A Prayer for the Damned

A Mystery of Ancient Ireland

Mysteries of Ancient Ireland featuring Sister Fidelma of Cashel (Volume 17 of 25)

Peter Tremayne

Minotaur Books

CHAPTER ONE
‘Have a care, Ségdae of Imleach, lest you be faced with death and eternal damnation!’
As he spoke, Abbot Ultán smote the table in front of him with a balled fist.
There was an audible gasp from those seated on the opposite side of the dark oak boards. Only the man to whom the words were addressed seemed unconcerned. Ségdae, the tall, silver-haired abbot and bishop of Imleach, sat relaxed in his chair with a smile on his face.
There were six men and two women seated at the table in the sanctum of the abbot of Imleach. On one side was Abbot Ségdae with his steward and two of the venerable scholars of the abbey. Facing them was Ultán, abbot of Cill Ria and bishop of the Uí Thuirtrí, who sat with his scribe and two female members of his abbey.
Now, in the flickering candlelight which lit the gloomy chamber, even Abbot Ultán’s companions began to look concerned at the intemperance of his language.
There was but a moment’s pause after Abbot Ultán’s outburst before Abbot Ségdae’s steward, the rechtaire of the abbey of Imleach, Brother Madagan, leaned forward from his chair at the abbot’s side with an angry scowl on his face.
‘Do you dare to use threats, Ultán of the Uí Thuirtrí? Do you know to whom you speak? You speak to the Comarb, the successor of the Blessed Ailbe, chief bishop of the Faith in this kingdom of Muman. Imleach has never recognised the claims of Ard Macha. Indeed, is it not accepted that the Blessed Ailbe brought the Word of Christ to this place even before Patrick was engaged on his mission to the northern kingdoms? So have a care with your bombast and threats lest your words rebound on your own head.’
The animosity in Brother Madagan’s voice was controlled, the words coldly spoken but none the less threatening for that.
Abbot Ségdae reached forward and laid a restraining hand on his steward’s arm. His soft blue eyes remained fixed upon Bishop Ultán’s flushed, wrathful features and he let forth a sigh.
‘Aequo animo, Brother Madagan,’ he admonished his steward, urging him to calmness. ‘Aequo animo. I am sure that Abbot Ultán did not mean to imply a physical threat to me. That would be unthinkable in one who has been granted the hospitality of this house.’ Was there a slight emphasis, a gentle rebuke in that sentence? “The abbot was but giving voice to his conviction of the righteousness of his cause. Yet perhaps he was a little over-zealous in his choice of words?’
Abbot Ségdae paused, clearly waiting for the response.
There was a silence broken only by the crackle of the dry logs burning in the hearth at the far end of the chamber and by the winter wind moaning round the grey stones of the abbey walls. Even though it was late afternoon, it could have been midnight for it was dubhluacran, the darkest part of the year. Within a few days it would be the phase of the moon anciently called ‘the period of rest’, mi faoide, which started in contrary fashion with the feast of Imbolc, when the ewes began to come into lamb. It was a long, anxious time in the country.
That very noon Abbot Ultán and his three followers had arrived at the abbey and announced that he was a special emissary from Ségéne, abbot and bishop of Ard Macha, the Cormarb or heir to the Blessed Patrick. Ségéne was regarded by many as the senior churchman in the northern kingdom of Ulaidh. Having been granted hospitality, Abbot Ultán and his companions had presented themselves in Abbot Seégdae’s sanctum to deliver their message.
The proposal put forward by Abbot Ultán was simple. Abbot Ségdae, as the most senior churchman in Muman, was to recognise Ségéne of Ard Macha as archiepiscopus, chief bishop of all the kingdoms of Éireann. To support the claim, Abbot Ultán pointed out that the Blessed Patrick the Briton had received the pallium from the bishop of Rome, who was regarded as the chief bishop of the Faith. Patrick had then proceeded to convert the people of Éireann. He had made Ard Macha his primary seat and it was therefore argued that the bishops of that place should hold religious governance over all the five kingdoms and their sub-kingdoms.
Abbot Ségdae had listened in polite silence while the northern cleric had put forward his argument, which was delivered in such blunt terms as almost to constitute a demand. When the envoy had sat back, Abbot Ségdae had pointed out, politely but with firmness, that churchmen and scholars from the other kingdoms of Éireann would argue that Patrick the Briton, blessed as he was, was not the first who had preached the New Faith in the land. Many others had come before him and one of these had converted Ailbe, son of Olcnais of Araid Cliach in the north-west of Muman, who had established his seat at Imleach. It was the great abbey in which they were presently gathered that was regarded by all the people of Muman as the chief centre of their faith, and when, in recent times, the abbots and bishops of Ard Macha had begun to assert their claims, they were immediately challenged by Imleach and most of the other churches in each of the five kingdoms of Éireann.
