The Devil’s Seal: New Excerpt

The Devil's Seal by Peter Tremayne is the 25th Mystery of Ancient Ireland featuring Sister Fidelma (available July 28, 2015).

Ireland, A.D. 671. An Anglo-Saxon delegation arrives in Cashel to debate the new religious rules that have been handed down from Rome. The Abbot of Imleach leads the Irish delegation, which is hostile to the new rules from outsiders. Among the Anglo-Saxon group is Brother Eadulf's own younger brother, Egric, whom Eadulf hasn't seen for many years.

When the debate quickly becomes acrimonious, a local abbess has to step in as a mediator between the two sides. But not even a day later her body is discovered, bludgeoned to death. The Chief Brehon Aillín accuses young Egric of murder, and suspicions and tempers run high. With the war of words threatening to spill over into bloodshed, Fidelma is sure there is something more sinister behind the murder than religious differences, and she is resolved to find out what really happened-and why.

Chapter One

The three horsemen halted their mounts on the hillside and gazed down into the river valley. Below them, an expanse of trees formed a barrier between the hills and the broad, sedately flowing river to the south. The scene was a patchwork of greens, yellows and browns depending on the varied species and condition of the arboreal canopy and its foliage. The trees were mainly broad-trunk oaks, with their massive crooked branches and spreading crowns. Here and there were blackthorns, with tough yellow wood and long cruel thorns; and then appeared grey-brown rowans and even willows. They all crowded together, pressing towards the river as if seeking its nourishing waters.

The day was unusually warm for the time of year. Patches of blue with hazy sunlight appeared now and then behind the slow-moving grey-white clouds. For what was supposed to be the darkest days of the year, it was pleasantly light and mild.

The three riders were young men, warriors by their style of dress and weapons, and each wore the distinctive golden necklet that denoted that they were members of the élite bodyguard of the King of Muman, the most south-westerly and largest of the Five Kingdoms of Éireann. Their leader, Gormán, leaned forward and patted his horse on its neck. His eyes glanced quickly to the east and then, as if following the sun, which had drifted behind the clouds, moved westwards. He finally gave a satisfied nod.

‘We will be at the Field of Honey long before sundown,’ he announced to his companions. Cluain Meala, the Field of Honey, was a settlement further to the west, on the northern bank of the river called the Siúr whose waters lay before them. ‘We’ll stay there and ride on to Cashel tomorrow.’

‘I shan’t be sorry to get home,’ sighed one of his companions. He glanced nervously back in the direction from which they had come, back to where the hills rose to a dark, impressive mountain.

The leader chuckled as he caught the young man’s expression. ‘Did you expect to be enchanted by the women of the Otherworld while we were crossing the mountain, Enda?’

‘All very well for you, Gormán,’ replied the other indignantly, ‘but the old stories are often true ones.’

‘So you really believe that Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his warriors were enchanted by women of the Otherworld as they crossed the mountain?’ enquired Gormán, his tone edged with derision.

‘Is it not called Sliabh na mBan – the Mountain of Women?’ protested Enda. ‘And the entrance to the underground sanctuary of the Otherworld women is known to be located near its summit.’

The third member of the party interrupted with a snort of exasperation. ‘Stories for the campfire! If we grew cautious when approaching the site of every weird tale, we would never move from our own thresholds. Anyway, we’ve crossed the mountain without problems, so there’s no need to worry about Otherworld entities now. Let us move on, for the sooner we get to the Field of Honey, the sooner we can relax over a beaker of corma, a good meal and a bright fire.’

‘Dego is right,’ agreed Gormán. He was about to nudge his horse forward when a sudden cacophony of bird cries caused him to glance across the tree-tops towards the river. His keen eyes caught a rising circle of alarmed birds in the distance.

‘Something has startled them,’ muttered Enda, following his gaze.

‘Birds are always being startled,’ Dego said indifferently. ‘Maybe a wolf or a fox has taken its prey.’

Gormán did not bother to comment further but led his companions down the hillside into the woods below. He knew the narrow track which descended towards the river. It was not long before the trees gave way to scrubland and then stretches of sedges and reeds which lined the banks of the broad river. They walked their horses westward, becoming aware, as they did so, of the still-wheeling birds ahead of them. Now and then, black-headed Reed Buntings went skimming by, barely above the level of the water, with a frightened repetitive cry. Gormán could pick out the hoarse, laughing chatter of magpies, as they fluttered against the cloudy sky above them. Then his eyes narrowed. Among the wheeling birds were large black ones with diamond-shaped tails.

‘Ravens!’ he muttered. His tone indicated his dislike of the creatures, for ravens were the symbols of death and battle; evil carrion which were said to feed off the corpses of the slain.

‘Some creature must have been killed, as Dego said,’ Enda observed. ‘That is probably why the birds were making such a noise. And now the eaters of dead flesh have come to claim their share of the kill.’

They had been moving at a walking pace along the northern bank of the river and now, as the water course made a slight bend, they could see what it was that had alarmed the birds.

Gormán was not alone in catching his breath and sharply drawing rein.

Four corpses lay sprawled on the river bank among scattered items of clothing, remains of burned papers and other detritus. Nearby, not even secured to the bank, was a sercenn, a river craft with a single sail which, if the wind and current were contrary, was hauled in so that ramha or oars could be used to propel it. Now the sail hung limp and torn, and one of the oars, smashed and splintered, was floating in the water beside the boat.

Misfortune had certainly overcome the occupants of the craft. Two of the corpses were clad in leather jerkins and had the appearance of boatmen. One had bloody wounds to the skull while the other, who lay face down, had an arrow still impaled between his shoulderblades.

Gormán’s mouth tightened as he realised that the other two corpses were clad in the torn and bloody robes of religious.

Enda and Dego had already unsheathed their swords and were peering cautiously around them, ready to respond to any threatening danger.

Gormán shook his head. ‘It must have happened when we first heard the noise of the birds. The attackers are long gone.’

The heavy black ravens had withdrawn a little at the men’s approach but remained watching them with unblinking malignancy. As the three riders had made no aggressive moves towards them, they had begun to edge back towards the corpses. With a sudden shout, Gormán jumped from his horse and picked up a few loose stones, which he threw at the birds. They retreated with a flapping of their dark wings to a safe distance, and then stopped to stare back at the creatures that had come between them and their food. They were obviously not to be removed so easily from the prospect of a meal.

Enda joined Gormán in surveying the scene. Dego had descended and stood holding the horses’ reins, watching as his companions examined the bodies.

‘Robbers?’ he asked morosely.

