and left the room.
Dubreasa grimaced sympathetically.
“You have made a bad enemy. Ainder is a bully and she will find a way of seeking retribution. You should report her to the matron.”
Beccnat shook her head and offered opposing advice. “Don’t mind Ainder. She tries it on with all the new girls.”
A distant bell started to ring. Beccnat said: “You have to be in the main hall shortly so that Brehon Morann can give his official welcome to all new students. We will show you the way. The bell is the summons to attend.”
The hall held forty new students. Before them were ranged those who were to be their instructors and Brehon Morann himself. He was a man of indiscernible age, although it was clear he was elderly; a tall man with white shoulder-length hair and a carefully trimmed beard. His close-set grey eyes were bright and flickered as if they contained some hidden fire. Fidelma had the impression that they were sharp and penetrating. His face was long, with a narrow, high-bridged nose and thin lips. To Fidelma, he looked formidable and yet, now and then, she had the sense that he was given to humour. It showed briefly when he turned to one or other of his fellow ollamh, or professors, and she saw his features crease into a warm smile. She could not help feeling a sense of awe at his proximity. Here was a man to whom even the high king deferred; a man who was allowed to speak even before the high king addressed the Great Assembly at Tara.
“Welcome,” Brehon Morann began. His voice was a pleasant baritone, low and musical. “I bid all you new students welcome. You have come here to learn the law of the five kingdoms, the law of the Fénechus; the free people of this island of ours. Most of you will endeavour to learn our laws so that you may go forth to be judges over your fellows. That is a great responsibility to have. Remember, when all is said and done, that truth is great and will prevail. It must therefore be your aim in life to always seek the truth, for without truth we can aspire to no law that will enshrine justice. There are many things that you must be taught in your years here. In the next few days I will meet with each and every one of you in order to assess your worth and commitment to the truth and justice; to ascertain your abilities and judge whether you will be wasting your time being here. One of the matters that I shall be anxious to assess is whether you have self-reliance, a sound judgement, or can be misled by deception.”
It was the first time that Fidelma realised that the word for self-reliance, muinigín, had the same root as that for deception, muinbech. One of her favourite games was trying to discover the origin of words. She suddenly realised that she was missing what Brehon Morann was saying but it appeared that he was coming to the end of his short address, dismissing them into the charge of their individual instructors.
The instructor who was in charge of the students with whom Fidelma was assigned was a fairly young woman who introduced herself as Brehon Almaith. In spite of her young years, she had an austere appearance; stern features, and yet there was something about the eyes that indicated a sense of humour lay behind the severe expression. Fidelma was impressed to learn that in spite of her age, Almaith was qualified to the level of rosai—literally a “great professor.” Almaith conducted her students to the room where most of them would spend the first year studying the principles of the legal system. Fidelma learned that the beginning and ending of all lessons was marked by the ringing of a bell and punctuality was expected at all times. In fact, bells were tolled for the start of each new day, the end of the day, and for mealtimes.
Dubreasa and Beccnat were waiting for her when she emerged from the classroom.
“We thought that we would show you around,” Dubreasa explained.
“The tech-screptra, the library, is just there,” Beccnat pointed. `You’ll spend a lot of time there among the law texts. You will find the leabhar coimedach, the librarian, very helpful if you need to search for certain texts.”
“It is more important that you know your way to the praintech,” observed the plump girl, Dubreasa. This raised a laugh from her companion, for the praintech was the place where all the meals were taken. It was, literally, the “dinner house.”
Dubreasa did not seem to mind. “There are three meals served to students during the day,” she went on. “You have to be in place punctually when the bells are rung, otherwise . . .” She shrugged.
Fidelma was thoughtful. “I hear that everything is governed by the ringing of the bells and we are exhorted to obey them punctually. But how can you tell which bell means what?”
“By the sounds,” replied Beccnat. “Each bell has a particular sound. You’ll get used to it. One of us will tell you what each bell means and, by the end of the week, you’ll know as well as we do.”
Dubreasa and Beccnat seemed pleasant enough companions and the only problem in Fidelma’s eyes was the third member of the dormitory, the elder girl, Ainder. The girl was obviously a bully and she would have to beware of her. At least their paths did not cross until after the evening meeting, when she and the other girls returned to the dormitory, called the imdae, after the word for bed.
On the way back to the dormitory, Fidelma saw the homely figure of the matron, Fuicne, and paused to speak with her.
“I would like to be clear about the dormitory rules, bean phósta,” she said in a tone of respect.
The woman’s fleshy features formed into a puzzled expression. “Dormitory rules?”
“Are there any special tasks that a new student should undertake? Making beds, cleaning the dormitory, or any other tasks, because she is a newcomer?”
Fuicne peered suspiciously at her. “Each student is responsible for making her own bed, cleaning her own area of the room. Why do you ask? Have you been told that you must carry out any such tasks by any of the other girls?”
“I just wanted to be sure that there are no rules relating to the dormitory that I would unthinkingly infringe,” Fidelma countered.
