The storm broke with sudden violence. The white flash of lightning heralded a crash of angry thunder. A moment later the rain began to fall in heavy, icy droplets.
The horse and rider had just emerged from the shelter of a forest and halted on a ridge overlooking a broad, low level plain. The rider was a woman, clad in a long, brown woollen cloak and hood, thick and warm, wrapping her body against the late autumnal chill. She turned her gaze to the sky, unafraid of the frenzy of the tempest. The clouds were dark grey, rolling close to the ground and obscuring the distant mountain tops like a mist. Here and there, against this background, were patches of darker, scudding clouds, black and ominous, bringing the threatening thunder with them.
The woman blinked as the cold rain splattered against her face; it was chilly to the point of being painful. Her face was youthful, attractive without being pretty, and with rebellious strands of red hair streaking from under the hood of her cloak across her broad forehead. There was a faint hint of freckles on the pale skin. The eyes seemed momentarily grey, reflecting the colour of the sombre skies, yet when the lightning flashed there was a hint of green fire in them. She sat her horse with a youthful agility, her tall figure firmly in control of the restless animal. A closer examination would have revealed the silver crucifix hung around her neck and the habit of a religieuse hidden by the heavy riding cloak and hood.
Sister Fidelma, of the community of the Blessed Brigid of Kildare, had been expecting the approach of the storm for some hours now and was not surprised by its apparent sudden eruption. The signs had been there for a while. She had observed the closed pine cones on the trees, the withdrawn petals of the daisies and dandelions and the swelling stems of the meadow trefoil, as she rode along. All spoke of the coming rain to her keen, observing eye. Even the last of the swallows, preparing to disappear from the skies of Éireann for the winter months, had been keeping close to the ground; a sure indication of the tempest to come. If further indications were necessary, as she had been passing a woodsman's cabin, in the forest behind her, she had seen the smoke of the cabin fire descending instead of spiralling upwards; descending and causing small eddies around the building before dispersing into the cold air. Smoke behaving in such a manner, she knew from experience, was invariably an indication of rains to come.
She was fully prepared for the storm, though not its ferocity. As she halted a moment or two, she wondered whether to return into the forest and seek shelter there until the gusting rains had abated. But she was only a few miles from her destination and the urgency of the message she had received, to come with all speed, made her dig her heels into the sides of her horse and urge it forward down the track leading onto the great plain towards the distant hill that was just visible in spite of the driving rain and darkness of the sky.
This spectacular mound was her objective; a large outcrop of limestone rock rising over two hundred feet to dominate the plain in every direction. It rose in precipitous fashion and now and then the lightning would silhouette it. Fidelma found a constriction in her throat as she gazed on its familiar contours. She could see the fortified buildings which commanded the natural stronghold - Cashel, seat of the kings of Muman, the largest of the five kingdoms of Éireann. It was the place of her birth and her childhood.
As she rode forward, head bowed into the teeth of the wild, gusty wind, which drove the soaking rain at her, she felt a curious mixture of emotions. She felt an excited pleasure at the idea of seeing her brother, Colgú, after several years of absence but she also experienced anxiety as to why he should have sent her a message requesting her to leave her community at Kildare and hasten to Cashel as a matter of urgency.
All through her journey, questions assailed her mind, even though she could not possibly answer them. She had rebuked herself several times for wasting time and emotional energy on the matter. Fidelma had been raised in an old discipline. She found herself remembering the advice of her former master, the Brehon Morann of Tara: 'Do not place eggs on the table before you have visited the hen.' It was no use worrying about the answer to the problem before she knew the questions that she must ask.
Instead, she tried to clear her mind of such worries and sought refuge in the art of the dercad, the act of meditation, by which countless generations of Irish mystics had achieved the state of sitcháin or peace, calming extraneous thought and mental irritations. She was a regular practitioner of this ancient art in times of stress although some members of the Faith, such as Ultan, the archbishop of Armagh, denounced its usage as a pagan art because it had been practised by the Druids. Even the Blessed Patrick himself, a Briton who had been prominent in establishing the Faith in the five kingdoms two centuries before, had expressly forbade some of the meditative arts of self-enlightenment. However, the dercad, while frowned upon, was not yet forbidden. It was a means of relaxing and calming the riot of thoughts within a troubled mind.
In such fashion did her journey through the blustery rains, with the continuous crash of thunder and flashes of white lightning, draw Fidelma nearer to the fortress of the kings of Muman. She reached the edge of the township almost before she realised it.