‘It would seem so,’ replied Gormán. ‘If there was anything valuable in this boat, then they have taken it.’ He dropped to one knee by the corpse of one of the two religious. ‘The crucifix that this one was wearing has been removed by force.’

‘How can you tell?’

‘A little trick the lady Fidelma taught me. Observation. See that weal on the neck? That would have been caused when the thieves tore off the crucifix. What else would a religieux be wearing around the neck but a crucifix?’

‘Who was he? Someone local?’ asked Enda, staring down at the corpse.

The man lay face down, and they noticed that part of his garments had been ripped away, revealing a number of criss-cross scars on his back. But they were old and healed wounds, as if he had been scourged some years ago. Gormán turned the body over. The victim was an elderly man, with sallow skin. There was something foreign in his appearance that Gormán could not quite place. His tonsure was certainly cut in the manner of Rome rather than that of the Five Kingdoms. The other body was that of a younger man, who also wore the tonsure of Rome.

‘Strangers, I would guess,’ Gormán said. ‘They were probably travelling upriver when they were attacked. Robbery appears to be the motive. I can’t see any signs of personal valuables or even a cargo on the boat. And before you ask, Dego, the boat’s bow is facing upriver. It is logical that they were moving in that direction.’

Enda grinned. ‘You have indeed been taking lessons from the lady Fidelma.’

Dego, having tied the horses to a nearby bush, had come forward and started turning over the remains of the burned pieces of vellum or papyrus with his foot. ‘Well, there are not enough of these pieces surviving to make sense of any of them. I wonder why they burned them? Vellum and papyrus are so hard to come by that a scribe would offer much merely to re-use them; to clean and write over the old text. I’ve seen it done. And…’

He suddenly bent down and picked up something. He came to his feet squinting at a small round object between his thumb and finger.

‘What is it?’ Gormán asked.

‘I thought it was a silver coin,’ replied the other in disgust. ‘But it is just a round piece of lead. There are some letters on it as if it was a coin, but no one would use lead as currency.’ He squinted at it more closely. ‘V … I … T … A…’ he read aloud. ‘I can’t make out any more.’

Vita is Latin for life,’ declared Gormán knowledgeably.

‘Well, it’s not worth anything.’ Dego tossed it in the air and caught it deftly. ‘I can use it as a weight for my line when I go fishing.’

‘But who do you think was responsible for this?’ Enda demanded.

‘I heard that there was a band of Déisi youths who are in rebellion against Prince Cummasach,’ Gormán replied. ‘It might be their work.’

The Déisi comprised a small principality south of the river whose princes owed allegiance to the King of Muman.

‘Could rebellious youths have committed such butchery?’ Enda asked dubiously.

‘I have heard that there was bloodshed over a cattle raid these youths carried out near Garbhán’s fort. They have been proclaimed élúdaig, absconders before the law, outlaws, losing their rights in society. This is why they have probably taken to murder and brigandage,’ replied Gormán.

Enda glanced round and noticed some lengths of rope still coiled on the boat.

‘The best thing to do is get these corpses onto the boat and cover them as decently as we can. That way, we can protect their bodies from the ravens. Then, if I am not mistaken, we are only a short ride from the chapel of Brother Siolán. We can use the rope to tow the boat along the river with our horses from the bank. I am sure that the good Brother Siolán will offer these men a Christian burial.’

Gormán agreed and waded to the boat to pull it closer to the bank. Enda and Dega lifted the first corpse, the elderly religieux, and placed it in the vessel while Gormán was securing one end of the rope to the bow.

‘It’s a light craft, therefore I think we can get away with one horse pulling it,’ he said with satisfaction, stepping back onto the river bank.

It was while his companions were lifting the next corpse, that of one of the boatmen, that a movement caught the corner of Gormán’s eye. At first he thought it was one of the intimidating ravens and turned to meet the threat. Then his eyes widened. It was coming from the body of the younger religieux.

In a moment, he had fallen to one knee beside the man and was feeling for a pulse point in the neck.

‘By the powers!’ he exclaimed in a shocked voice. ‘This one is still alive.’

Enda brought the goatskin water bag immediately from his horse and poured some of the liquid across the lips and face of the man. He was a handsome fellow with dark hair. There was bruising on the side of his head, but Gormán’s trained eye observed that there were no other deep cuts or abrasions.

The trickle of the water brought momentary consciousness, and suddenly the young man was striking out and moaning as if in the belief that he was still under attack. But he had no strength and Gormán was easily able to contain his threshing arms.

‘It’s all right, all right.’ His voice was calm and reassuring. ‘You are among friends.’

The young man coughed, muttered something in a harsh-sounding language that Gormán felt was familiar but did not understand, then he relapsed into unconsciousness.

‘Will he survive?’ demanded Enda, peering over Gormán’s shoulder.

‘We must get him to Brother Siolán,’ replied Gormán. ‘He has the knowledge of healing.’

Enda was frowning at the face of the young religieux.

‘He is a stranger to me and yet … yet I swear those features are familiar. What language was it he spoke?’

Gormán shrugged, disclaiming knowledge. Then: ‘Help me place him in the boat. It will be an easier way of transporting him than trying to put him on a horse.’

The young man did not recover consciousness while he was settled in the boat away from the three corpses that had been his companions.

Enda volunteered to stay on the boat with one of the oars to help guide it while Gormán, having had one last look at the debris on the bank, to make sure that they had left nothing of importance behind, took the other end of the rope and secured it to his saddle. Enda, using the oar, and with the help of Dego on the bank, pushed the craft away from the muddy bank. Gormán then began to walk his horse along the water’s edge. It was difficult at first, and now and then Enda had to use the oar to keep the boat from embedding itself into the mud. It was not long, however, before Gormán and Enda achieved a means of hauling the boat along at a reasonable pace. Behind Gormán rode Dego, leading Enda’s horse and ready to help should difficulties arise. All were uncomfortably aware that behind them, the dark ravens seemed to be following as if reluctant to part with their intended meal – the corpses in the boat.

Cill Siolán, the little chapel of Brother Siolán, was situated on a straight stretch of the river and marked by a wooden quay from which a path led to the nearby chapel and the cabin where Brother Siolán lived. As well as the path from the river, there was a track which led to the large settlement called the Field of Honey, which lay further to the west. Set apart from the river and track, Siolán’s hut was nestled in the surrounding forests that spread over the hills towards the distant prominence of the Sliabh na mBan.

The three warriors guided the boat, with its grisly cargo, to the quay. As Gormán secured the craft, Enda looked up at the sky.

‘We have no hope of reaching the Field of Honey before nightfall now.’

‘At least we don’t have to camp in the open,’ Dego said. ‘I’ve heard Brother Siolán is quite hospitable.’