“You will tell me if you have any problems, won’t you?” replied the matron. “It is sometimes hard to settle in a strange place among those you do not know.”
Fidelma inclined her head solemnly, bidding the concerned matron a “good night” before rejoining her companions.
That night Ainder made a point of ignoring her and engaging exclusively in conversation with the two other girls, who showed their embarrassment, but obviously felt they had to respond to the senior girl. Fidelma felt even more isolated as she prepared for bed. A bell rang which indicated all the lamps and candles were to be extinguished. It was not the best of nights for Fidelma and it took a long time before sleep overcame her feelings of longing for familiar surroundings.
She awoke tired and irritable. The others were already stirring. Fidelma grabbed her comb bag and hurried to where she had been shown the forthrucad, or washroom, was situated. During the mornings it was the custom to wash the face and hands, but it was not until evening that a bath or full body wash was taken. By the time she had finished, Ainder and Beccnat had gone to the praintech for breakfast. But Dubreasa was waiting to guide her in case she had forgotten. Fidelma hurriedly dressed and carefully placed her comb bag in the cupboard at the side of her bed.
The meal over, all four girls returned to their room and Fidelma began to make her bed.
Ainder stood watching her, hands on hips.
“When you have done that, remember that you have to make my bed and tidy the room.”
“I do not think so,” Fidelma replied, scarcely glancing up.
Ainder moved forward threateningly, an incredulous look on her face.
“You do not have to think,” the girl almost snapped. “You have to do as I say.”
Fidelma rose from her task and faced her.
“I told you yesterday that if I found the rules of the school require me to do so, then I would do so. As well you know, there are no such rules.”
The girl’s eyes narrowed. “So you went running tearfully to tell the bean phósta?”
“To tell what? I merely enquired what the rules were and I was told. Was the bean phósta in error? As for mentioning you, whatever you do or think is up to you and your conscience. It does not affect me unless you make it so.”
Ainder hesitated, a flush on her cheeks.
“So, you refuse to obey me? I suppose you consider yourself my equal? Do you not know that I am a princess of the Uí Thuirtrí? Perhaps you have not heard of the Uí Thuirtrí?”
Fidelma examined the arrogant girl with curiosity.
“I have heard of the Uí Thuirtrí. I am told they are a minor northern clan who are forced to pay dues to the lords of Cenél nEóghain.” She uttered the words dryly and stood waiting for the outburst.
For a moment or two, Ainder stood swaying as if she had been punched. She blinked rapidly and then said in a soft but menacing tone: “You will pay for that insult.” She turned, picked up some writing tablets from her bedside, and left.
Dubreasa looked anxious. “You had best watch out. Ainder is not one to forget or forgive. She will find a way to pay you back.”
Fidelma’s face was grim. “Someone has to stand up to her. Otherwise, once a bully tastes power over another, there is no limitation to what they will do or demand next.”
“Why didn’t you tell her who you were? If she knew that you were of the Eóghanacht, daughter of a king of Muman, she would have been less inclined to boast her own lineage.”
Fidelma regarded her in surprise. “Where did you learn that I was of the Eóghanacht?” she demanded. “I thought only Brehon Morann and his staff knew who my family were.”
Dubreasa flushed in her confusion. “I heard it somewhere. But you are Fidelma of Cashel, aren’t you? You should have told her. At least you should tell the matron that she is bullying you.”
“Trying to bully me,” corrected Fidelma.
“Well, I think she should be reported. At least you should tell her that your family is more powerful than her petty chieftainship. That would stop her.”
Fidelma shook her head. “We are told a good Brehon must be without pride and that also includes pride in their ancestry. Ainder boasts her lineage and her position in order to make me obey her. If I boasted my ancestry in an attempt to best a bully, then I would be no better. That is not good.”
A bell started to ring and Dubreasa and Beccnat exchanged an anxious glance.
“That is the bell for our classes. Do you remember how to get to your class? We have to go in the opposite direction.”
“I remember the way. Don’t worry,” Fidelma assured them.
The two girls left while Fidelma paused to collect her clay writing tablets and stylus. As she hurried from the room, along the corridor, she heard the bell cease to toll. The rotund matron of the school was walking along the corridor towards her. She shook her head.
“You are late, Fidelma,” she called. “Quickly now. I saw Brehon Almaith going to the classroom. She hates tardiness among her students. You better hurry up.”
Fidelma started to run forward. Just as she reached the corner, Ainder, who seemed to appear from the opposite direction, hidden by the corner of the corridor, cannoned into her. Both girls seemed to sway in an embrace and then Ainder was falling and grasped wildly at Fidelma, clutching unintentionally at her hair.
Fuicne, the matron, had turned and hurried back in order to help them to their feet. Ainder was glowering at Fidelma.
“Another thing for which you will pay,” she hissed.
The matron’s expression showed concern. “You both better get to your classes at once,” she advised. “You, especially, Fidelma. It does not do to be late to your first class.”