Around the foot of the limestone outcrop, under the shadow of the fortress, a large market town had slowly arisen over the centuries. The day had now darkened considerably as the storm continued unabated. Fidelma reached the entrance of the town and began to guide her horse into the narrow streets. She could smell the pungent odour of turf fires and see, here and there, the dim light from numerous flickering lanterns. Suddenly, out of the dark shadows, a tall warrior, holding a lantern aloft in one hand, a spear loosely but professionally held in his shield hand, challenged her entrance.
'Who are you and what business have you here in Cashel?'
Sister Fidelma drew rein on her horse.
'I am Fidelma of Kildare,' she replied, her voice loud in order to be heard against the noise of the storm. Then she decided to correct herself. 'I am Fidelma, sister of Colgú.'
The warrior let out a low whistle and stiffened slightly.
'Pass in safety, lady. We were told to expect your coming.'
He withdrew back into the shadows to continue his uncomfortable task as a sentinel against the dangers of the night.
Fidelma guided her horse through the dark, narrow streets of the township. Her ears picked up the sound of occasional laughter and lively music coming from some of the buildings as she rode by. She crossed the town square and started towards the track which wound up to the top of the rocky hill. It had been occupied since time immemorial. Fidelma's ancestors, the Éoganachta, the sons of Eoghan, had settled there over three hundred years ago when they claimed the kingship of Muman for their own, making the rock into their political, and later ecclesiastical, centre.
Fidelma knew every inch of it for her father, Failbe Fland, had once been king of Cashel.
'Do not go further!' screeched a thin, reedy voice, rousing Fidelma abruptly from her revelry.
Fidelma halted sharply and stared down in surprise at the shapeless figure which had leapt out in front of her horse to barthe way. Only by the voice did Fidelma realise that the mess of furs and rags was a woman. The figure crouched, drenched by the rain and leaning heavily on a stick. Fidelma peered closely but could not discern the woman's features. That she was old was obvious but all was obscured save, by the lightning's illumination, the glimpse of white, rain-soaked hair, plastered to her face.
'Who are you?' demanded Fidelma.
'It matters not. Go no further, if you value life!'
Fidelma raised an eyebrow in surprise at this response.
'What threat do you make, old woman?' she commanded harshly.
'I make no threats, lady,' cackled the crone. 'I merely warn you. Death has settled in that grim palace yonder. Death will encompass all who go there. Leave this miserable place, if you value life!'
A sudden flash and roll of thunder momentarily distracted Fidelma as she tried to still her skittish mount. When she turned back, the old woman had disappeared. Fidelma compressed her lips and gave an inward shrug. Then she turned her horse along the track, up to the gates of the palace of the kings of Muman. Twice more she was challenged in her ascent and each time, at her reply, the warriors let her through with signs of respect.
A stable lad came running forward to take her horse as she finally slid from her mount in the stone-flagged courtyard, which was illuminated by oscillating lanterns, dancing with mysterious motions in the wind. Fidelma paused only to pet her horse on its muzzle and remove her leather saddle bag before striding hurriedly towards the main door of the building. It opened to receive her before she could knock upon it.
Inside she was in a large hall, warmed by a great roaring fire in a central hearth almost as big as a small room. The hall was filled with several people who turned to look at her and whisper among themselves. A servant came forward to take her bag andhelp her remove her travelling cloak. She shook the rain-sodden garment from her shoulders and hurried forward to warm herself at the fire. A second servant had, so the first told her, departed to inform her brother, Colgú, that she had arrived.
Of the people who stood about in the great hall of the palace, examining her drenched figure with curiosity, Fidelma saw no friendly familiar face. There was an air of studied solemnity in the hall. In fact, Fidelma caught a deeper air of melancholy about the place. Even an atmosphere of hostility. A dour-faced religious, standing with hands clasped as if in ostensive prayer, was standing to one side of the fire.
'God give you a good day, brother,' Fidelma greeted him with a smile, attempting to strike up a conversation. 'Why are there so many long faces in this place?'
The monk turned and stared hard at her, his face seeming to grow even more lugubrious.
'Surely you do not expect merry-making at such a time as this, sister?' he sniffed reprovingly and turned away before she could demand a further explanation.
Fidelma stood bewildered for a moment before glancing around in an attempt to find a more communicative soul.
She found a thin-faced man staring arrogantly at her. As she raised her eyes to meet his haughty examination, a chord of memory struck. Before she could articulate it, the man had walked across to her.
'So, Fidelma of Kildare,' his voice was brittle and without warmth, 'your brother, Colgú, has sent for you, has he?'
Fidelma was puzzled by his unfriendly tone but she responded with a smile of greeting as she identified the man.
'I recognise you as Forbassach, Brehon to the king of Laigin. What are you doing so far away from Fearna?'
The man did not return her smile.
