Fidelma of Cashel leaned easily against the taffrail at the stern of the merchant ship, watching the receding coastline. ‘It is good to be heading home, Cousin,’ smiled the tall man with red hair who stood by her side. He could have been Fidelma’s brother, so alike were they. He was about her age, in his late twenties, with pleasant features – although his jaw was more aggressive than hers, square and jutting so that the eye noticed it first rather than the humorous features and sparkling grey-green eyes. His clothing was well cut and he could have been mistaken for a wealthy merchant. However, his muscular figure gave him the appearance of a warrior.
Fidelma turned her head slightly towards him.
‘It would be a lie if I denied it, Cousin Bressal. I have been absent from my brother’s kingdom for far too long. God willing, we will have an agreeable voyage ahead back to Aird Mhór.’
Bressal, Prince of the Eóghanacht of Cashel, nodded solemnly.
‘The weather is set fair, and although the winds are not strong, at least they are blowing from the south. When our captain changes tack, the wind will be against our backs the whole way.’
Fidelma turned back to the vanishing coastline. There was, indeed, a slight wind from the south and the day seemed fine and warm, although the sunshine was hazy. The sturdy trading vessel – the Gé Ghúirainn, the Barnacle Goose – was half a day out from the coastal salt marshes of Gwenrann and, for the moment, driving into the prevailing wind.
Bressal glanced up at the sails. ‘Our good captain, Murchad, will be turning to catch the wind soon,’ he observed. ‘But I understand that you know him and this ship very well?’
‘I was amazed when I found the Barnacle Goose harboured in Naoned when we arrived,’ conceded Fidelma. ‘I spent many days on this ship when Murchad took a group of pilgrims from Aird Mhór to the holy shrine of the Blessed James in Galicia.’
Bressal’s smile broadened. ‘I cannot see you in the role of a pilgrim, Fidelma. I have never understood why you entered the religious in the first place.’
Fidelma was not annoyed by her cousin’s remarks. They had grown up together and knew one another as friends as well as family. Fidelma shrugged, for she had asked herself a similar question many times.
‘It was our cousin Abbot Laisran who persuaded me to do so. I had qualified at the law school of Morann at Tara and did not know what to do to progress in life.’
‘But you had qualified as an anruth, one degree below the highest the law school could bestow. Why didn’t you continue and become an ollamh, a professor of the law? I always thought that with your ambition you would do so. You could have become Brehon to the King.’
Fidelma grimaced. ‘I didn’t want it said that I owed my career to my family. Nor did I want to be tied down.’
‘I would have thought that entering Bridget’s abbey at Cill Dara was exactly that – being tied down with rules and restrictions.’
‘I didn’t know it then,’ Fidelma said defensively. ‘The abbey wanted someone trained in law. Well, you have heard why I left Cill Dara and, to be honest, I have not joined any institution since then. Instead, I have willingly served my brother, the King, whenever he needed me.’
‘Eadulf told me that you had come several days’ journey downriver from the land of the Burgunds.’
‘We were attending a Council at Autun with some of the bishops and abbots of Éireann. We left Abbot Ségdae of Imleach and the others still in discussion there. Our services were no longer needed and so we determined to return to the coast and find a ship to take us home.’
It had been a surprise to Fidelma to arrive at the busy port of Naoned and find, almost among the first people that she saw, her own Cousin Bressal striding along the wooden quays. He told her that her brother, King Colgú, had sent him to the salt marshes of Gwenrann to negotiate a trading treaty with Alain Hir, the King of the Bretons, to take cargoes of salt back to Muman. Salt was highly prized in the Five Kingdoms of Éireann, so prized that the laws warned that everyone desired it and some might stop at nothing to get it. The salt of Gwenrann – the name, as it had been explained to Fidelma, meant the ‘white land’ for that is what the great salt marshes looked like – had been renowned from time beyond memory, and was much valued.
It was even more of a surprise for Fidelma to find that the ship her cousin had made his voyage on was the Barnacle Goose, in which she had had one of her most dangerous adventures. It was purely by chance that the ship had moored in the port of Naoned. The salt pans of Gwenrann lay westward along the coast, and the cargo holds of the vessel had already been filled with the sacks of salt wrested from the sea. Bressal had found that King Alain Hir had gone to his fortress at Naoned, and protocol had dictated that Bressal should take the time before his voyage home to give his thanks and farewells to the Breton King. The treaty was not merely for one cargo of salt but for ensuring a continuance of trade between the ports of Muman and ‘Little Britain’.