Fidelma ignored Ainder and gathered her clay tablet and writing material and hurried forward. As she reached the end of the passage she glanced back and saw Ainder and the matron still standing talking. It seemed that Ainder was smiling at Fuicne.
A short time later Fidelma entered the room where Brehon Almaith was just opening her class for first-year students. She greeted Fidelma with a look of disapproval.
“We pride ourselves not only on punctuality but also on our appearance in this school, Fidelma.”
“I am sorry, Brehon Almaith, I fell over outside because . . .”
“And I am not interested in why you are in such a dishevelled state. The fact is that you are not presentable enough to attend my class. Your hair is a mess. Return to your dormitory at once and smarten yourself up before returning here.”
Fidelma was aware of the titter that ran round the other students. She was about to protest, but realised that it was not worth doing so. Instead, she bowed her head in acknowledgment and left the classroom. It was at times like these that access to her comb bag was necessary. It confirmed her thought that it was a silly rule that deprived her of it while in school.
Fidelma entered the dormitory building and made her way towards her room. She heard the sound of a door closing and instinct made her hesitate. The figure of the rotund matron was disappearing down the corridor. Fidelma waited until the woman entered another room and then entered her room and went to her cupboard. The comb bag was not where she had placed it. At first she could not believe that her comb bag was missing.
She knew exactly where she had placed it that morning, but it was not there. Even then, doubting her memory, she searched very carefully until she realised that, in spite of the incredibility of it, someone must have removed the comb bag from where she had placed it. It could not have been an accident. The comb bag must have been deliberately removed and that meant it had been stolen.
She gasped as the concept hit her. Should she alarm the school that she had been the victim of a theft? Something made her hesitate in pursuing that course of action. It was hard to believe that within the first few days at the most prestigious law college in the five kingdoms of Éireann she should have been robbed.
She suddenly realised that she must return to her class. Brehon Almaith would be waiting for her and she was already in enough trouble. She went to Dubreasa’s cupboard and used her mirror and comb to put her hair in order, making sure that she had cleaned the comb before returning it to the bag. While doing so, she glanced at the plump girl’s belongings with a guilty feeling. It was easy to see that there was no place to hide another comb bag. However, by instinct she decided that she must delay a few moments more to examine her other companions’ cupboards before she left. The obvious choice was that of Ainder. She was a very neat and precise person and it was soon evident that the comb bag was not there among her possessions. Fidelma even glanced under the meda. Finally, she checked Beccnat’s cupboard with the same result. There was nowhere else to search.
There was nothing to do but return to Brehon Almaith’s class.
Brehon Almaith looked up as she reentered the class.
“You have taken a time,” was her opening rebuke.
“I am sorry. I took a wrong turning in my hurry to return here.” Fidelma felt her face crimson as she told the lie.
Brehon Almaith regarded her silently for a moment and then said: “But at least your appearance is better. Remember that one of the seven qualities of a good Brehon is personal cleanliness and good appearance. Do you know what the others are?”
Fidelma hesitated and then repeated what she had learnt from old Brother Ruadán.
“Tenacity in the pursuit of truth. Patience in that pursuit. Absence of pride and absence of malice in coming to a conclusion. Above all, justice must reflect that truth.”
Brehon Almaith was watching closely. “You answer in a preoccupied manner, Fidelma. Is anything the matter?”
Fidelma shook her head swiftly and took her seat.
Throughout the rest of the lesson, Fidelma’s mind pondered the mystery of her missing comb bag. Why would anyone have taken it? The items she had were hardly worth anything, except . . . her lips compressed even as the thought came to her. Her mother’s jewels had been in the bag. She had only seen them in the light of their emotional value to herself. Now she realised that they were of value. Of course! Instinct told her that the culprit must have been someone in her room. And she suspected who the culprit was in spite of there being no sign of it in her cupboard.
It was midday when she returned to the dormitory and found her companions preparing to go to the praintech for the etar-shod, the midday meal. Fidelma ignored them and walked directly to her cupboard and opened it. She knew that the comb bag would not be there, although she half hoped it might have been returned. A single glance was sufficient to confirm it had not. She turned to the others.
“My comb bag has been stolen,” she announced without preamble, causing the three girls to stare at the sharpness in her voice.
After a brief silence, Ainder was the first to speak, in a sneering tone. “Oh dear! Can you not afford another bar of soap and a comb? Who would want to steal such items that have been used by another? You will learn, Fidelma, that students here pride themselves on their personal cleanliness and would not contaminate themselves with another’s dirt.”
Fidelma regarded the girl carefully. “The usual contents of a comb bag that has gone missing could easily be replaced. However, there were jewels in my bag that are of value. Therefore, the matter is more significant than the theft of a comb bag.”
Ainder’s eyes widened a little but she did not reply.
“Who are you accusing, Fidelma?”
# # #
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"The Comb Bag" by Peter Tremayne, Copyright © 2013 with permission of the author.
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