A voice hailed them and a stocky figure in religious robes came trotting down the path to the quayside. He was a fleshy-faced man with bright blue eyes and a mass of sandy hair. By his side moved a large wolfhound, with wary eyes.

‘Gormán! It is good to see you again. What brings…?’ The greeting stopped short as his eyes fell on the contents of the boat. ‘In God’s name, what has happened?’

‘Brigands,’ explained Gormán succinctly. ‘Probably those Déisi outlaws that there has been talk about. But one of the victims still lives and so we need your immediate aid.’

Brother Siolán did not waste time with further questions.

‘Bring him up to the cabin so that I may examine him.’ He turned and gave staccato orders to his hound; the beast loped off back to the cabin porch and lay down, ever-watchful.

Gormán turned to Enda. ‘We two shall carry him. Dego, you see to the horses. We’ll help you later with the burial of the corpses,’ he added to Brother Siolán.

Gormán and Enda lifted the unconscious young religieux from the boat and, between them, carried his inert body up the pathway to Brother Siolán’s cabin. He let them in and pointed to the bed, asking, ‘How long ago did this happen?’

‘We are not sure, Brother,’ Gormán said breathlessly. ‘But it can’t have been that long ago. Will the man live?’

Brother Siolán was bending over the young religieux, examining him.

‘The only wound seems to be the abrasion on the side of his head. Has he regained consciousness at all?’

‘Only momentarily,’ Gormán replied.

‘A good sign anyway. It seems that the blow rendered him unconscious, which probably saved his life as the attackers may have thought they had killed him. Let us hope that the blow has caused no internal injuries. However, he will doubtless suffer headaches when he recovers consciousness.’

He turned to a cupboard. ‘I have a paste of crushed flowers of a plant that grows nearby. That will cleanse and soothe the wound. Then when he comes round, I will try him with an infusion from the bark of the white willow. That should take away the headache. Then you can tell me in detail what has happened.’

‘We ought to bury the poor man’s companions before we sit down to recount our story,’ suggested Gormán. ‘The ravens have been following the boat since we discovered it and the corpses.’

Brother Siolán was apologetic. ‘Of course. But do you have any idea of who these people are?’

‘Only that they are two religious and two boatmen. We think the religious are strangers to this country. Maybe they came all the way upriver from Láirge’s harbour.’

The harbour lay close to the mouth of the River Siúr and was a place where many ocean-going vessels made landfall.

‘I see this one has the tonsure of Rome,’ noted Brother Siolán. ‘Well, time enough for speculation. I’ll tend to him. Go, take the corpses to the back of the chapel here, secure the boat and you’ll find an enclosure and fodder for your horses behind this hut.’

‘What about your hound?’ asked Enda, with a nervous glance at the dog, which seemed to be suspiciously watching their every move.

‘Figleóir? What? Oh, I see.’ Brother Siolán grinned. ‘Don’t worry about him. He won’t bother you now that he sees we are friends.’

‘Figleóir, that’s a good name for a watch-dog,’ Enda observed dryly. The name meant ‘a watcher’.

It was well after dark when all the tasks had been accomplished. The corpses had been buried and the graves marked. The boat had been searched again for any clues of its origin, and now the three warriors had crowded into the cabin of Brother Siolán to relax in front of a warm log fire. The rescued religieux still lay on Brother Siolán’s bed but was now breathing more easily.

‘He’s fallen into a natural sleep,’ Brother Siolán explained, as he served a meal to the hungry warriors. He had already provided a jug of home-brewed ale, which they sipped appreciatively.

‘Is that a good sign?’ asked Enda. ‘Sleeping so long?’

‘It is. So now, what brings members of the Nasc Niadh, the élite bodyguard of our King, along the banks of the Siúr? What is the news from Cashel?’

Gormán stretched himself before the comforting fire. ‘We can tell you little enough of recent news from Cashel as we have been away over a week, on an errand to investigate some dispute at the Ford of Fire.’

Áth Thine, Ford of Fire, was a crossing point between the Kingdoms of Muman and neighbouring Laighin – which often proved a cause for skirmishes and conflict.

‘Then we came south-west by means of the Mountain of Women and hence to the river. Our plan was to ride to the Field of Honey before turning north back to Cashel.’

‘I heard a rumour that Caol is no longer the Commander of the King’s Bodyguard,’ remarked Brother Siolán.

Gormán hesitated a moment before replying: ‘That is so.’

Enda was grinning and there was pride in his voice when he said, ‘Gormán is being too modest. He neglects to tell you that he is the newly appointed commander.’

Brother Siolán’s eyes widened. ‘Then congratulations are in order.’

Gormán seemed embarrassed. ‘Colgú has placed a great trust in me,’ he admitted. ‘I shall do my best to fulfil his expectations.’

‘Yet Caol was surely too young to retire from the command?’ mused the religieux.

‘Caol decided that he wanted to become a farmer,’ put in Enda, ignoring the disapproving glance from Gormán. ‘He has gone to farm somewhere west of the River Mháigh, on the borders of the Luachra territory.’

Brother Siolán looked surprised and was about to make a comment when Gormán said hurriedly, ‘You may have heard that King Colgú has recovered from his wound and is well.’

Only a few months had passed since there had been an attempt to assassinate the King.

‘I heard Caol slew the assassin. I suppose he had earned the right to be able to retire to follow a more peaceful calling,’ reflected Brother Siolán. ‘And how is the King’s sister, the lady Fidelma? Is she well?’

‘When we left Cashel, she was very well.’

There was a sudden groan from the figure on the bed and Brother Siolán moved swiftly across to him. It was clear the young religieux was regaining consciousness and becoming aware of his surrounding. Brother Siolán gave him a few sips of liquid from a beaker which Gormán presumed was some herbal concoction to help him.

The young man sat up, massaging his head. He seemed to be asking a question ìn a language that none of them understood.

When Brother Siolán asked how he was, the man hesitantly replied in the same language but with a curious accent. ‘What happened?’ he asked groggily.

‘You were attacked by brigands and left for dead. Unfortunately, your companions were all killed in the attack. Luckily, these warriors found you and brought you here.’

The young man groaned again, partly in his discomfiture and partly from the confirmation of the news he must have expected.

‘Do you remember what happened?’ asked Gormán, rising from his seat to come closer. ‘Do you recall your name?’