It had been at that point that Abbot Ultán, a vain man of middle age, quite handsome in a dark, saturnine way, had pounded the table with his fist, clearly unused to anyone challenging his authority.
Following Abbot Ségdae’s gentle rebuke, there was silence round the table. All eyes were upon the arrogant envoy of Ard Macha.
Abbot Ultán flushed as he regarded the open hostility on the face of Brother Madagan and the others who sat across the table on either side of his host. Beside him, his scribe, Brother Drón, a thin, elderly man, with sharp features and birdlike movements, bent quickly forward and whispered in his ear, ‘Aurea mediocritas.’ He was urging the abbot to employ moderation: the ‘golden mean’. Attack was no way to win an argument when faced with such opposition.
Abbot Ultán finally shrugged and tried to force a smile.
‘The words were spoken in the zealousness of my cause and intended no threat, physical or otherwise, to you, my dear brother in Christ, or to anyone here,’ he said unctuously. But there was no disguising the falseness of his tone. ‘I would simply ask for a moment more in order to clarify my argument, for I fear that I must have presented it badly.’
‘We have heard Ard Macha’s argument and do not agree with it,’ snapped Brother Madagan.
Again Abbot Ségdae laid a hand on his arm and said, without glancing at him: ‘My steward, too, is zealous for the rights of this abbey. Audi alteram partem – we will hear the other side, for there are two sides to every question. You seem to think, my dear brother in Christ’ – Ultán glanced up sharply: was he being mocked? – ‘you seem to imply that there is more to set before us for our consideration. Is that so?’
Abbot Ultán nodded quickly. ‘My scribe, Brother Drón, will continue for me.’
The sharp-faced scribe, seated at Abbot Ultán’s side, cleared his throat. ‘I beg leave to read from a sacred book of Ard Macha.’ He turned quickly to the fair-faced sister of the Faith at his side. ‘Sister Marga, the book, please.’
Thus addressed, his neighbour reached into a satchel that she was carrying and drew forth a small calf-bound book, which she handed to Brother Dron. The scribe took it and turned to a pre-marked page and began to intone: ‘A celestial messenger appeared before the Blessed Patrick and spoke to him, saying, “The Lord God has given all the territories of the Irish in modum paruchiae to you and to your city, which the Irish call in their language Ard Macha—’ ”
Abbot Ségdae interrupted. ‘Brother Dron, I presume that you are reading from the book that you call Liber Angeli? It is already known to us; indeed, we have asked Ard Macha for permission to send a scribe to make a copy for our own scriptorium.’
Brother Drón looked up with a frown. ‘I am, indeed, reading from the Book of the Angel. In virtue of this miraculous appearance to the Blessed Patrick, Ard Macha claims to hold supreme authority over the churches and monasteries of the five kingdoms of Éireann. All the houses of the Faith must defer to the authority of Ard Macha and pay tribute to it both spiritual and material.’ Brother Drón tapped the vellum page with his forefinger. ‘That is what is written here, Abbot Ségdae. This is why we have come to ask your obedience to this sacred instruction.’
Abbot Ségdae’s smile seemed to broaden as he shook his head.
‘When I was a young man, I visited your great abbey at Ard Macha.’ He spoke slowly, almost dreamily. ‘I met with its scribes and scholars.’ He paused and for a few moments they waited in silence, but he did not continue. He seemed to have drifted off into his memories.
Brother Drón glanced nervously at Abbot Ultán.
‘What relevance has this?’ he finally demanded.
‘Relevance?’ Abbot Ségdae looked up and frowned as if surprised by the question. Then he smiled again. ‘I was just thinking back to the time before this celestial message was ever known at Ard Macha. This book and its claims appear to have only recently come to light.’
At that moment, Sister Marga, who had been taking notes, snapped her quill. Brother Drón turned to her with a frown, she muttered a hurried apology.
Brother Madagan ignored the interruption and added cuttingly: ‘Not even Muirchú maccu Machtheri, the first great biographer of Patrick, argued that Ard Macha was the place wherein Patrick’s earthly remains repose. It is well known that he was buried at Dun Padraig, and he favoured that place above all others as the centre of his church. If you would venerate the Blessed Patrick, then it is to Dun Padraig you must go.’
