Fri
Jul 21 2017 10:00am

Peter Tremayne Excerpt: Penance of the Damned

Peter Tremayne

Penance of the Damned by Peter TremaynePenance of the Damned by Peter Tremayne is the 27th book in the Sister Fidelma series (available July 25, 2017).

Ireland, AD 671. King Colgú of Cashel is shocked to learn that his loyal Chief Bishop and advisor has been murdered in the old enemy fortress of the Uí Fidgente. When word reaches Cashel that the culprit will be executed under new law, a larger conflict looms.

Dispatched to investigate, Fidelma and her companion Eadulf discover that the man facing punishment is Gormán—commander of the King’s bodyguard. But Fidelma cannot believe Gormán would carry out such an act—and yet he was found locked in a chamber with the body, weapon in hand. The evidence is stacked against him.

If they are to exonerate Gormán and keep the peace between the kingdoms, Fidelma and Eadulf must find the true culprit. As the threat of war looms, the date of execution drawers ever closer...

CHAPTER ONE

The waters were dark and tranquil, and curiously warm. The slight flow against his body was soporific. The young warrior floated lazily along in the caressing touch of the waters; surrendering his body to their will.

Gentle hands touched his outstretched fingers, and he saw the shadowy form of his mother, gliding along beside him. She was smiling at him, and he felt comforted. On the other side was the lithe, attractive figure of the girl for whom he had left Cashel so that he could come in search of her. Come in search? He puzzled over the phrase. Come – to where? Where was he? No matter. The soft current was pulling him on. He had no wish to ask any more questions.

And … something stirred within some deep recess of his mind. It was disturbing. It told him he should be doing something – something urgent – and not relaxing here. But where was he – and what was it that he should be doing? There was some errand he had to perform – some warning to be given … But what warning?

He turned to the smiling face of the girl, swimming alongside. Her expression was alluring, enticing him to come closer and closer and … suddenly her face dissolved and changed into the decomposing, bloodstained features of someone he had known, long ago. Dimly, he recalled that she had been murdered, and he had stood accused. Only Fidelma of Cashel had believed in his innocence. He was not guilty of her murder.

That was it! Murder! He needed to warn Cashel – warn Fidelma of Cashel. But warn them of what?

Even as he brought the thought into semi-consciousness, he became aware of distant sounds, of harsh male voices assailing his ears. He tried to shut them out and yet they grew ever louder, more intense, and close at hand. He also felt a sharp pricking at the base of his neck. Suddenly, his temples began to throb. He groaned, feeling his mouth dry and uncomfortable.

Next, he became aware that his face was pressed against the hard wooden boards of a floor. One arm was outstretched before him. The shouting had not subsided but the jumble of coarse sounds was separating into the form of words.

‘Murderer! Foul murderer! You have killed him!’

Gormán blinked again and emerged fully from the comforting safety of the drifting waters of his mind. A man in religious robes stood above him shouting down at him. Beyond this man there lay a bundle of clothes – no, it was a body; a body covered in blood.

Gormán tried to raise himself up a little. It was then that his fingers touched the sticky hilt of the dagger, lying close at hand. As he moved, the pain at the base of his neck increased. It was like having someone standing behind him, pressing on his neck with a sword point.

Gormán groaned again and tried to gather his reason. Where was he? He could recall nothing as the man in the religious robes standing over him was continuing to shout.

‘Murderer!’

Gormán licked his dry lips with a tongue just as dry.

‘Where am I?’ he managed to mumble.

‘Where are you?’ The voice of the religieux was angry and uncompromising. ‘You, warrior, are on your way to Hell!’

*   *   *

Colgú, King of Muman, halted abruptly in mid-stride. He had been pacing up and down in his private chamber, his forehead creased with agitation, his face set in a scowl at odds with his usual pleasant expression. The knocking on the door caused him to pause and square his shoulders. The knocking continued, but before he could respond, the door opened.

His sister, Fidelma of Cashel, entered and closed the door behind her.

‘You sent for me?’ she asked, her green-blue eyes registering her brother’s anxiety in spite of his efforts to disguise it. ‘I see that you have received bad news from Dún Eochair Mháigh.’