The young man licked his lips for a moment. ‘I am called Brother Egric. We were being transported upriver when our vessel was approached by a larger vessel manned by half-a-dozen men. They greeted us in friendship and we thought they were just passing by, but all of a sudden they attacked us. I saw one of our boatmen fall with an arrow in his back. Our craft was driven into the bank. I was travelling with the Venerable Victricius. He tried to remonstrate with the attackers, who were all young men, but they laughed and then one of them hit him about the head with a war axe. I turned to flee, and something hit me on the side of the head. I had a passing thought that I was dead. I am not sure what happened next. I seemed to be in some dream until I woke just a moment ago.’

Brother Siolán nodded sympathetically. ‘You are safe now, my friend. I am Brother Siolán. My little chapel is not far upriver from where you were attacked and where these good warriors found and brought you here. Alas, as I said, your companion and the boatmen are all dead. We have buried them behind the chapel.’

A look of pain crossed the young man’s features.

‘The Venerable Victricius is dead?’ he repeated as if he could not believe it.

‘He is dead, indeed,’ confirmed Gormán.

Brother Egric sighed. ‘And our belongings? Has everything been stolen?’

‘Only a few items remain. That which was not destroyed was carried away by them. It looks as though you were attacked by robbers.’

‘Did you retrieve anything?’ There was a curious eagerness in his tone.

‘We did, mainly items of clothing. They are piled in that corner.’ Gormán nodded in that direction. ‘But first some questions. You have told us your name and that of your dead companion. Where have you come from? Where were you going?’

The young man rubbed his forehead. ‘We – that is, the Venerable Victricius and I – came to this country five days ago. We landed at a place called Láirge’s harbour and arranged for two boatmen to take us upriver. Is this river still called the Siúr? It is? Then we were to land at a place called Cluain Meala where we were told we would find a guide.’

‘A guide? To go where?’

‘To a place called Cashel.’

‘Cashel…’ Gormán was surprised. He had expected any foreign religious to be travelling to Imleach, the oldest and largest abbey in all Muman.

‘We were to meet a Brother Docgan in Cluain Meala.’

‘Brother Docgan?’ Gormán glanced at Brother Siolán who looked bemused. ‘The name is unfamiliar to us. It sounds Saxon. Indeed, your own name and accent make you a Saxon.’

The young man shook his head and winced from the pain. ‘I am an Angle; but perhaps you would not know the difference,’ he said weakly.

Gormán chuckled. ‘That is where you are wrong. I have a good friend who makes a point of correcting people when he is called a Saxon.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Our King’s sister, the lady Fidelma, is married to an Angle.’

‘Then I must surely meet with him,’ the young man replied gravely. ‘From which kingdom of the Angles does he come?’

‘From the Kingdom of the East Angles, he says,’ replied Gormán.

The young man turned to regard him with an expression of astonishment.

‘But so do I!’ he announced. ‘I am from the Land of the South Folk in the Kingdom of the East Angles.’

‘Tell me,’ Gormán asked excitedly, ‘have you heard of Eadulf of Seaxmund’s Ham?’

‘Eadulf?’ The name was issued as a strangled gasp by the religieux. There was a silence during which he seemed to be gathering his thoughts before he answered slowly. ‘My name is Egric of Seaxmund’s Ham: I am brother to Eadulf, who was our hereditary gerefa, as was our father before him.’

 

Chapter Two

‘Brother Eadulf of Seaxmund’s Ham, in the Land of the South Folk of the Kingdom of the East Angles, is summoned to the presence of Colgú, King of Muman.’

For a moment, Eadulf stared in amusement at the solemn face of the steward of the palace of Cashel, comptroller of the King’s household. Then he assumed an equally solemn expression, for he knew that the rotund Beccan, who had served only months in his office of rechtaire, or steward, was a stickler for protocol. Eadulf had been told by Gormán that the steward’s punctiliousness was affected because he was a comparative stranger to the palace. He came from the southern part of the kingdom, south of the Siúr, and had come to oversee the kitchens. A few months later the previous steward had retired to his family and farm, and Beccan was suddenly elevated to this new position.

‘Eadulf, husband to Fidelma of Cashel, sister of King Colgú, will obey this summons,’ Eadulf answered with equal gravity. Then he could not help relaxing his features in a smile. ‘So what does Colgú want of me? Why summon me, and not Fidelma?’

Beccan’s fleshy features assumed a disapproving look.

‘It is not my place to guess the desires of the King, only to relay his orders.’

Eadulf sighed at the steward’s uncompromising tone. ‘I’ll come immediately.’

Fidelma and Alchú, their four-year-old son, were out riding with Aidan, one of the King’s bodyguards, as escort. Therefore there was no one to whom to explain his absence. Eadulf set off after the steward who led him from the chambers they occupied, across the courtyard to the main building of the palace complex which contained the private chambers of the King.

‘I wonder if this summons has anything to do with the arrival of Abbot Ségdae and his companions last night?’ he mused aloud as they proceeded.

Ségdae, Abbot of Imleach and Chief Bishop of Muman, had arrived at dusk the previous evening with his steward, Brother Madagan, and a foreign religieux. They had immediately retired to the guest quarters. As a regular visitor to Cashel, both as spiritual adviser and member of the King’s council, Ségdae’s arrival did not usually arouse any comment. But it was unusual that the abbot had not joined them for the evening meal.

‘There is always some matter of church policy to be discussed,’ Beccan replied shortly.

‘Is the King’s tánaiste with him?’ Eadulf asked.

‘Finguine, the heir apparent, left early this morning to visit the Prince of the Eóghanacht Glendamnach.’

‘I expect he is late with the tribute again.’ Eadulf spoke lightly.

A stony expression confronted him. ‘I would not know,’ said Beccan, ‘and even if I did, it is not my place to discuss the policies of the King.’

Eadulf suppressed a sigh. There was no humour in the man. He fell silent while the steward moved into the passage to where a member of the King’s bodyguard stood outside the red yew-tree doors which led to the private chambers. Beccan raised his staff of office and rapped it three times against the wooden panels before throwing it open. He stood framed in the door.

‘Eadulf of Seaxmund’s Ham…’ he began to announce loudly.

He was interrupted by the tired voice of Colgú from beyond. ‘I know well who it is. You may leave us, Beccan; make sure that we are not disturbed until I send for you. Come in, Eadulf.’

Beccan swallowed uncomfortably. He was always exasperated by the fact that Colgú liked to circumvent the protocols of court. He registered his irritation by assuming an expression of longsuffering resignation and stood aside to allow Eadulf to enter and then closed the doors softly behind him.

‘I swear that Beccan is so pedantic that he even takes to writing the names of guests down so that he can announce them in the right order.’ It was Colgú who made the comment as Eadulf moved forward into the room. ‘I have a suspicion that he finds it hard to remember names unless he does so.’

