The horses cantered along the dusk-shrouded mountain road. There were four of them, snorting and blowing as their riders urged them forward. The travellers consisted of three men and a woman. The men wore the garments and weaponry of warriors but the woman was distinguished from her companions not only by her sex but by the fact that she was clad in the robes of a religieuse. While the evening gloom cloaked their individual features, it was clear from the state of their mounts and the fatigued attitude with which they rode them that the four had journeyed many a kilometre that day.
‘Are you sure that this is the right road?’ called the woman, casting an anxious glance around at the entangling woods through which they were rapidly descending. The track across the mountain dipped steeper into the valley. Below them, just discernible in the fading light, was a broad glen with a sizable river snaking through it.
The young, dust-covered warrior who rode at her side spoke out.
‘I have ridden many times as a courier from Cashel to Fearna, lady, and I know this route well. A kilometre or so ahead we will come to a place where another river flows from the west to join the river you see below us. There, by the joining of the rivers, is Morca’s inn where we may spend the night.’
‘But every hour counts, Dego,’ replied the woman. ‘Can’t we press on to Fearna tonight?’
The warrior hesitated before replying, doubtless wondering how to make himself firm but phrasing his words with respect.
‘Lady, I promised your brother, the King, that I and my companions would keep you safe on this journey. I would not advise travelling in this countryside at night. There are many dangers in this area for the likes of us. If we stay at the inn and make an early start in the morning, we will be at the castle of the King of Laigin well before noon tomorrow. And we will arrive refreshed after a night’s rest, rather than tired and weary from riding through the night.’
The tall religieuse was silent and the warrior called Dego took
her silence as an acceptance of his advice.
Dego was a member of the warrior guard of Colgú, King of Muman; it had been the King himself who had summoned him with an order to escort his sister, Fidelma of Cashel, to Fearna, the capital of the Kingdom of Laigin, whose lands bordered Colgú’s kingdom. There had been little reason to ask why Fidelma was making this journey, for the news had been freely bruited about the great palace of Cashel.
Fidelma had arrived home from a pilgrim voyage to the Tomb of St James, her journey hastened by the news that Brother Eadulf, the Saxon emissary to Cashel from Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, had been accused of murder. The details were as yet unclear but, so the gossip had it, Brother Eadulf had been returning to Canterbury, which lay in the land of the Saxons to the east when, passing through the kingdom of Laigin, he had been captured and accused of killing someone. There were no other details.
What was well known among the people of Cashel was that, during the past year, Brother Eadulf not only had become a friend of King Colgú but a close companion of his sister, Fidelma. The talk had it that Fidelma had determined to journey to Laigin in order to take up the defence of her friend, for she was not merely a religieuse but a
an advocate, of the law courts of the five kingdoms.
Gossip or not, Dego knew that Fidelma had landed from the pilgrim ship at Ardmore, ridden hard for Cashel and spent barely an hour or so with her brother, before setting off for Fearna, Laigin’s capital, where Eadulf was being held. In fact, Dego and his companions were hard pressed to keep up with the grim-faced Fidelma who seemed to be able to ride better than any of them.
Dego was nervous as he glanced at her now. There was a glint in her blue-green eyes which boded ill for anyone who would contradict her will. He was certain that his recommendation was the best course of action, but he was also anxious that Fidelma understood his reasons for suggesting it. He knew well enough that she was anxious to reach the Laigin capital as soon as possible.
‘There is enmity between Cashel and Fearna, lady,’ he ventured, after some thought. ‘There is still war along the border of Osraige. Should we fall in with wandering bands of Laigin warriors, they might not respect the protection of your office.’
Fidelma’s stern features softened momentarily.
‘I am aware of the situation, Dego. You are wise in your advice.’
She said no more. Dego opened his mouth to speak again but another glance at her made him realise that to say anything else would merely be superfluous and might annoy her.
After all, there was none better qualified than Fidelma to know the position of the dispute between Cashel and Fearna. She had clashed with the excitable young King Fianamail of Laigin before. Fianamail was certainly no friend of Cashel and, in particular, he now nursed a grudge against Fidelma.
Young Dego, knowing this, admired his lady’s courage for riding immediately to the aid of her Saxon friend, straight into the enemy’s lands. Only the fact that she was a
of the courts allowed her to move so freely, without let or hindrance. No person in the five kingdoms would dare lay hands on her for they would face a terrible retribution; the loss of their honour price, to be outcast forever from society, without the law to protect them. No lawful person would knowingly lay hands on a
of the courts, especially one such as Fidelma who had been honoured by the High King, Sechnassach, himself. The mantle of a
of the courts was a greater protection than being either sister to the King of Muman or, indeed, being a religieuse of the Faith of Christ.
However, it was not those who subscribed to the law that Dego was worried about. He knew the minds of King Fianamail and his advisers could be dark and deep. It would be so easy to have Fidelma killed and swear it was done by a wandering band of outlaws. That was why Colgú had sought out his three best warriors and asked them to accompany his sister to Laigin. He did not order them to go for they would be in as much danger as she was, although he did present each with a wand of office indicating that they acted as his emissaries under the protection of the laws of an embassy. It was the maximum that was in his power to give them as legal protection.
Dego, and his companions, Enda and Aidan, riding behind with eyes constantly alert for danger, had no hesitation in accepting the charge laid on them, in spite of their misgivings about the trustworthiness of the King of Laigin. Where Fidelma went, they would willingly follow, for the people of Cashel reserved a special place of affection for the tall, red-haired young sister of their King.