There was no mistaking the anger on Abbot Ultán’s face. For a while, he seemed to be physically fighting with himself to prevent a further outburst.
‘Am I to take these words back to the archiepiscopus Ségéne, Comarb of the Blessed Patrick?’ he finally demanded, again making it sound as if the words contained some threat.
Abbot Ségdae inclined his head slightly.
‘You may take these words back to the abbot and bishop of Ard Macha,’ he said shortly. ‘Imleach recognises neither his claims to be archiepiscopus nor the seniority of Ard Macha among the churches of the five kingdoms.’
‘You should think carefully before you send a final refusal,’ snapped Abbot Ultán.
Abbot Ségdae sighed. ‘We keep coming to the same end, my dear brother in Christ. How else can we reply when we of Imleach do not recognise the claims of Ard Macha? It is as simple as that. There are many religious houses even in your own northern kingdoms which refuse to accept that Ard Macha is the centre of the paruchia Patricii. Why, then, should we recognise Ard Macha if the houses of Ulaidh do not?’ He held up his hand as if to stop Abbot Ultán from interrupting. ‘I know this for a fact, my dear brother in Christ.’
‘Name them,’ challenged Brother Drón irritably. ‘Name those religious houses of the north who would deny the right of Ard Macha to hold primacy in the five kingdoms.’
Abbot Ultán’s lips compressed into a thin line and he cast an annoyed glance at his scribe. It seemed that he had already realised that Abbot Ségdae was not one to state something without knowing the facts. Brother Dr6n might have thought he could call the abbot’s bluff, but Ultán suspected that his antagonist did not indulge in bluff.
Again Abbot Ségdae responded with a soft smile.
‘The Abbey of Ard Sratha, in the territory of the Uí Fiachracha, denies your claims. Did not the Blessed Eógan build that stone church with his own hands over a hundred years and more ago creating one of the most important centres of learning in the north?’
Brother Madagan, his steward, was nodding in approval.
‘The Blessed Patrick himself founded the house at Dumnach hUa nAilello and left three of his disciples there to run its affairs – Macet, Cétgen and Rodan,’ he added. ‘Their works resound throughout the five kingdoms and the bishops there deny that Ard Macha is more important than they are. In the kingdom of Laigin, the house of Brigid at Cill Dara, in the land of the Uí Faéláin, claims that it should be the chief house of the Faith in the five kingdoms. It is Cill Dara that Cogitosus calls the principalem ecclesiam. Why should we not recognise Cill Dara rather than Ard Macha?’
Abbot Ségdae held up his hand for silence when it seemed that Brother Madagan would continue. He looked directly at Abbot Ultán with a challenging smile.
‘I am sure that you do not wish us to continue the listing of all the foundations that do not recognise the claims of Abbot Ségéne to this title archiepiscopus?’
Abbot Ultán’s face was crimson. He did not reply immediately.
‘Although we may dwell here, in the south,’ went on Abbot Ségdae, and his tone was not devoid of a certain satisfactory relish, ‘we are not without eyes to see and ears to hear. We are not unlearned in these matters.’ Abbot Ultán began to clear his throat angrily, and Abbot Ségdae suddenly rose.
‘Enough!’ he said sternly, holding his hands as if to cover his ears. ‘Ard Macha may pursue what course it likes, Abbot Ultán. But, as there can be no agreement between us for the moment, let us end this argument now. The day after tomorrow is scheduled as a great occasion in our king’s fortress of Cashel. The sister of our king is going to be married. Tomorrow morning, my steward and I ride for Cashel where I am to preside over the religious rites. It is a time for peace and jubilation. I am told that many kings, even those from the north, as well as the High King himself, will be attending. So come, dear brother in Christ, let us close this day as should true brothers in the Faith: in peace and fraternity. Let us put our differences aside and set out for Cashel together.’
Abbot Ultán scowled in response to the appeal.
‘It was my intention to journey on to Cashel, but not to make merry,’ he replied sourly.
Abbot Ségdae groaned inwardly. He said nothing; nor did he sit down again even when Abbot Ultán did not rise to join him. Ultán’s three companions had all risen out of deference, for it was not seemly to remain seated when their host, an abbot and bishop himself, was on his feet. Eventually, with reluctance and marked ill manners, Abbot Ultán rose as well.
‘I shall be journeying to Cashel to lodge a protest at this marriage,’ he explained when no one spoke.