‘It was a lucky thing that we had to come to Naoned,’ Bressal said, echoing her unspoken thoughts as she contemplated the coincidence, ‘otherwise we would have missed each other entirely. Ah!’
The exclamation was uttered in response to a shout. It came from a sturdy, thickset man with greying hair and weather-beaten features. He could not be mistaken for anything other than the sailor he was. Murchad, the captain of the Barnacle Goose, was in his late forties, with a prominent nose which accentuated the close set of his sea-grey eyes. Their forbidding aspect was offset by a twinkling, almost hidden humour. As Bressal had earlier guessed, members of the crew were now springing to the sheets, hauling on the ropes while the mate, Gurvan, threw his weight on the great tiller, helped by another crewman, causing the ship to begin its turn so that the wind was at its back. For some moments, Fidelma and Bressal clung to the taffrail to steady themselves as the deck rose and the masts above them swayed, the sails cracking as the winds caught them. Then all was silent and the ship seemed to be gliding calmly over the blue waters again.
Murchad walked across the deck to speak with Gurvan and obviously checked the direction of the vessel. Then he turned with a friendly smile to Fidelma and her companion and went below.
‘A man of few words,’ smiled Bressal.
‘But a good seaman,’ replied Fidelma. ‘You know that you are in safe hands when Murchad is in charge. I have seen him handle storms and an attack by pirates as if they were ordinary occurrences.’
‘Having sailed with him from Aird Mhór, I have no doubts of it,’ rejoined her cousin. ‘Still, I shan’t be sorry to set foot ashore again. I am happier on land than I am at sea.’ He paused and looked around. ‘Speaking of which…I have not seen your husband Eadulf since we raised sail.’
Fidelma’s expression was one of amusement although, examined closely, there was some concern there too.
‘He is below. I am afraid that Eadulf is not a born sailor. Murchad has already warned him that the worst thing to do is to go below when you feel nausea. Better to be on deck and concentrate your gaze on the horizon. Alas, Eadulf was not receptive to advice. I don’t doubt that he is suffering the consequences.’
Bressal smiled in sympathy. ‘He is a good man in spite of—’ He suddenly hesitated and flushed.
‘In spite of being a Saxon?’ Fidelma turned to him, her eyes bright. There was no bitterness in her voice.
Bressal shrugged. ‘One hears so many bad tales about the Saxons, Cousin. One naturally asks: if those tales are true, how can a man of such worth as Eadulf come from such a people?’
‘There is good and bad in all people, Cousin,’ Fidelma rebuked mildly.
‘I am not denying it,’ Bressal agreed. ‘Though you must admit that there was great consternation from certain quarters when you announced that you were marrying him.’
‘Mainly protests from people who wish to bring in the ideas of those esoteric fanatics who want all members of the religious to follow this concept of celibacy.’
‘Those do not count for much,’ dismissed Bressal. ‘I was thinking of some of our own people, the nobles who felt that you should marry a prince of the Five Kingdoms and not a Saxon stranger.’
Fidelma’s eyes flashed dangerously for a moment. ‘And were you of that number?’ she asked.
Bressal grinned in amusement. ‘I had not met Eadulf then.’
‘And now that you have?’ she pressed.
‘I realise that people cannot make judgements until they know the individual. Eadulf is now one of us. I will stand with him and draw my sword to defend his rights.’
The ship suddenly lurched as a rogue wave hit against its side. Fidelma staggered a moment, then she turned, laughing at her cousin who was also trying to balance.
‘I don’t think Eadulf will be in the mood to stand with anyone at the moment,’ she observed dryly. She looked up at the sails. They were not filling as she had expected. The southerly winds were mild, which made the ship’s progress very slow. Gurvan, the mate, saw her gaze and called across to her.
‘Typical summer winds here, lady,’ he offered. ‘Mild and slow. That was just a freak wave, as we call them. But once we get through the Treizh an Tagnouz Passage we ought to pick up a stronger wind. That won’t be too long now. By tomorrow we’ll be making good time, you’ll see.’
Fidelma acknowledged his encouragement with a wave of her hand.