Eadulf saw Abbot Ségdae seated by the fire opposite Colgú. The King waved Eadulf to a seat with a quick smile of welcome. Eadulf exchanged a greeting with the abbot before sitting. The man looked somewhat distracted. There were furrows on his brow as if he were wrestling with some problem.

‘We need your help,’ Colgú began without preamble.

‘Whatever help I can give is yours to command,’ Eadulf replied, settling down in a chair and looking expectantly from Colgú to Ségdae.

Colgú made a motion with his hand as if inviting the abbot to explain. Abbot Ségdae hesitated a moment and then spoke.

‘We have received word that an embassy of your countrymen will soon arrive here in Cashel.’

‘An embassy of my countrymen?’ Such news was unusual. ‘Who are they, and for what purpose do they come here?’

‘No doubt the same purpose that is behind the many councils that have been held between our religious and those who follow the dictates of Rome,’ Abbot Ségdae said, barely concealing the irritation in his voice. ‘Those who waste time attempting to make us turn from the path of the Faith that we have chosen.’

Eadulf waited for the abbot to continue and, when he did not, he felt obliged to comment. ‘You may have forgotten that I was an adherent to the ways of Rome before…’ Eadulf paused as he was about to say before he had met Fidelma at the Great Council in Hilda’s Abbey at Streonshalh.

‘That is precisely why we need your advice,’ Colgú interrupted quickly. ‘I am hoping that you may tell us something about these people and their ideas.’

‘I still don’t understand. Are you saying that some religious are coming here to argue the merits of the practices of their Church? But who arranged this? Such councils have to be proposed, accepted and arranged well in advance – and why are they coming here and not to the Abbey of Imleach?’

‘They have simply announced that they are coming here.’ Abbot Ségdae was angry. ‘The first we knew of this was the arrival of two messengers at my abbey. One was a Brother Cerdic, a Saxon. He was accompanied by Brother Rónán from Fearna who came with him merely as a guide. Brother Cerdic stated that an embassy would arrive at Cashel within a week, and demanded that this council be presided over by the King and no other.’

Eadulf shook his head slowly. ‘And that was all? No other explanation?’

‘It was enough,’ fumed the abbot. ‘It was sheer arrogance. In fact, I found their emissary, this Brother Cerdic, arrogant in his manner of relaying his message to me.’

‘They came from Fearna?’ pressed Eadulf. ‘Is this some new evil scheme from Laighin?’

Fearna was the main abbey of the neighbouring Kingdom of Laighin, whose kings had long plotted against Muman.

‘That was my thought at first,’ Colgú confided. ‘Yet Abbot Ségdae has had private assurance from Brother Rónán that Abbot Moling of Fearna was to emphasise that Laighin are not involved. Brother Rónán said the delegation had arrived at Fearna without prior warning. They had some inconsequential discussions and then asked whether Abbot Moling could supply a guide and interpreter for Brother Cerdic to come here. Abbot Moling also gave an assurance that King Fianamail has no interest in this matter.’

‘Do we trust Abbot Moling?’ asked Eadulf, adding, ‘I heard that he was born and raised in Sliabh Luachra. My recent experiences prejudice me against people from that territory.’

‘That is true,’ agreed the abbot, ‘but I think we can trust his word. Brother Rónán has fulfilled his task and returned straightway to Fearna. So Fearna are not represented here.’

‘It sounds very strange,’ Eadulf reflected.

‘Certainly the attitude of the Saxon religieux is unwarranted,’ the abbot grumbled. ‘My steward, Brother Madagan, and this Brother Cerdic very nearly came to blows.’

Eadulf’s eyes widened. ‘Knowing Brother Madagan, I find it hard to believe he would be in danger of losing his temper.’

‘Then you will gauge the conceit of this Brother Cerdic. And how arrogant he is to bring such a message to this Kingdom! Brother Rónán had tried to modify the language as he interpreted him, but Brother Madagan knows some of the Saxon tongue and immediately understood the high-handed nature of his words.’

Eadulf was reflective. ‘Are you sure that there was no mistaken emphasis in the translation? Perhaps this group are merely coming to make arrangements for some bigger council in the future. There may be some misunderstanding of the intention of their embassy.’

Abbot Ségdae snorted with indignation. ‘The message was perfectly clear. I was thankful that Brother Madagan had arrived back at the abbey to receive Brother Cerdic. The intention needed no interpretation. Besides which, Brother Madagan exchanged some words with Brother Rónán, who confirmed that even the King of Laighin felt that the Saxons were disrespectful.’

Eadulf was surprised to hear that Brother Madagan had some fluency in Saxon. During the times he had met the steward of Imleach, they had never conversed in Eadulf’s own language.

‘Yes, the message was clear enough, friend Eadulf,’ Colgú said in support of the abbot.

Eadulf was still puzzled. ‘But a council on religious affairs would best be held at the abbey, with scholars on hand to give advice. So why are they coming to your palace? Why insist that you, the King, preside over it?’

‘I agree that this is the point of curiosity, Eadulf,’ Colgú said. ‘This is why we are consulting you.’

‘There have surely been enough councils at which delegates from many strange lands have attended and tried to change our laws and ways of proceeding!’ Abbot Ségdae was obviously irritated by the affair. ‘Only the laws of hospitality require that we receive them, otherwise I would advise the King to turn them away.’

‘You say that this deputation is currently staying at the Abbey of Fearna?’ Eadulf enquired.

‘I am told that while the leaders of the deputation stayed with King Fianamail at his fortress at Dinn Ríg before commencing their journey here, Brother Cerdic was sent to give us advance warning. They have probably already crossed into the Land of the Osraige and could be with us any day now,’ sighed Abbot Ségdae, relapsing into gloom.

‘Brother Cerdic says this deputation is from my people?’ Eadulf frowned. ‘East Anglia is but a small kingdom, and one which many of the other Kingdoms of the Angles and the Saxons have claimed jurisdiction over. Its abbots are not so influential as to lead deputations outside their own domains. Why, it was only in my childhood that it was converted from the Old Faith of my people and…’

Abbot Ségdae stopped him with an impatient gesture of his hand. ‘When I said “your people”, I meant that they have come from one or other of the Kingdoms of the Angles and Saxons,’ he explained, as if the difference was a trifle. ‘Whoever they are, Brother Cerdic says that they come with the authority of the Bishop of Rome, Vitalian. The Roman faction has made many attempts to force our churches to follow their rules. They should give up their endless councils and arguments, and leave us to proceed according to our beliefs.’

Colgú stirred uncomfortably and glanced at his Chief Bishop.

