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At the Abbey of St Dymphna by Elizabeth Creith
Date: 25 December 2010 /

At the Abbey of St Dymphna

By Elizabeth Creith

Abbot Matthew led the sheriff, Lord Ewan Covington, into the mortuary chapel of the Abbey of St Dymphna.

"A great loss," the abbot said, "He's left a Gospel half-illuminated and I don't know who'll finish it. We saw no harm in moving him here; he was dead when we got to the scriptorium."

The abbot turned the linen sheet back. In the light of the May evening slanting down through the unglazed windows, the late Brother Wilfrid's grey-streaked brown tonsure fringed a face already sharp-nosed in death.

"Who found him?" Ewan asked. He examined Brother Wilfrid's hands. The knuckles were swollen, and the fingers of the right bore the faded ink stain that marked every scribe.

"Late this afternoon Brother Anselm came running out of the scriptorium calling for help -- "

"Brother Anselm the Illuminator?"

"Yes. A genius, needing only guidance. He's been under Brother Wilfrid's tutelage this last year. What a shock for the lad. Brother Wilfrid's heart gave out, no doubt. He often had palpitations."

"No doubt," Ewan murmured. He turned the head; a deep, round-edged dent sloped across the right side of the skull. Dried blood clung to the hair.

"And this injury?"

"His stool toppled when he collapsed. The desks are close set; he struck one as he fell."

Ewan straightened. "He was on good terms with everyone?"

"He ... argued with Brother James the infirmarer this morning. Wilfrid's joints pained him and Brother James refused him more of the remedy."

"Yes. Can I see the scriptorium before the light goes?"

"Of course, my lord."

"This desk is ... was ... Brother Wilfrid's," said the abbot.

"Thank you," Ewan said. "I'll need to speak to Brother James afterwards."

"I'll arrange it, my lord." The abbot hurried away.

Pinned out on Brother Wilfrid's desk was a half-finished miniature of the Betrayal. The apostles and Roman guards showed each an individual expression. Judas, young and beardless, kissed Christ with lowered eyes. St Peter's robe was half painted in blue. A small dish on the ledge of the desk held ultramarine, tempered with water. The bristles of the blue-tipped brush laid across the bowl were dry and stiff.

A dark smear marked the grey stone floor. Ewan rubbed his finger over it and sniffed. It was blood. This was where Wilfrid fell.

Rising, Ewan leaned on Wilfrid's stool - it sat solidly, without rocking. He rubbed his fingers along the sharp-planed edge of the desk behind Wilfrid's and sniffed, smelling the copper tang of blood there, too. He looked at some of the other desks and their work before going to meet with the Abbot and Brother James.

A young brother, pale and red-eyed with weeping, stopped Ewan on his way to the abbot's house.

"My lord sheriff, I'm Brother Anselm," he said. "I - I didn't tell the lord abbot, but I saw Brother James come out of the scriptorium today, just before I went in and found..." his face twisted and he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.

"You're sure it was Brother James?"

Anselm nodded.

"Yes, my lord, and he walked like he was angry."

"Come with me, Anselm. The abbot should know this."

"Yes, my lord."

Brother James, a grizzled monk, waited on a bench in the Abbot's parlour. A knobbed staff was propped beside him. His right leg was twisted, the foot turned in.

"I've brought Brother Anselm," said Ewan, "He says that Brother James came angry from the scriptorium this afternoon, before Brother Wilfrid was found dead."

"Is this true, Anselm?" said Abbot Matthew.

"Yes, my lord abbot."

"Did you quarrel with Brother Wilfrid this afternoon as well?" Ewan asked Brother James.

"I did," said Brother James, "or, rather, he quarreled with me. It was his joint pain making him surly."

"He wanted more of the remedy? But you would not give it."

"That's true. It's made with aconite; too much is deadly. I thought, this afternoon, to offer him a decoction of willow instead. He refused it with hard words."

"May I see your staff?" Ewan asked. He turned it in his hands, a trimmed apple branch. Little nubs along the shaft marked where twigs had been trimmed away. "He was alive when you left?"


Ewan handed the staff back and walked halfway across the room.

"Ah, I almost forgot," he said. "would look at this, Brother James?" He fumbled in his pouch, watching as the monk lurched heavily towards him.

"I'm sorry, Brother James. Sit down, please. Brother Anselm," said Ewan, "Why did you kill Brother Wilfrid?"

"M - my lord?" said the young monk.

"My lord sheriff - " the abbot said. Ewan cut him off.

"How long did you plan this?" he said "You prepared a weapon, the leg of an unused stool, loosened and ready to your hand. Afterwards you wiped it clean, smeared blood on the edge of the desk. You needed only a scapegoat, someone to take the blame.

"The whole abbey knew Brother James and Brother Wilfrid quarreled today. You seized your chance; quick thinking. But the death-wound is smooth, and Brother James's staff is not. Further, he is slow, easy to evade. And that blow was never struck one-handed.

"You found Brother Wilfrid working. He put down his brush to speak to you, as a man in a seizure would not. There was no color smeared on the page, or on Brother Wilfrid's hands. And you struck him, a killing blow. How long, Anselm, before he died?"

Anselm flushed red, and he screamed, "I'm the best. I am! He was always telling me do this, do that, as though I wasn't good enough. I'm the best! Stupid old man!"

Ewan seized Anselm's shoulder.

"It's a prison cell tonight for you, my lad," he said. Looking at the sullen young face, thinking of beardless Judas, Ewan wondered if Brother Wilfrid had expected his betrayal, too.

About the Author:

Elizabeth Creith draws on her knowledge of history, myth and folklore to write her fiction and poetry. She lives, writes and commits art in Wharncliffe, Northern Ontario, distracted occasionally by her husband, dog and cat. She blogs about writing and art at Elizabeth Creith's Scriptorium ( This is her first sale to Gumshoe Review.

At the Abbey of St Dymphna Elizabeth Creith, January 2011.

Our Readers Respond

From: Walt Giersbach:
You've touched all the right buttons on this wonderful whodunit, Elizabeth. Murder, duplicity, setting, character, voice. And it takes me back to Umberto Eco, king of the Medieval crime writers.

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