‘We came through this Tagnouz Passage on our voyage here,’ commented Bressal. ‘It means nasty in the local language. It runs between some islands and the main coast but it is quite a wide one. You can barely see land on either side.’
‘I was meaning to ask, why did my brother choose you as his envoy on this trip?’ she asked curiously.
‘Mainly because I speak the language of the Britons which is similar to those of the people of this land. Remember, I spent some time in Dyfed at the court of Gwlyddien after you had rendered him great service when you were there.’
‘And was the King of this land easy to negotiate with?’
‘Alain Hir? He is pleasant enough. His people seem to have many ways that are similar to our lifestyle. But, like most kings, envy, greed and intrigue surround him. I’ll tell you about a rumour I heard…’
‘Would you care for a meal, lady?’ interrupted a shrill voice. Wenbrit, the young cabin boy whom she had befriended on the pilgrim voyage, had come on deck. ‘The sun is beyond its zenith, and I have some dried meats and cheeses in the cabin and a flagon of the local cider to wash it down with.’
Fidelma smiled softly at the young boy. ‘I think I am hungry,’ she confessed. ‘Have you called Eadulf?’
‘I did ask, but he simply threw something at me and turned over in his bunk.’ The boy chuckled mischievously.
‘Then we should leave him to his agonies,’ said Bressal. ‘Let’s go and eat, Cousin.’
It felt strange for Fidelma to be eating with her cousin in the main cabin of the Barnacle Goose. It was a long time since she had regularly eaten there, but then it had been filled with the many pilgrims from the great abbey of Magh Bile en route to the Holy Shrine of Blessed James. Now there was only her Cousin Bressal, herself and Eadulf who were passengers on the ship. The rest of the vessel, apart from the crew’s quarters, had been given over to the storage of salt, packed in great sacks.
Being on board, for Fidelma, was like being among old friends. She was even delighted to see the large male black cat sitting regarding her solemnly with bright green eyes from the top of a cupboard. Luchtigern – ‘the Mouse Lord’, as he was called – had actually saved her life during the voyage to the Shrine of Blessed James. Now the animal seemed to recognise her and leaped down, gave a soft ‘miaow’ and strode with almost aristocratic poise across to her, rubbing himself against her leg. She bent down to stroke the sleek black fur. On the back of its head she felt a hard lump in its fur.
Wenbrit, who was setting the plates, noticed her frown. ‘Something wrong, lady?’ he asked.
‘Luchtigern seems to have a lump on the back of his head,’ she said. She did not like to see animals ill or in discomfort.
The cat, having allowed itself to be petted for a moment or two, now turned and then, with a shake of its body implying its independence, moved off on some unknown errand.
‘Don’t worry, lady.’ Wenbrit made a reassuring gesture. ‘It is just a piece of pitch that has become entangled in his fur. I am going to cut it out later.’
Fidelma knew that pitch, a resin drawn from pinewood, was used to waterproof sails and even the hulls of ships, as well as domestic jars and pots. It was a viscous black liquid that stuck and formed a hard surface or lumps. However, Luchtigern did not seem to mind the sticky lump on the back of his neck.
Fidelma recalled how she had discussed with Wenbrit the reason why the animal was called ‘the Mouse Lord’, for there had been a legendary cat who dwelled in the Caves of Dunmore in Éireann who had defeated all the warriors of the King of Laigin. They had wanted it killed, but ‘the Mouse Lord’ was far too wily for the warriors. Fidelma smiled at the memory, and recalled how Luchtigern had saved her life by warning her of an assassin’s approach.
Fidelma was looking forward to their arrival in her brother’s capital of Cashel. She longed to see her young son, Alchú, and had begun to regret missing so much time in his company. She should have been watching him develop from baby to young boyhood. But then, she had chosen the career of law and, as sister to the King, she had duties and obligations to fulfil. Yet she hoped that there would be no other demands on her time for the foreseeable future. She and Eadulf deserved a rest after all their travels on behalf of her brother. Fidelma shook herself subconsciously as she realised that regret could easily turn to resentment.
Her mind shifted to her husband.