Colgú was startled. He brushed away a lock of fiery-red hair – the same colour as his sibling’s own locks, and said angrily, ‘Has the messenger been speaking to you? I forbade him to say a word about it to anyone. I’ll have him punished—’

‘Hush, brother,’ Fidelma returned calmly. ‘He told me nothing, but I observed much. I know that a messenger, under the banner of the Prince of the Uí Fídgente, arrived here and demanded to speak to you immediately. After you had seen him, you then sent for me. Now I find you scowling as if there is a weight of trouble on your mind. What other interpretation should I place on these events except that this messenger brought you bad news, which came from the Prince of the Uí Fidgente who is, according to reports, currently at his fortress of Dún Eochair Mháigh.’

Colgú hesitated a moment and then sank into a nearby chair. It always sounded so simple when his sister explained things. He waved her to a seat opposite.

‘It is very bad news indeed,’ he admitted gloomily. He turned to a small side table, pouring himself a generous drink from a clay jug, and Fidelma noted with disapproval that it was corma, a distilled spirit. It was unusual for her brother to drink intoxicating liquor before the sun had reached its zenith. Colgú motioned towards the jug in silent question, and she shook her head.

‘Bad news is better quickly revealed,’ she prompted as he took another swallow of the strong liquid.

His troubled blue eyes met his sister’s inquisitive gaze, and he sighed, ‘Ségdae has been murdered.’

Fidelma stared at him blankly, as if she heard his words but did not comprehend their meaning.

Ségdae was Abbot of Imleach – comarb, or successor, of the Blessed Ailbe – Chief Bishop of All Muman and chief ecclesiastical adviser to the King, her brother. Fidelma and Colgú seemed to have known him all their lives. He had been appointed to the position of Abbot on the death of the previous Abbot, Conaing, exactly ten years before. He had advised Cathal, their cousin, when he was King, and now he advised Colgú. Abbot Ségdae had become a pillar of the stability of the kingdom as well as the church.

Her mind flooded with questions, dispelling any immediate thoughts of grief.

‘Murdered, you say? Who did this – where and when? And why does a messenger from the Uí Fidgente come with this news?’

‘Ségdae had been on a journey to discuss Church matters with some Uí Fidgente clergy. Since Prince Donennach and I agreed a peace in an attempt to end the disastrous conflicts between us, the abbot felt he should take the opportunity to construct some relationship with these clerics at a council at the fortress of Donennach.’

The Uí Fidgente had been long-time rivals of the Eóghanacht of Cashel, claiming their family had equal right to the kingship of Muman. Assassination plots and open warfare had marked their relationship, especially during recent years. Only six months or so previously, Fidelma had been instrumental in averting another Uí Fidgente plot and brokering peace between King Colgú and the Prince of the Uí Fidgente.

‘So Ségdae was killed in Uí Fidgente territory?’

‘Murdered in the very fortress of Donennach,’ confirmed her brother.

‘What happened? How was he killed?’ pressed Fidelma.

‘The messenger was not well equipped with facts. He simply reported that the murder happened several days ago, and that Prince Donennach despatched him forthwith to inform us. Abbot Ségdae was attacked and slain in the chamber that had been provided for him in the prince’s fortress. The culprit was immediately identified and caught. He was taken before the prince and his Chief Brehon. The facts were heard and there was, apparently, no question of the man’s guilt.’

‘And who is this man? What was his motive for killing the abbot? Was it some feud from the days of antagonism between our peoples?’

Colgú shook his head in frustration. ‘As I said, the facts are sparse. From the messenger, I could learn nothing although I suspect he knew far more than he was saying. Prince Donennach’s message was that he wanted me and my Chief Brehon to ride immediately for his fortress. He is concerned with what might be liable to follow in the wake of the pronouncement of guilt of this man.’

Fidelma frowned. ‘What did he mean by that?’ she repeated, puzzled.

‘The abbot’s killing has apparently caused an outcry among the Uí Fidgente religious. They are demanding some ritual execution in accordance with the new rules of the Penitentials which have been brought from Rome. Many of the religious are adopting them instead of following our own laws, very probably as a means of asserting their independence from the rest of us. They said that the death of an abbot of Ségdae’s standing should be punished in the severest terms according to their laws of the Faith.’