For the first time, a look of surprise crossed Abbot Ségdae’s face. ‘A protest? About what?’
‘A protest that a sister of the Faith should be marrying at all, let alone marrying a foreigner, a Saxon brother who, of his own volition, should adhere to the decisions of the Council at Witebia and follow the course of the rules laid down by Rome.’
Abbot Ségdae was frowning. ‘Why would you protest against the marriage of the lady Fidelma?’
‘The lady Fidelma?’ There was a sneer in his voice. ‘As I recall, she took vows to serve the Faith in Cill Dara. We believe that it is wrong for the religious to marry. It is a sacred teaching that we can only hope to serve our Lord through chastity.’
Abbot Ségdae shook his head quickly.
‘That is your interpretation and belief. Not even all those who follow the rules of Rome agree with you. True, there are some who are influential in arguing the path of celibacy, but the concept is not yet universal. Even at Rome celibacy is not a rule. The house of Ard Macha itself, which you claim as your superior, is a mixed house.’
‘It will not be for long,’ Abbot Ultán assured him. ‘The archiepiscopus has decided to follow the ruling of the Council of Nicaea, where such marriages were condemned.’
‘Condemned but not outlawed,’ Brother Madagan pointed out.
‘You quibble over words,’ snapped Abbot Ultán. ‘I will make my protest known in Cashel.’ He turned suddenly, without the courtesy of a reconciliatory farewell, and left the chamber, followed by his small entourage.
Abbot Ségdae stood for a moment looking after him as if deep in thought. The others stood round him waiting nervously. He sighed, and then dismissed the scholars. After they had left, he said softly to Brother Madagan: ‘Make sure that Abbot Ultán and his companions are treated with the utmost respect while they are our guests and, indeed, if they journey to Cashel with us tomorrow, that they continue to be treated with courtesy. I regret that Abbot Ultán is not the most diplomatic envoy that Ard Macha has sent us.’
Brother Madagan’s expression was anxious. ‘I do not like this. I have a feeling that all will not be well at Cashel. I feel it like a chill within me. I feel it and I do fear it.’
Abbot Ségdae shook his head with a smile. ‘Abbot Ultán threatens wrath and damnation. Yet he is of the Faith and would not dare make physical threats. There is no need to fear him.’
Brother Madagan remained unhappy. ‘I feel like a sailor who stands aboard his ship on a quiet sea and is aware of the lack of wind, the silence in the air, and the dark clouds gathering on the horizon. The sailor knows that something destructive is approaching. I know it. Is it not right to fear it? Storm clouds are gathering. I pray they will pass over Cashel without breaking.’
The same wind that moaned round the grey buildings of the abbey of Imleach was blowing over the great limestone peak of Cashel, an outcrop of rock which dominated the plains around it and whose tall fortress walls enclosed the many buildings which composed the palace of the ancient kings of Muman. Sharing the rock was the church, the cathedra or seat of the bishop of Cashel, a tall circular building with connecting corridors to the palace. There was a system of stables, outhouses, hostels for visitors and quarters for the bodyguard of the kings as well as a monastic cloister for the religious who served the cathedral. Below the rock, sheltered in its shadow, was the market town that had grown under its protection to be the hub of the largest and most south-westerly kingdom of Éireann.
The wind was bringing icy showers of sleet with it, cold and hard like little darts, painful to the exposed flesh of the face. The elderly Brother Conchobhar, sheltering as best he could from the treacherous blasts, knew that snow had lain on the distant mountains since that afternoon and a thin layer had draped itself over Cashel and the surrounding plain. The sleet would soon drive the snow layer away, but the old man preferred snow to sleet.
The religieux shivered and pressed back against the wall as he gazed with narrowed eyes into the darkness of the sky above. He was an astrologer as well as the apothecary at the palace and did not need a clear sky to know the position of the heavenly bodies above him. He knew that the moon was waxing gibbous; that it was in the house of an Partán, the sign of the Crab, and it was opposing the warlike planet of an Cosnaighe, the Defender. Brother Conchobhar shook his head sadly.
‘Ah, Fidelma, Fidelma,’ he whispered. ‘Did I not teach you better than this? Did I not show you the ancient art of nemgnacht, the study of the heavens? Why did you agree to marry on this feast of Imbolc when a few days later the new moon would rise and the evil signs diminish?’ He paused and drew his cloak more firmly round his bent shoulders. ‘There is some evil in the air, I swear it. Have a care, Fidelma of Cashel. Have a care.’