Poor Eadulf. He was lying prone in their cabin, the same cabin that she had occupied on the pilgrim voyage, and was probably feeling that death would be a worthwhile alternative to the voyage home. He was not a good sailor at the best of times. Even though the weather was clement, he had begun to feel queasy almost as soon as they had left the mouth of the great River Liger down which they had travelled from Nebirnum, on their return to Naoned from their perilous quest at the Council of Autun. That had truly been a council of the cursed. Once out of the Liger they had swung northward along what was called ‘the Wild Coast’. It was then that Eadulf had to take to his bunk.
Wenbrit brought them bread, still fresh, for he had purchased it just before they had hoisted sail, and some cold meats with a jug of cider.
‘To a good voyage,’ toasted Bressal, raising his mug.
‘To a quick one,’ replied Fidelma.
‘You are thinking of little Alchú,’ observed her cousin.
She nodded wistfully.
‘Have no fear for him,’ her cousin replied. ‘It was only a few weeks ago I saw him, just before I left Cashel. Muirgen and Nessán take great care of him, as if he were their own child. They seem to have no regrets about quitting their shepherd’s life at Gabhlán to come and serve you as nurse and…’
He hesitated for a moment, trying to find the right word. The word he chose was cobairech, which meant an assistant or helper. Indeed, while Muirgen had adapted well to being a nurse within the great palace of Cashel, her husband Nessán had been a shepherd all his life in the western mountains. His role, therefore, was mainly to look after the livestock at the palace and assist when needed. Since the kidnapping of Alchú by Uaman, Lord of the Passes of Sliabh Mis, the infamous leper, the couple had been fiercely devoted to the welfare of the child and to Fidelma and Eadulf.
Sometimes it worried Fidelma. She tried to hide her concern that her role as a dálaigh, an advocate of the Laws of the Fénechus, often conflicted with the time she should have spent as a mother in her son’s company. Even Eadulf had raised complaints from time to time. In the last six months the couple had been summoned to Tara to investigate the death of the High King himself. Barely had they returned to Cashel when Abbot Ségdae of Imleach, the principal abbey of the Kingdom of Muman, had requested her presence at the major Church Council that was to meet in the city of Autun in the land of Burgundia. It was a council whose decision might have a great impact on the rites and theology of the Church in the Five Kingdoms. Now, after so long, it would be good to be home in Cashel.
She realised that Bressal was regarding her worried expression with some sympathy.
‘Cousin, you have no need to worry about the welfare of your child,’ he repeated.
‘It is a mother’s privilege,’ she replied simply, as she returned to her meal. After a swallow of the cider, she asked: ‘And what news from Tara? Sechnassach was a wise man, well praised by the bards and the people. His assassination has truly disrupted the peace of the Five Kingdoms.’
Bressal toyed with his food for a moment, as if in thought.
‘His death was certainly a great blow to the unity of the kingdoms,’ he agreed. ‘Thanks to your intervention, however, civil war was averted when you revealed the culprit.’
‘But what of the new High King – Cenn Fáelad the son of Blathmaic. Is he as wise as his brother, Sechnassach? How is he regarded by the people?’
‘There are many rumours…’ began Bressal.
Fidelma frowned impatiently. ‘What rumours?’
‘As you know, Cenn Fáelad is of the southern Uí Néill, of the line of the Síl nÁedo Sláine. The family are always quarrelling amongst themselves. Sechnassach was able to overcome petty squabbles by diplomacy. Cenn Fáelad seems to lack that touch. But many believe that he should not have been elected to the High Kingship.’
‘I presume that his derbhfine met – at least three generations in accordance with the law? Was not Cenn Fáelad legally nominated and elected?’ Fidelma sniffed in disapproval.
‘So I understand, but I am told that his Cousin Finsnechta Fledach, the son of Dúnchad, who was brother to Cenn Fáelad’s father, has raised objections. He feels that he should have been elevated to the High Kingship.’
‘The decision of the derbhfine must be respected under law,’ Fidelma pointed out.
‘Cenn Fáelad has tried to win his cousin over by appointing him lord of Brega in the Middle Kingdom.’
‘And Finsnechta is still not satisfied?’
‘The rumour is that he is trying to persuade the chiefs and provincial kings to rally to his cause to challenge his cousin. One rumour says that Finsnechta has sailed to Iona to seek the support of Abbot Adomnán.’
Fidelma looked grave. ‘So there are troubled times ahead?’
‘Your brother is determined to keep Muman out of the affair, for he sees it as an internal struggle between the Uí Néill only.’