Fidelma suppressed a sigh. ‘In one way I can sympathise with them,’ she said. ‘It is hard to be impartial when it involves the death of a wise old man such as Ségdae. He was like a kindly uncle to us.’

‘That is true,’ her brother agreed. ‘But the argument between those who wish to adopt these rules from Rome and those who want to safeguard our native laws would be yet another tear in the fabric of our society. I have taken oath to protect and sustain our laws, as you have. These arguments between our churches and those of Rome are something that is drawing our people apart, pushing them into opposing camps and threatening our stability. Abbot Ségdae, as you well know, was one of those churchmen who stood unflinchingly behind our laws; laws which we have developed from the time before time. He would be the first to urge us not to abandon them. I fear that this demand of the Uí Fidgente is simply another means to exclude their territories from accepting the rule of Cashel.’

‘I see,’ Fidelma said thoughtfully. ‘How does Prince Donennach propose that this matter be dealt with if, as you say, he and his Brehon have already agreed the man’s guilt?’

‘He urges me to bring my Chief Brehon and go straightway to his fortress so that we may listen to the details of the matter in person and see how we can appease his religious advisers.’

Fidelma’s expression was one of deep suspicion. ‘It is hard to trust the Uí Fidgente, even Prince Donennach, who has done much to form this peace treaty between us. I would not recommend riding into Uí Fidgente territory or even responding until we know more.’

Colgú poured himself another drink. ‘Abbot Ségdae was my chief adviser on these religious matters. That being so, it is reasonable that I and my Chief Brehon should have all the facts placed before us so that we can endorse the finding of guilt of the person responsible for this evil crime. Prince Donennach and I, as King, must speak on this matter with one voice so that there can be no dissension which might lead to another conflict with the Uí Fidgente.’

Fidelma stared at her brother. ‘Do I hear the word “but” in your voice, Colgú?’

‘As you know, Aillín, my Chief Brehon, is on a mission to the High King in Tara,’ Colgú pointed out. ‘That leaves me riding alone into the territory of the Uí Fidgente.’

‘Alone? Why not with a cath, or battalion, of your Nasc Niadh, your bodyguard?’

‘That would be interpreted as a provocative act,’ Colgú told her. He paused and then went on: ‘For the time being I shall not leave Cashel. That is why I have sent for you.’

Fidelma stirred uncomfortably. ‘I do not understand,’ she said, but began to suspect what was coming.

‘You are my personal legal adviser. Therefore, I desire you to go to Dún Eochair Mháigh to represent both myself and the Chief Brehon, and discover all the facts relating to this matter.’

At once Fidelma protested. ‘Even if I have your authority, I do not have the authority of your Chief Brehon. And would it not be argued that I have a personal interest in the punishment of someone found guilty of the murder of such a friend and adviser as Abbot Ségdae?’

Colgú held up his hand to still her protests. ‘That same argument would apply to me as well. I have made up my mind, sister. You must represent my authority as you have done, so many times before. You will go as you have the best legal mind in Cashel…’ A brief wry grin crossed his features. ‘I mean, in the absence of Brehon Aillín. Find out the details. Take Eadulf with you, of course. Oh, and you had better take young Enda as escort. After your last adventure, he seems bored with his duties as simply one of the palace guards.’

‘One warrior to accompany us into Uí Fidgente territory?’ Fidelma did not try to hide her dismay.

‘You have travelled into danger often before and emerged unscathed,’ her brother pointed out. ‘Besides, as I have already said, entering Uí Fidgente territory accompanied by any more warriors could be interpreted in an unfortunate manner; just as it might be if I rode at the head of a battalion of my bodyguards. At this moment, we want no unfortunate interpretations of actions on either side.’

‘Has anyone informed the steward at the Abbey of Imleach about the abbot’s death?’ Fidelma asked, changing the subject.

‘The messenger from Prince Donennach called there yesterday on his way here. It seems Ségdae’s airsecnap, the deputy abbot, and his steward had accompanied the abbot to Dún Eochair Mháigh. They were there at the time of the murder.’

‘Since Brother Madagan fell into disgrace when we received the deputation from Canterbury, I do not recall the name of the new steward to the abbot. I think he was a tall man, very muscular, who looked like someone who should have been a gleccaide, a wrestler, rather than a cleric. But certainly he was someone full of his own self-importance.’