‘Except, as I have heard it, several of our abbots and bishops, especially in the Northern Kingdoms, seem to have already accepted the rituals of Rome,’ he said. ‘Apparently, many are now following the teachings of Cumméne Fota of Connacht.’ Catching Eadulf’s perplexed expression, he added by way of explanation: ‘He died not so long ago and was bishop and lector at Cluain Ferta. He became converted to the Roman liturgy and propagated their doctrine.’

Abbot Ségdae sniffed. ‘I’ll grant Cumméne was an intelligent man and a diligent scholar, but he was misled. We should abide by our own doctrines.’

Eadulf did not want to become embroiled in an argument on liturgy. ‘I still cannot see what role you expect me to play in this matter,’ he said, raising his hands in a hopeless gesture. ‘What is it that you wish of me?’

‘Do not the ancient philosophers have a saying – nam et ipsa scientia potestas est?’ Abbot Ségdae asked dryly.

Eadulf nodded. ‘I’ll grant you that knowledge is power. But knowledge of what, exactly?’

‘Brother Cerdic has told us that the name of the man who leads this deputation is a Bishop Arwald. Perhaps you might know something of him so that we can assess how best to treat him. He comes, we are told, in the company of a Roman cleric named Verax and they are under the authority and blessing of Vitalian, Bishop of Rome, and that of Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom I believe you know.’

‘Theodore? Indeed I do,’ affirmed Eadulf. ‘I was in Rome when he was appointed Chief Bishop to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms in place of Wighard, who was murdered in Rome. Fidelma and I solved the mystery of his murder. As Theodore was a Greek from Tarsus, it was requested that I should instruct him in the ways of the Angles and Saxons before he took office. Later, it was Theodore who sent me into this kingdom as an emissary. And here I have chosen to remain.’

Colgú smiled softly. ‘We know your story, Eadulf. So now we are hoping you will be able to provide us with information. As we said, we hope that you may know something of the leader of this deputation so that we can learn something of his purpose. Have you encountered this Bishop Arwald of Magonsaete?’

‘Of Magonsaete?’ Eadulf raised his head sharply in surprise.

Colgú caught the movement. ‘Then you do know this man?’

‘I do not know him,’ Eadulf said quickly, ‘but I do know Magonsaete. I would have thought it the last place to be able to appoint a bishop to discuss church matters with this kingdom or, indeed, any other kingdom.’

Colgú was intrigued. ‘Tell us what you know. Where is this place?’

‘It has recently come into being; a hybrid kingdom, neither of the Angles nor of the Britons. It is situated betwixt and between the two peoples. It came into existence when Penda of Mercia – Mercia is one of the major kingdoms of the Angles – joined forces with some of the Britons to extend his western borders. Among the Britons fighting for Penda was a warrior called Merewalh – the name means “illustrious foreigner”. I am afraid I do not know his real British name. Twenty years ago, Penda made him sub-King over this newly acquired territory which was called Magonsaete. That was in reward for his services.’

Colgú rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ‘Are you telling us that this is a kingdom of Britons which owes its allegiance to a kingdom of Angles? I am confused.’

‘That is not exactly the situation. The Angles from Mercia began to settle in this new kingdom, displacing the native Britons who fled westward. Merewalh is a Briton, but he rules over the new settlers. Merewalh married one of Penda’s daughters. He has forsaken his own people.’

Colgú struggled to understand the politics of the situation. ‘So you are saying that this Briton has the authority of Rome and Canterbury to send his bishop to debate with us?’

‘It seems scarcely credible,’ agreed Eadulf solemnly. ‘It was only ten years ago that Merewalh was converted to the faith of Christ.’

‘But surely all the Britons were Christian?’

‘Maybe Merewalh had originally been of the Faith but changed it when he made his alliance with the Mercia King. Penda was no Christian. He believed in the ancient gods of our people, like Woden.’

‘You seem to know a lot about his kingdom. Yet it is not connected with your own. How is this?’

‘Penda was an Angle but he was the most ruthless and ambitious of the kings,’ explained Eadulf. ‘He sought to subdue my own Kingdom of the East Angles and slew our great King Anna when I was only a lad. Even after Penda died – I was about twenty years of age then – Penda’s son, Wulfhere, continued to exert his will over our small kingdom. So we were always aware of the Mercian threat.’

Colgú shook his head in frustration. ‘With due respect to you, Eadulf, I find all these foreign names very confusing. I have no understanding of any of these kingdoms of the Angles and the Saxons. Have they no High King governing them as we have here?’

‘Such an idea is growing among my people,’ Eadulf conceded. ‘But there are eleven major kingdoms of Angles and Saxons, and all their rulers are often at war with one another. I doubt whether we will ever see unity among them. Anyway, the conflict among them is not even about uniting the kingdoms – but about claiming the title to be conqueror and ruler over the Britons.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘The title that is claimed is Bretwalda – wielder or ruler over the Britons. Don’t forget that the kingdoms of the Angles and Saxons were carved out of the lands of the Britons when our ancestors first landed on the island of Britain two centuries ago. But the title is meaningless for the Britons have not submitted.’

Colgú remarked sadly, ‘Your people seem to be very warlike, always intent on conquest.’

‘I regret that it is so, Colgú,’ nodded Eadulf. ‘But perhaps, as the New Faith takes firmer hold, we may become calmer and more content. Our kingdoms were born in bloodshed and conquest. Therefore it may take us some time to recover from those years.’

‘So what are we to make of this Bishop Arwald of Magonsaete?’

‘It is hard to make anything of him until we know him. You say he comes here on the authority of the Bishops Vitalian and Theodore?’

‘So far as we are told.’

‘Then I have little understanding of it,’ Eadulf said. ‘Why would Rome and Canterbury send any delegation to Cashel, even if it was to discuss matters of the Faith?’

‘It is a mystery which we were hoping you could enlighten us on before this delegation arrives,’ sighed Abbot Ségdae.

‘I can only tell you what I know. What did you say were the names of the other members of the delegation?’

‘There is this Roman cleric named Verax,’ offered the abbot.

‘The name is common enough among clerics,’ Eadulf shrugged. ‘It means “the truthful one”.’

‘And, of course, this Brother Cerdic.’

‘Well, it does sound as if Cerdic comes from Magonsaete,’ mused Eadulf. Then, seeing their baffled looks, he told them: ‘Cerdic comes originally from a name popular among Britons – Ceretic. With the mixture of Britons and Angles in Magonsaete, it is not unusual to see such a name. It is now adopted by the Angles.’

‘So it seems that we can do nothing except wait for the arrival of this deputation before we can discover their intention,’ commented Colgú.