‘A difficult path to tread, especially if the legitimate High King calls upon my brother for support, which he is entitled to do.’
‘It is a weakness of our kingship,’ sighed Bressal. ‘We have councils who nominate and elect our kings and thereafter have arguments on whether the decision was right or wrong. Our friends, the Saxons, simply say the eldest son of a king should inherit, no matter if they are good or bad, and if that King can keep the office by means of his sword, then he keeps it.’
‘Violentia praecedit jus,’ muttered Fidelma. Might before right. ‘It is not a good system.’
They finished their meal and Fidelma went to look in on Eadulf in the cabin. He was lying on the bunk, groaning a little in his sleep, but at least he was sleeping. Fidelma smiled before gently closing the cabin door and returning on deck to join her cousin.
The late afternoon had turned darker although the sun was still shining through the uniform grey layer of clouds covering the whole sky like ground glass. She also noticed that the wind had dropped – no, not dropped, but had veered around so that it was blowing against them now.
Gurvan greeted them, still at his place at the tiller.
‘A troubled sky,’ he muttered. ‘But no matter. We might have a storm – some lightning but without thunder. You can always read the signs in the sky.’
‘Will it delay our journey?’ asked Fidelma anxiously.
‘Bless you, not at all,’ replied Gurvan. ‘A few days of unsettled weather is to be expected at this time of year. Good days are sometimes followed by rain. It can be very changeable. Once beyond those islands,’ he thrust out a hand to indicate their direction, ‘through the passage that I mentioned, it should be fair sailing. The wind will turn again soon, have no worry.’
To the south lay the blurred outline of an island which Gurvan now identified as Hoedig, which he confided meant ‘duckling’, and before them was a great mass called Houad, the duck, towards which the ship tacked its way. The passage would bring them between these southern islands and the thrusting headland called Beg Kongell.
As Gurvan was explaining all this to Fidelma, his eyes suddenly narrowed. Almost at the same time, a voice called down from the masthead.
‘Sail ho! Dead ahead!’
Fidelma turned to see what had been spotted beyond the rising and falling of the high bow of the Barnacle Goose. She could only just make out the tiny speck on the horizon: as it grew closer, she saw that it was a vessel under full sail, moving rapidly with the changed wind behind it.
‘Call the captain,’ Gurvan shouted to one of the crew.
‘Is something wrong?’ asked Fidelma.
‘That’s no merchant vessel,’ replied the mate. ‘It’s a fast-trimmed ship and heading this way.’
Murchad, followed by Bressal, appeared on deck. He sprang up the rigging and peered towards the vessel. His expression became worried.
‘She’s a fighting ship, right enough,’ he called down to Gurvan. He glanced up at the sails and then back to the oncoming vessel. ‘She has the wind behind her and she’s bearing down on us.’ His comment was a statement of the obvious but no one spoke for a moment. Then he snapped: ‘Prepare to go about – let’s get the wind behind us. I’ll head for the shelter of Hoedig.’ The island was visible nearby.
Gurvan was already shouting the necessary orders to the crew.
‘Is it serious, Captain?’ Bressal asked quietly.
The skipper of the Barnacle Goose considered a moment before he spoke.
‘The trade routes along the coast contain rich pickings for anyone who has no scruples about how they make a living. When you see a fast warship approaching in these waters, then it’s better to be safe than sorry. So we take it as serious but hope it is not.’
Bressal muttered something and hurried below.
The attention of the crew was now focused on turning the ship into the wind while, remorselessly, the sleek-built war vessel seemed to be straining, sails taut so that it was almost heeling over, bearing towards them, growing larger and larger. Fidelma grabbed at the railing as the Barnacle Goose began to turn, the deck shifting alarmingly beneath her feet, the oncoming vessel now behind them.
She saw Wenbrit, the cabin boy, poking his head above the hatch.
‘Wenbrit,’ she called, ‘make Brother Eadulf aware of what is happening and get him on deck. Don’t take no for an answer!’
The boy raised a hand to his forehead and disappeared below.
Almost at once, her Cousin Bressal reappeared. He had strapped on his war helmet and his sword and fighting knife, but she noticed that he held in his right hand the white hazel wand of office that denoted his status as a techtaire, an envoy of his King. He took his place by Murchad.
‘Are your crew armed, Captain?’ he asked.