Colgú was amused at her description. ‘That sums up Brother Tuamán right enough. He is the new rechtaire, the steward, at Imleach. The deputy abbot is named Cuán. I think he prefers the Latin title praepositus or prior. He was also recently appointed and I have never met him.’

‘That is unusual. Ségdae would normally have brought him here to introduce him to the court. Prior Cuán … is he a relative that we do not know?’

They were both aware that many of the Irish abbeys adopted the same method as for the appointment of chiefs, princes, provincial kings and even of the High King. The method was elective, that was true – but the candidate had to be the most worthy and qualified to fulfil the role. In addition, the candidate had to be of the bloodline that was of the male line related to three generations of the abbot; therefore, a son often succeeded his father as abbot or bishop of a territory. The justification behind this was that an abbot, who was senior to a bishop in the churches of the Five Kingdoms, was usually a member of the royal household, and the members of his ecclesiastic community were regarded as his fine or family. Therefore the derbhfine, or electoral college, were the community, who acted in the same way as the derbhfine of a chieftain, prince or king.

The Abbots of Imleach were related to the kingly line of Cashel, the Eóghanacht. A hundred years before, Fergus Scandal had been chosen first as Abbot of Imleach and later chosen as King of Muman. He would not be the first or last to hold both high offices. While celibacy was not a tenet of holding high office in the Church, it was a growing matter of concern in Rome where inheritance was becoming a problem. Less than a century before, Pope Pelagius II, had ruled that married religious should not bequeath to their sons any property they had acquired when holding clerical office.

Colgú told his sister, ‘The genealogists certainly cannot find him related to our family and it is troubling that Ségdae did not come here to discuss the matter of his appointment. Everything seems to have happened at the wrong time. We should have known something of Cuán’s background and qualifications before Ségdae took him to meet with the Uí Fidgente clerics. I know nothing about this man. What if he now expects to be declared as the new Abbot?’

‘Ségdae’s community would not approve him as airsecnap, or prior, unless he held the right qualifications,’ Fidelma said. ‘Indeed, why would Ségdae appoint him as his deputy unless he is a man of some talent?’

Her brother shrugged. ‘Cuán is a common name in these parts. I have no idea of where he comes from.’

‘Well, I shall soon meet him at Prince Donennach’s fortress and I trust I will have the opportunity to find out more about him then. I just hope that Prior Cuán is not one of those who are supporting the Uí Fidgente clerics’ wild idea of executing the culprit.’

‘Yes. I can’t believe Ségdae would appoint someone who believes in these strange rules that some of the religious are adopting,’ agreed her brother.

She looked seriously at him. ‘I have heard that many communities are becoming more extreme on such matters. They say that the New Faith approves of maiming and execution for wrongdoers. These punishments are occurring more frequently after the intervention of abbots and bishops who follow the new ideas from the east.’

‘That’s hardly the principle of our laws. You know more than most that the influence of these insidious Penitentials is growing stronger each year,’ Colgú said moodily. ‘You have seen for yourself the disturbance they are creating, not just in this kingdom but throughout all the Five Kingdoms.’

‘Well, brother, unless the Uí Fidgente purposely intend to destroy the peace that we have made, the law of the Brehons must be made paramount.’

‘Here we are, bereft of a good friend and counsellor, and find his death could plunge the kingdom into unrest and conflict,’ Colgú sighed. ‘Now do you see why it is so important for you to go to the fortress of the Prince of the Uí Fidgente?’

‘In other words, you want me to report on the details of the events connected with poor Ségdae’s death. You want a report on who the culprit is, assess if he has been tried fairly, discover a way that we can avoid conflict among the religious, stop any talk of execution and bring the Uí Fidgente religious back to the law of the Brehons.’ A wry smile formed around Fidelma’s mouth. ‘Anything else you wish to ask of me, brother?’

King Colgú failed to match her bleak humour when he said morosely, ‘Don’t think I ask this of you lightly.’

Fidelma wanted to know: ‘When do you expect the Chief Brehon to return from Tara?’

‘Not before a full month.’

Fidelma sighed deeply. ‘It is a bad time for him to be away. Also, it is a bad time for Gormán to be absent.’