'You have a good memory, Sister Fidelma. I have heard of your deeds at the court of Oswy of Northumbria and the service you performed in Rome. However, your talent will avail thiskingdom naught. The judgment will not be impeded by your clever reputation.'
Fidelma found her smile of greeting frozen for a moment. It was as if she had been addressed in an unfamiliar language and she tried to prevent the look of incomprehension spreading on her features. Brehon Morann of Tara had warned that a good advocate should never let an adversary know what they were thinking and certainly Forbassach was indicating that, somehow, he was her adversary; though in what matter she could not begin to guess.
'I am sure, Forbassach of Fearna, that your statement is profound but I have no understanding of it,' she replied slowly, allowing her smile to relax a little.
Forbassach's face reddened.
'Are you being insolent with me, sister? You are Colgú's own sister and yet you pretend ...'
'Your pardon, Forbassach.'
A quiet, masculine voice interrupted the tones of anger that were building in the voice of the Brehon.
Fidelma glanced up. At her side was a young man, about her own age. He was tall, nearly six feet in height, dressed in the manner of a warrior. He was cleanshaven, with dark, curly hair, and he seemed ruggedly handsome at first glance. His features were agreeable and attractive. She had no time for a more careful appraisal. She noticed that he wore a necklet of twisted gold, worked with ornate embellishments, which showed him to be a member of the Order of the Golden Collar, the elite bodyguards of the kings of Muman. He turned to her with a pleasant smile.
'Your pardon, Sister Fidelma. I am instructed to bid you welcome to Cashel and bring you to your brother at once. If you will be so good as to follow me ... ?'
She hesitated but Forbassach had turned away scowling towards a small group who stood muttering and casting glances in her direction. Fidelma was perplexed. But she dismissed thematter and began to follow the young warrior across the paved hall, hurrying slightly to keep up with his leisurely but lengthy pace.
'I do not understand, warrior.' She gasped a little in her effort to keep level. 'What is Forbassach of Fearna doing here? What makes him so petulant?'
The warrior made a sound suspiciously like a disparaging sniff.
'Forbassach is an envoy from the new king of Laigin, young Fianamail.'
'It does not explain his disagreeable greeting nor does it explain why everyone is so mournful. Cashel used to be a palace filled with laughter.'
The warrior looked uncomfortable.
'Your brother will explain how matters stand, sister.'
He reached a door but before he could raise his hand to knock it was flung open.
A young man came hurrying forward through the doorway. It was obvious to even the most cursory examination that he and Fidelma were related. They shared the same tallness of build, the same red hair and changeable green eyes; the same facial structure and indefinable quality of movement.
Brother and sister embraced with warmth. They broke apart breathlessly and held each other at arm's length, critically examining one another.
'The years have been good to you, Fidelma,' observed Colgú with satisfaction.
'And to you, brother. I was anxious when I received your message. It has been many years since I was last in Cashel. I feared some mishap might have befallen you. Yet you look hale and hearty. But those people in the great hall, why are they so grim and melancholy?'
Colgú mac Failbe Fland drew his sister inside the room, turning to the tall warrior: 'I will send for you later, Cass,' hesaid, before following Fidelma into the chamber. It was a reception room with a fire smouldering in a corner. A servant came forward bearing a tray on which were two goblets of mulled wine; the heat from them was causing little wisps of steam to rise from the hot liquid. Having placed the tray on a table, the servant unobtrusively withdrew while Colgú motioned Fidelma to a chair in front of the fire.
'Warm yourself after your long journey from Kildare,' Colgú instructed, as the thunder still rumbled outside. 'The day is still angry with itself,' he observed, taking one of the goblets of mulled wine and handing it to his sister.
Fidelma grinned mischievously as she took the goblet and raised it.
'Indeed, it is. But let us drink to better days to come.'
'An "amen" to that, little sister,' agreed Colgú.
Fidelma sipped the wine appreciatively.
"There is much to talk of, brother,' she said. 'Much has happened since we last set eyes on one another. Indeed, I have journeyed to many places: to the island of Colmcille, to the land of the Saxons and even to Rome itself.' She paused, as she suddenly noticed that there was some quality of pensiveness and anxiety in his eyes. 'But you have yet to answer my question. Why is there this air of melancholy in the palace?'
She saw a frown pass across her brother's brow and paused.
'You always did have acute observation, little sister,' he sighed.
'What is it, Colgú?'
Colgú hesitated a moment and then grimaced.
'I am afraid that it was not for a family reunion that you were asked here,' he confessed gently.
Fidelma gazed at him, waiting for her brother to elaborate. When he did not, she said quietly: 'I had not expected that it was. What is the matter?'
Colgú glanced almost surreptitiously around, as if to make sure that no one was eavesdropping.