And then, to Eadulf’s surprise, Colgú suddenly grinned. It was the mischievous smile that he shared with his sister when a humorous thought came to his mind. ‘Unless, Abbot Ségdae, you want to consult with Deogaire?’

Abbot Ségdae’s brow gathered in an angry frown before he saw the smile on the King’s lips.

‘I certainly do not,’ he replied tightly.

‘Excuse me?’ asked Eadulf. ‘Who is Deogaire?’

‘A person to avoid,’ snapped Abbot Ségdae. ‘Especially with your prejudice against Sliabh Luachra.’

‘I referred to Deogaire of Sliabh Luachra,’ Colgú explained. ‘Unfortunately, if we did not have concerns enough, he has chosen this time to make one of his infrequent visits to Cashel. He claims to have a gift of prophecy.’

It was only a short time before that Eadulf had found himself on the borders of Sliabh Luachra, the territory of the Luachair Deaghaidh, and witnessed the killing of their chieftain, Fidaig, by the chieftain’s own son! Eadulf suppressed a shiver, remembering the forbidding mountains that made the territory a fortress against outsiders. It was a grim and frightening land.

‘This Deogaire,’ Eadulf went on after a moment or two, ‘is he of the chieftain’s family? Why would he be able to answer your questions?’

It was Abbot Ségdae who responded. ‘It is the King’s humour. Deogaire is a wild man, a man of the hills and mountains. As the King says, Deogaire claims to be able to foretell the future; he calls himself a wizard, a soothsayer. Every so often, he comes out of his mountain fastness and sells his prophecies to the gullible – credulous people who do not trust the Faith.’

‘Deogaire has a talent for creating arguments, especially among the brethren,’ added Colgú.

‘Then why is he allowed in the palace?’

Colgú sighed. ‘It is hard to refuse him. He is the nephew of old Brother Conchobhar; the son of his sister.’

There was little need to explain further because Eadulf knew that Brother Conchobhar was the physician and apothecary who had tended and been mentor to both Colgú and Fidelma since childhood. Even before they were born, he had served their father Failbhe Flann. If there was one person in Cashel that Eadulf had come to trust implicitly, it was this bright-eyed old man.

However, Colgú was moving on. ‘Eadulf, I will want you to attend this coming council as my adviser, for you will be valuable in that role.’

‘Surely Fidelma will make a better adviser?’ he protested.

Colgú shook his head. ‘You are from the land of these people; you know their language and the way their minds work. I need that knowledge. As for Fidelma, Aillín is my Chief Brehon and it will be his role to advise on legal matters as it is Abbot Ségdae’s role to advise on matters of the Faith.’

‘Speaking of which,’ intervened the abbot, ‘I was surprised to learn that Brother Cerdic insisted on visiting Abbess Líoch of Cill Náile and suggesting it was in her interests to attend here.’

‘I recall that the abbess is an old friend of Fidelma,’ Eadulf said. ‘Now I am completely in the dark as to the intention of this deputation, as there are more senior religious in the kingdom than Abbess Líoch who should attend any council.’

‘It could be that Brother Cerdic was asked to invite her because of her knowledge of your people – I mean, the Angles,’ Colgú suggested. ‘Some years ago, Abbess Líoch joined a party of missionaries to the Kingdom of Northumbria and spent time at an abbey called Laestingau. So she knows something of your people and their ways.’

Abbot Ségdae nodded. ‘It would be good to have her expertise at this meeting as well as your own.’

‘I have no objection,’ Eadulf agreed, knowing full well that the abbot was not asking him if he objected or not. ‘I have not met the abbess before.’

Cill Náile, he knew, was an easy ride east of Cashel, but he had never visited the small religious community there. Líoch, so Fidelma had told him, had been one of her companions when she set out to join the group of Irish delegates journeying to the Great Council of Streonshalh. As far as he recalled, Líoch had not attended the council. She remained at Laestingau, some days’ ride west of Streonshalh.

‘Where is Brother Cerdic now?’ he asked the abbot. ‘I understand that he came with you to Cashel.’

Abbot Ségdae’s face became glum. ‘He did. He is here awaiting the arrival of the rest of his deputation.’

‘Then perhaps I should go and speak with him? I might be able to pick up some further information.’

‘I was hoping you would,’ Colgú said. ‘It is hard to get any understanding of what is going on. This whole matter makes me uneasy.’

‘You should find him in the chapel,’ offered the abbot. ‘He is someone who appears to prefer to keep himself to himself.’

Eadulf was crossing the courtyard towards the chapel building when Fidelma came riding in through the main gates on her short-necked grey stallion, which she had called Aonbharr after the horse ridden by the old God of the Oceans, Mannanán Mac Lir. Alongside her, smiling broadly astride his piebald pony, was their four-year-old son, Alchú, with his mop of bright red hair. Behind, keeping careful watch, rode Aidan, one of the élite warriors of Cashel.

Eadulf paused for a moment to admire his wife. After the years during which she had been Sister Fidelma, clad in the robes of a religieuse, he had not fully become used to seeing her as ‘Fidelma, Princess of the Eóghanacht’. Her red hair was plaited in three braids, held in place with silver circlets on her head. She wore a tunic that fitted tightly to the waist and then billowed over her upper legs, which were encased in tight-fitting triubhas, or trousers, that fitted into leather boots that came just above the ankles and were of a matching blue. From her shoulders hung a short cloak, with a beaver-skin collar, clasped together by a silver brooch. Each garment was patterned in designs picked out in gold and silver needlework.

Although Fidelma had quit the religious, Eadulf had not and so still kept to his Roman tonsure and robes, though at times he felt a little drab standing at his wife’s side.

He stirred himself and hurried forward to help his son from his horse, a fraction of a second before the echaire, who looked after the stables, had reached the group.

‘Hello, little hound,’ Eadulf greeted the child. ‘Have you had a good ride?’ He used the literal meaning of the boy’s name as a term of endearment.

The boy fell into his arms with a laugh of greeting.

‘We had a wonderful time, athair,’ he replied. ‘We were riding through the forest and surprised some deer. They ran away from us. Then we were coming home and saw a lot of men putting up a new building.’

‘A new building?’ Eadulf frowned for a moment.

‘He means the repairs to the south-western wall,’ explained Fidelma. ‘They are putting up a temporary wooden framework to support the workmen and their materials while they repair the wall.’

Eadulf recalled that there had been a rockfall under the wall of the King’s fortress during the winter, which had caused damage to that extremity of the fortifications. The Rock of Cashel, on which the great fortress of the Eóghanacht Kings of Muman was built, rose from the surrounding plain with almost inaccessible limestone faces to a height of sixty-two metres from its immediate base. On top, nearly a thousand square metres were enclosed by the fortifications that the Eóghanacht had erected since they chose the site as their principal fortress nearly four centuries before.