Gormán was the commander of the King’s bodyguard, the élite warriors of the Golden Collar, the Nasc Niadh. He had been given special permission by Colgú to absent himself to follow the girl, Aibell, with whom he had fallen in love. She had suddenly quitted Cashel, having apparently decided to join Deogaire, a strange young mystic who had once rescued her from being a bondservant in the western fastness of Sliabh Luachra. Colgú and Fidelma had both felt sorry for Gormán, having evidently been deserted by the capricious Aibell. Colgú had, however, given him the opportunity to follow her and attempt to win her back.

‘Gormán is a good strategist,’ her brother conceded, ‘but we have a sound temporary commander in Aidan. We must ensure that no one tries to take advantage of this situation, and so I will ask Aidan to prepare our catha, the battalions of our warriors, just in case the worst may happen. I hoped I could trust Prince Donennach, especially after the recent developments. But one never can be sure with the Uí Fidgente.’

‘When do you want me to leave for Prince Donennach’s fortress?’

‘An hour ago.’ Colgú then grinned and added: ‘Well, as soon as you can.’

Fidelma had risen from her chair. ‘I must make arrangements for the care of Alchú, and also inform Eadulf.’

Alchú was her young son. She was at the door when her brother called: ‘I have already sent word to Prince Donennach by his own messenger that you will be coming in my place, representing both myself and the Chief Brehon.’

Fidelma turned and said, ‘I see. So you were sure that I would go, then?’

Colgú raised a smile at his sibling. ‘You forget that I know you too well, Fidelma. It is not often that a mentor of ours, who is Abbot and Chief Bishop, is murdered. I’ve also told Enda to hold himself ready to accompany you. He will instruct the stables to prepare your horses and provisions for the journey.’ Colgús smile vanished and he looked tired and worried. She read the anxiety in his eyes as he gazed into her own. ‘Sister, I am relying on you and Eadulf. I can sense some mystery here. Something does not quite add up in the facts that have been related to me. I feel…’

Fidelma waited for him to finish, and when he did not, she said quietly: ‘I think you believe this might be some Uí Fidgente plot to draw you out of the protection of Cashel and into their territory for a specific reason. I mean, a reason other than to serve the cause of justice for our friend and chief adviser. I think that is why you will not go to Dún Eochair Mháigh alone.’

Colgú looked contrite. ‘I should never underestimate your powers of perception, sister. That is precisely what is in my mind. If there is some plot, then those behind it will want to overthrow me, the King, not my sister. They would not dare harm you. You enjoy the friendship and support of the High King at Tara, and your reputation even extends to Rome. The unleashing of the Hounds from Cruachán, the Mouth of Hell, would be as nothing compared to the retribution they would face from Tara and Rome. So I believe it is only I who stands in danger if there is any subterfuge arising from this matter.’

‘I hope you are right, brother,’ Fidelma said tartly. ‘If there is such a plot, then you are staking my life on your interpretation of it!’

*   *   *

She found Eadulf in the palace library poring over a copy of the Uraicecht Becc, a tract on the status of individuals in society. She glanced over his shoulder and saw he was reading about the status of a midach or physician.

‘You are not thinking of going back to complete your medical studies, are you?’ she asked jokingly.

Eadulf looked up with a pensive expression. ‘I could do worse. My few years studying at Tuam Brecain have stood us in good stead several times. However, I feel I should learn more.’

‘You are thinking of the amputation of poor Dego’s arm?’ She was aware that this had been troubling him for some time.

Eadulf had indeed been thinking of that very matter. Dego, the warrior in question, had been so badly wounded that Eadulf had been forced to amputate his right arm in order to save the young man’s life. Only what he had learned in his short study of the healing arts, his instinct and good luck, had saved the warrior. Ever since Eadulf had studied the healing arts, he had carried a lés, a physician’s bag, and tried to maintain and extend his knowledge in such matters. He felt he should have been able to perform the task better. Now he answered his wife’s question with a quick nod of assent.

‘Well, Dego has made a miraculous recovery,’ Fidelma assured him gently. ‘He uses his left arm with as much dexterity as he used his right. He can ride and indulge in sword-play as well as any warrior with two good arms and hands.’