‘The inn is just ahead,’ called Enda from behind.
Dego screwed up his eyes to penetrate the gloom.
He could see a lantern swinging from its pole, the traditional method
by which innkeepers announced the presence of their establishments – to literally light the way for weary travellers. Dego halted his horse before the group of buildings. A couple of stable boys ran forward from the shadows to take their mounts and hold them while the riders undid their saddlebags and moved towards the tavern doors.
A broad-shouldered, elderly man opened the doors, letting a shaft of light fall across them as they approached the wooden steps on which he stood.
‘Warriors from Muman!’ The man frowned, as his eyes wandered over them, taking in their manner of clothing and weapons. The tone of his voice was not welcoming. ‘We do not often see your kind in this land these days. Do you come in peace?’
Dego halted on the step below him and scowled. ‘We come seeking your hospitality, Morca. Do you refuse to grant it?’
The ponderous innkeeper stared at him for a moment, trying to recognise him in the shadowy light.
‘You know my name, warrior. How so?’
‘I have often stayed here before. We are an embassy from the King of Cashel to the King of Laigin. I say again, do you refuse us hospitality?’
The innkeeper shrugged indifferently.
‘It is not my place to refuse, especially if the company is so eminent as emissaries from the King of Cashel to my own King. If you seek the hospitality of this inn then you shall have it. Your silver is doubtless as good as any other’s.’
He turned ungraciously, without a further word, and went back into the main room of the inn.
This large room had a fire burning in the hearth at one end. There were several tables at which people sat in various stages of eating and drinking. There was an old man at one end who was strumming a
a small U-shaped harp. No one seemed to be paying any attention to his aimless wandering over the strings. Some of those present were obviously locals who had come to be sociable and drink with their neighbours while others were travellers enjoying an early evening meal. The whisper of ‘warriors of Muman’ had spread rapidly through the room and the assembly fell silent as they entered. Even the harpist hesitated and his fingers became still.
Dego glanced nervously around, hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword.
‘Do you see what I mean, lady?’ he whispered to Fidelma. ‘There
is antagonism here and we must be wary.’
Fidelma gave him a swift smile of reassurance and led the way to an unoccupied table, setting down her saddle bag before seating herself. Dego, Enda and Aidan followed her example, yet the eyes of the warriors were not still. The score or so of other people remained quiet, watching them surreptitiously. The innkeeper had removed himself to the far side of the room, deliberately ignoring his new guests.
‘Innkeeper!’ Fidelma’s voice cut sharply across the room.
Reluctantly, the burly man came across to them in the icy silence.
‘You seem unwilling to perform your duties under the law.’
The man called Morca was obviously not expecting her belligerent comment. He recovered from his surprise and glowered at her.
‘What does a religieuse know of the laws of innkeepers?’ he sneered.
Fidelma returned his taunt with an even voice. ‘I am a
qualified to the level of
Does that answer your question?’
The atmosphere seemed to grow even colder.
Dego’s hand brushed against the hilt of his sword again; his muscles tensed.
Fidelma held the innkeeper’s eyes in her own fiery green orbs like a snake ensnaring a rabbit. The man seemed transfixed. Her voice remained soft and mesmeric.
‘You are obliged to provide us with your services and to do it with good grace. If you do not, you will be deemed guilty of
that is refusal to fulfil the obligation placed on you by law. You would then have to pay to each and every one of us the sum of our honour price. If it is deemed that you acted in knowledge and malice towards us, then you could also lose the
of this inn; it could be destroyed and no compensation need be given you. Do I make the law clear to you, innkeeper?’
The man stood staring at her as if trying to summon his lost voice. Finally, he dropped his eyes from her fiery gaze, shuffled his feet and nodded.
‘I meant no disrespect. The times … the times are difficult.’
‘Times may be difficult but the law is the law and you must obey it,’ she replied. ‘Now, my companions and I want beds for the night and we also want a meal – immediately.’
The man bobbed his head once again, his stance changed to one of anxiety to be of service.
‘It shall be provided at once, Sister. At once.’
He turned, calling for his wife and, as he did so, it seemed to be a signal for the silence to cease and the noise of conversation began again. The plaintive notes of the harp recommenced.
Dego sat back, relaxing with a wan smile.
‘The Laigin certainly have no liking for us, lady.’
Fidelma sighed softly. ‘They are, unfortunately, led, thinking they must obey the prejudices of their young King. However, the law must stand above all.’
The innkeeper’s wife came forward with a smile that seemed slightly artificial. She brought them bowls of stew from a cauldron that had been simmering over the fire. Mead and bread were also provided.
For a while, the four visitors concentrated on their meal, having ridden hard that day and not having paused for a midday repast. It was only after they had eaten their fill and were relaxing with their earthenware mugs of mead that Fidelma began to take more notice of her immediate surroundings and of the other guests in the inn.
The other travellers consisted of a couple of religieux in brown homespun and a small group of merchants. In addition to these were the locals, mostly farmers, and there was a blacksmith enjoying a drink and a chat. Seated at the next table were two farmers engaged in conversation. It was some time before Fidelma realised that their conversation was not the usual farmers’ discourse. She frowned, turning herself slightly to listen more attentively.
‘It is right to make an example of the man. The Saxon stranger merits all he gets,’ one of them was saying.
‘The Saxons have always been a plague to this land, raiding and plundering our ships and coastal settlements,’ the other agreed. ‘Pirates they are and we have been too lenient with them for long enough. A war against the Saxons would bring better profits to Fianamail than a war with Muman.’