Eadulf was about to warn the little boy of the dangers of going near a building site but Alchú was continuing, ‘And we saw two strange women and we saw…’

Smiling, Fidelma had dismounted and handed her horse to the care of the stable-master, while dismissing the warrior Aidan with a wave of her hand.

‘You’ll be able to tell your father all about it as soon as you have cleaned yourself up,’ she told the boy. ‘See? Here is Muirgen come to take you for a wash and something nice to eat afterwards.’

Muirgen, the nurse, had appeared and the boy went to take her outstretched hand without any sign of reluctance. Eadulf was mildly surprised at Fidelma halting the boy’s enthusiastic recital of his morning adventures, but then he caught something in her eye and knew she wanted to speak to him privately.

‘I’ll come along soon, little hound,’ Eadulf called after his son, as the nurse led him away. ‘You can tell me all your adventures then.’

Alchú’s mind was clearly on the promised snack so he barely acknowledged his father but trotted off happily with the nurse.

The horses had been led off to the stables and the courtyard had emptied when Eadulf turned back to Fidelma.

‘Is something wrong?’ he asked softly.

‘I am not sure,’ she replied. ‘I met someone I knew on the way to Cashel. We stopped for a chat.’

Eadulf raised an eyebrow in query. ‘The strange women of Alchú’s story?’

Fidelma grimaced. ‘I suppose Abbess Líoch would seem strange to a little boy. As you know, in this land we love bright colours in our dress and the religious are no exception. But since Líoch has returned from the Saxon lands, she has affected black in all her garments; even her cenn-barr or head veil is black, as well as all the fasteners for her upper garments. There is not a precious stone to be seen unless it be a black stone in dark metal.’

‘Abbess Líoch?’ Eadulf did not conceal his surprise. ‘Has she arrived already?’

‘Already?’ Fidelma stared at him, puzzled. ‘You knew that she was expected in Cashel?’

‘I know that she had been asked to come here,’ he confirmed. ‘But you tell your story first. I’ll keep quiet and then I’ll tell you what I know.’

‘Well, we were on our way back from our ride, joining the main track to Cashel,’ Fidelma said. ‘That was when we saw the abbess and her bann-mhaor, her female steward – I forget her name, but it was one of the sisters of her community. As I know Líoch, we stopped to speak. She told me that she had been asked to come here as there was to be a council. A deputation from one of the kingdoms of the Saxons was expected. It sounded very mysterious.’

‘Where is Abbess Líoch now?’ asked Eadulf, looking expectantly towards the gates.

‘She would ride only as far as the township with us. She and her companion have gone to seek hospitality in the town, although I pointed out that my brother’s palace has room enough to extend food and shelter to them both. The point is, Eadulf, it seems as if she has some trepidation about this gathering. What is it all about?’

Eadulf exhaled softly. ‘I wish I knew. It is beginning to sound like a mystery.’ He held up his hand as Fidelma was about to question him further, saying, ‘Let me tell you what I know.’

He quickly described his meeting with her brother, Colgú, and Abbot Ségdae.

She was perplexed. ‘I see no logic for a council. But there is an interesting point. You said Abbess Líoch was asked to attend?’

‘I did. That also seemed curious to me, although Abbot Ségdae seemed to think it was because she had been in Northumbria for some time.’

‘Líoch told me that two religieux called at her abbey several days ago. One of them was the Saxon religious you mentioned, called Brother Cerdic. The other was someone from the Abbey of Fearna. She said it was Brother Cerdic who told her that she should attend. Rather, her words were that he said it was “in her interest” to attend. I had the impression that she was troubled by his request.’

‘In her interest to attend? That is surely a strange phraseology.’

‘Those are the words she used. Do you know this Brother Cerdic?’

‘No,’ Eadulf said. ‘I only know what I have just been told.’

‘Where is he now? Here in Cashel?’

‘He accompanied Abbot Ségdae and his steward, Brother Madagan, to Cashel. In fact, I was just on my way to find him in order to see if I could discover anything further about this strange deputation.’

‘And Brother Rónán?’

‘He has already returned to Fearna, having accomplished his role as guide. Abbot Ségdae says that Brother Cerdic maintains he acts merely as a messenger to announce the coming of the deputation.’

Fidelma’s features bore a sceptical expression. ‘Did Abbot Ségdae believe him?’

‘I doubt it,’ Eadulf replied cynically. ‘It is a long journey to make across the sea to a strange land without knowing something of the intention of the group in which you are travelling. And if he suggested to Abbess Líoch that it was in her interest to attend, then he must surely know more of the matter.’

‘I agree,’ said Fidelma. ‘She seems to be nervous of Brother Cerdic. That surely means she knows him or, at least, he has told her why she should come here.’

‘I shall contrive to speak with this Brother Cerdic alone,’ Eadulf decided. ‘He might be more forthcoming to a fellow countryman.’

‘But first you must keep your promise to Alchú,’ Fidelma said sternly. ‘He wants to tell his father about the adventures he had on his ride. You do that, and I will go and see my brother as I want to hear his thoughts about this strange deputation.’

A short time later, Eadulf re-emerged in the courtyard on the way to fulfil his errand. He passed Beccan, the steward, crossing the courtyard and asked if he had seen Brother Cerdic. The solemn-faced steward indicated the chapel behind him.

‘I think I saw the Saxon entering the chapel,’ he replied. ‘A very unfriendly man,’ he added with a sniff of disdain.

Eadulf was almost resigned to the fact that whether one was an Angle, a Saxon or even Jute, in the minds of the people of the Five Kingdoms of Éireann, they were all regarded as Saxons. Eadulf entered the chapel discreetly, waited a moment for his eyes to adjust, then peered about in the gloomy interior.

A figure was kneeling before the altar in a position of supplication.

Eadulf coughed softly to draw attention to himself. The figure made no motion. It seemed so still: knees and legs drawn up beneath the bent body, the forehead resting on the cold stone floor. Something glinted on the ground beside the figure, and it took some moments before Eadulf realised it was the flickering light of the candle reflecting in a pool of liquid. It was blood!

With a suppressed exclamation, he went hurrying over and knelt beside the body. He reached out a hand to touch the shoulder of the figure, and no sooner had he exerted a slight pressure than it rolled onto its side. The face was white, the dead eyes wide and staring.

There was no sign of a weapon but it was clear from the blood both on the floor and across the man’s throat how he had come by his death. The fact that there was no weapon to hand also indicated that he had not died of his own choice.

Copyright © 2015 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. He lives in London.

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