‘That is due to his own ability and perseverance,’ Eadulf replied, setting aside the ancient law text. ‘Now, what was it that your brother wished to see you about? Did the messenger bring him some important news, as we thought? You said he bore the banner of the Uí Fidgente prince, and we both know that nothing good ever comes out of that people.’

‘Come, walk with me and I will tell you.’

She had noticed a few people in the library regarding them with irritation at their conversation destroying the quiet. Outside, she led the way back towards their chambers and, by the time they reached them, she had told Eadulf the dreadful news of Ségdae’s murder.

Eadulf was shocked by the death of the old abbot. Although Eadulf was an Angle and wore the tonsure of Rome’s St Peter rather than the Irish tonsure of St John, Ségdae had always been a good friend and adviser to him. Indeed, it was Ségdae who had blessed the wedding of Eadulf and Fidelma.

After Eadulf had digested this news, Fidelma went on to tell him of her brother’s request. Eadulf was not the best of horsemen and he preferred to avoid long journeys by horseback if possible. Therefore, his expression was momentarily forlorn as he contemplated the journey across the mountains; then he simply said: ‘When do we leave?’

‘As soon as I have had a word with Muirgen,’ she replied. Muirgen was nurse to their son. ‘I need to make arrangements for Alchú to be looked after while we are away.’

‘At least we shouldn’t be gone more than a few days,’ Eadulf reflected. ‘I must admit, since we were last in Dún Eochair Mháir and nearly met our untimely ends there, I did not think we would be returning quite so quickly.’

‘This time we will be there at the invitation of the Uí Fidgente prince, so I doubt we shall be met with quite the same hostile reception,’ Fidelma mused. ‘But I agree with you that I do not feel at ease in that country either.’

‘You say that only Enda will come as escort?’

‘Colgú does not want to upset Prince Donennach by implying that we do not trust him.’

Eadulf said wryly, ‘But we don’t trust him, so why hide the fact?’

‘Hiding one’s real feelings is called diplomacy,’ admonished Fidelma. ‘Anyway, not all the Uí Fidgente are bad. Look at Conrí, the Uí Fidgente warlord.’ They had shared several adventures with the tall warrior, who had become a friend. ‘Come, Eadulf. Let us say our farewells to little Alchú and then join Enda who, I am told, is even now preparing our horses for the journey.’

*   *   *

The sun was nearly at its zenith on the day after they had left Cashel when Fidelma halted her grey-white pony, named Aonbharr after the magical horse of the Ocean God, Mannanán Mac Lir. Turning to her two companions with a satisfied smile, she announced, ‘It’s not far now. If I remember this track well, the fortress of the Prince of the Uí Fidgente is beyond those hills across the valley. We’ll soon be there.’

The midday sun was warm. Glancing around at the scenery, Eadulf said: ‘Perhaps there is a stream where we could stop awhile and take the opportunity of the etsruth?’ The etsruth, sometimes called the middle meal, was the light snack taken when the sun was highest in the heavens.

Head to one side, Fidelma considered the suggestion. ‘You are right. We don’t want to arrive at the prince’s fortress in a state of hunger and agitation. There must be a stream or spring down in the valley here. We’ll stop the moment we find one.’

The day was not unduly hot for the time of year but the sky was blue with only a few fleece-like clouds scudding high above, and it was warm enough to wish for cooling water. They had been passing along the high track across the hills, which was intermittently encroached upon by trees and shrubs. Blackthorns formed a boundary to this stretch, while beyond were the straggling shapes of native pine, with areas of alder and hazel, giving way to glimpses of gorse and bracken. Beyond that were some cultivated areas of barley, the crop somewhat yellow and shrivelled after a cold, rainy spring. They saw areas where a lone farmer was cutting grass and trefoil ready to dry and stack as fodder, and once they encountered a couple of men sawing down a tree. Greetings were exchanged but the trio had not stopped in their westward progress.

As the trees began to thin out into more open countryside, Fidelma recognised the shape of the distant hills and knew they were approaching the southern territory of the Uí Fidgente. Across the valley and beyond the next hill and they would be in sight of the River Máigh and the bend on the river where rose Dún Eochair Mháigh, the fortress of the Prince of the Uí Fidgente.