'The king ...'he began. 'King Cathal has succumbed to the Yellow Plague. He is lying in his chamber at death's door. The physicians do not give him long.'
Fidelma blinked; yet, deep down, she was not entirely surprised at the news. For two years now the Yellow Plague had spread itself across Europe, devastating the population. Tens of thousands had died from its virulence. It had spared neither lowly peasant, self-satisfied bishop, nor even lofty kings. Only eighteen months ago, when the plague had first arrived in Éireann, the joint High Kings of Ireland, Blathmac and Diarmuid, had both died within days of one another at Tara. A few months ago, Fáelán, the king of Laigin, had died from its ravages. Still the plague raged on unabated. Throughout the land were countless orphaned children, whose mothers and fathers had been carried off by the plague, left helpless and starving. Some members of the Faith, such as the Abbot Ultan of Ardbraccan, had responded by setting up orphanages and fighting the plague, while others, such as Colmán, the chief professor of the Blessed Finnbarr's college in Cork, had simply taken his fifty pupils and fled to some remote island in an attempt to escape it. Fidelma was well aware of the scourge of the Yellow Plague.
'Is that why you sent for me?' she asked. 'Because our cousin is dying?'
Colgú shook his head swiftly.
'King Cathal instructed me to send for you before he succumbed to the fevers of plague. Now that he cannot instruct you, it falls to me to do so.'
He reached across and took her by the elbow. 'But first you must rest from your journey. There is time enough for this later. Come, I have ordered your old room to be prepared.'
Fidelma tried to suppress her sigh of impatience.
'You know me well enough, brother. You know that I will not rest while there is a mystery to be explained. You keepgoading my imagination. Come, explain what this mystery is and then I will rest.'
Colgú was about to speak when there came the sound of raised voices beyond the door. There was the noise of a scuffle and Colgú was moving towards the door to enquire what was happening when it burst open and Forbassach of Fearna stood framed in it. He was red-faced and breathing heavily with exertion.
Behind him, his handsome face scowling in anger, was the young warrior, Cass.
'Forgive me, my lord. I could not stop him.'
Colgú stood facing the envoy of the king of Laigin with displeasure on his face.
'What does this demonstration of bad manners mean, Forbassach? Surely you forget yourself?'
Forbassach thrust out his chin. His arrogant and contemptuous manner did not desert him.
'I need an answer to take back to Fianamail, the king of Laigin. Your king is on the verge on death, Colgú. Therefore it is up to you to answer the charges of Laigin.'
Fidelma set her face into an immobile expression to disguise her frustration that she did not comprehend the meaning of this confrontation.
Colgú had flushed with anger.
'Cathal of Muman still lives, Forbassach. While he lives, his is the voice to answer your charge. Now, you have breached the hospitality of this court. As tánaiste I demand your withdrawal from this place. When the court of Cashel needs to communicate with you then you will be summoned to hear its voice.'
Forbassach's thin lips twisted into a condescending sneer.
'I know that you merely seek to delay the answer, Colgú. As soon as I saw the arrival of your sister, Fidelma of Kildare, I realised that you will seek to delay and prevaricate. It will avail you nothing. Laigin still demands an answer. Laigin demands justice!'
Colgú's facial muscles worked in an effort to control his anger.
'Fidelma, instruct me in law.' He addressed his sister without taking his eyes from Forbassach. 'This envoy from Laigin has, I believe, overstepped the bounds of sacred hospitality. He has intruded where he should not and has been insulting. May I order him to be removed physically from this court?'
Fidelma glanced at the disdainful Brehon of Fearna.
'Do you make an apology for an unwarranted intrusion into a private chamber, Forbassach?' she asked. 'And do you make an apology for your insulting manner to the heir-apparent of Cashel?'
Forbassach's chin jerked up, his scowl deepening.
'Then you, as a Brehon, should know the law. You will be thrown out of this court.'
Colgú glanced at the warrior called Cass and gave an imperceptible nod.
The tall man laid a hand on Forbassach's shoulder.
The Laigin envoy twisted in the grip and his face reddened.
'Fianamail of Laigin shall hear of this insult, Colgú. It will serve to compound your guilt when you are judged before the High King's assembly at Tara!'
The warrior had spun the Laigin envoy on his heel and propelled him through the doorway without any apparent display of undue force. Then, with an apologetic gesture to Colgú, he shut it behind them.
Fidelma, turning to her brother, who had now relaxed from his stiff posture, showed her bewilderment.
'I think that it is about time that you told me what is really happening. What is the mystery here?' she demanded with quiet authority.
SUFFER LITTLE CHILDREN. Copyright © 1995 by Peter Tremayne. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.