Sounds from the nearby grasslands – the loud grating ‘kerrx, kerrx’ cry of the traonach or corncrake, startled Fidelma. She turned to watch it rise into the sky, red-brown, with its weak, floppy flight and dangling legs. Its cry reminded her of two rough sticks rubbing together. As her eyes followed the ungainly flight of the bird, they dropped to what she thought at first was an odd cluster of dark clouds around the top of a hill. She soon realised it was smoke.

Eadulf had spotted it as well. ‘A farmer must have lit a bonfire atop that hill. It’s an odd time to burn crops.’ Then it occurred to him that no farmer would burn crops on a hilltop.

Enda chuckled. ‘Breo telchae,’ he grunted.

Eadulf had not heard the term before and asked what it meant.

‘It’s a signal fire on a hill. But what it signals and to whom, I do not know.’

‘The smoke seems to rise in regular little puffs,’ Eadulf observed.

‘Lady!’ Enda’s cry was a low warning. The young warrior moved forward slightly, his hand falling to his sword hilt as his eyes narrowed to focus down into the valley before them. ‘A rider is coming this way at a gallop. He must have been hidden by those rocks below us.’

Fidelma and Eadulf peered down the long, low slope into the valley.

‘It doesn’t look like a warrior,’ Eadulf said, screwing up his eyes.

‘The rider is coming from the direction of Dún Eochair Mháige,’ said Enda. ‘Whoever it is, they are in a great hurry.’

‘And certainly punishing that poor horse.’ Fidelma disapproved. As a good horsewoman herself, she knew that forcing a horse to a gallop up a steep hill for no apparent reason was good for neither man nor beast. Why was the rider in such a desperate rush anyway? There were no signs of pursuit; no cause for him to punish the beast to such an extent.

They decided to halt and wait for the rider to come to them. They soon realised that it was a woman – no, more a young girl – crouching low over the neck of the beast.

‘That girl seems familiar!’ Eadulf exclaimed as the figure drew nearer.

‘It’s the friend of Aibell whom we met at Dún Eochair Mháigh,’ confirmed Fidelma in surprise. ‘What was her name?’

The girl was almost on top of them when she drew rein on her horse. It came to a halt, rearing back on its hind legs, lashing out with its forelegs before dropping back to the path on all fours, snorting and blowing from its exertions. The rider was little more than twenty years of age and her bare head was a mass of black hair; her skin fair and with pretty features which now seemed to be moulded into an expression of relief. Yet along with that relief was still something tense about her expression.

‘God be thanked, lady!’ she cried, moving her horse closer to Fidelma. ‘One of the Uí Fidgente guards told me that the signal fire meant riders from the east were approaching. I was hoping it might be you. I wanted to intercept you before you reached the fortress.’

Fidelma glanced in astonishment at Eadulf before she replied, ‘Why would you think it was me on this road – and why would you want to meet me before I arrived at the fortress?’

‘I was instructed that I should do so.’

‘By whom?’

‘By Aibell, of course. We prayed that you would come, lady.’

Fidelma exchanged another quick look of surprise with Eadulf before turning back to the girl.

‘I have no understanding of what you are saying. Aibell and you prayed that I would come – but why?’

‘Have you not heard?’ the girl almost shouted in her anxiety. ‘Abbot Ségdae has been murdered.’

‘I know – that is precisely why we are on the road to the fortress. What has this to do with Aibell?’

The girl gave a loud, sobbing gasp.

‘Have they not told you? Do you not know who has been judged guilty of the abbot’s murder?’

‘No, I have not been told,’ Fidelma responded quietly. A thought suddenly came to her. ‘Are you saying that it was Aibell who killed Abbot Ségdae?’

‘Of course it was not Aibell!’ Had the girl not been on horseback, she would have doubtless stamped her foot. As it was she made an expressive movement with her arm. ‘It is Gormán who has been found guilty,’ she snapped. ‘Gormán, the warrior who accompanied you to Dún Eochair Mháigh when we first met. It is Gormán who has been charged with the murder of Abbot Ségdae. Gormán whom they are going to execute.’

***

Copyright © 2017 Peter Tremayne.

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Peter Tremayne is a pseudonym of Peter Berresford Ellis, a renowned scholar who has written extensively on the ancient Celts and the Irish. As Tremayne, he is best known for his stories and novels featuring Fidelma of Cashel, including Absolution by Murder. He lives in London.

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