Murchad pulled a face. ‘We are a merchant vessel; certainly we are not armed to fight that sort of warship,’ he answered, jerking his head towards the still-closing vessel.
‘But if they try to board us, we must put up a resistance,’ insisted Bressal.
‘What if they mean us no harm?’ Fidelma wanted to know. ‘We are only assuming the ship has hostile intentions. It might be a war vessel of the King of the Bretons. Anyway, you are a techtaire, an ambassador of our King, and this ship is under your protection.’
This time it was Murchad who shook his head.
‘Let us hope that whoever is the captain of that ship has respect for that protection. There is no flag at her mast, no symbol or insignia on her sails. And now I can see bowmen lined up along her side with their weapons ready. She’ll be level with us in a moment.’
‘Do you mean that it is a pirate ship?’ Bressal enquired grimly. The term he used was spúinneadair-mara – sea plunderer.
The sharp question had come from Eadulf who, looking a ghastly pale colour, had scrambled on deck and stood swaying, clutching a rail to retain his balance.
In answer to the question, Fidelma simply gestured towards the pursuing vessel.
‘If we can’t fight her, Captain, what is your intention?’ demanded Bressal, ignoring him.
‘We can’t fight her,’ Murchad said. ‘We can’t even outrun her now. With those sails, she has the advantage of speed on us.’
‘I’ll try to get into the harbour of Argol that’s abeam of us on Hoedig. Perhaps if we are sheltered there, they will think twice about trying to board us. The people there might help.’
But Murchad had barely issued the order to Gurvan, at the helm, when there was a sudden whistling sound, and Gurvan gave a cry. They turned, staring with shock as they realised an arrow had struck the mate, piercing his neck. Blood was pouring from the wound and from his open mouth. He sank to the deck, letting the tiller swing idle.
One of the crewmen, Hoel was the first to recover – perhaps an automatic gesture from his training as a seaman. He leaped to the tiller and steadied it.
A voice called across the water in the language of the Bretons: ‘Heave to, or more of you will die!’
Murchad was well acquainted with the language and hesitated a moment before he gave the orders to start hauling down the sails. He looked apologetically at Bressal.
‘We won’t make it. Their bowmen can easily pick us off before we reach the safety of the island.’
Fidelma had hurried to the side of the fallen mate but she did not even have to feel for his pulse to see that Gurvan was beyond help. By the time she returned to Eadulf’s side, the attacking ship had closed, grappling irons were being thrown across, and men armed with swords were hauling themselves on board the Barnacle Goose.
The scene seemed unreal as the men swarmed through the ship, rounding up the crew. The only person armed had been Bressal, and now his weapons were taken from him. The young warrior stood, looking forlorn, his shoulders hunched, for he would have preferred to put up some resistance.
With the vessels tied to one another by the grapples, a lithe boyish figure suddenly swung on board. The figure presented a strange sight to Fidelma, for it was clad from head to toe in white, from leather boots and trousers to a billowing shirt and small cape. But what was curious was the white headdress that hid every feature in the manner of a mask. A workmanlike short sword and dagger were slung from the belt of the newcomer.
The figure came forward to where Murchad and Bressal stood. Fidelma and Eadulf were standing a little apart.
The attackers, while watchful of Murchad’s crew, seemed to stiffen respectfully in the presence of the newcomer, who was clearly in command.
The figure had halted before Murchad with hands on hips. Even though Murchad was burly and towered over this slight figure in white, yet it was the latter that seemed more threatening.
‘What is the name of your ship?’ snapped the white-clothed figure. The voice was barely broken and the language again was the local one.
‘Gé Ghúirainn – the Barnacle Goose,’ replied Murchad sullenly.
Fidelma recognised this Breton word for ‘Irish’.
‘What cargo?’ came the second sharp question.
‘Salt from Gwenrann.’
‘Holen? Mat!’ The figure grunted in satisfaction. ‘You have a choice, Iwerzhonad. You and your crew can sail this ship to where I and my men direct, or you can die now.’
The voice sounded so matter-of-fact that they had to think of the meaning of the words for a moment or two before they understood them.
Bressal flushed and stepped forward before Murchad.
‘I am Bressal of Cashel, envoy from King Colgú to Alain, King of the Bretons. See – this is my wand of office. This ship and its cargo are under the protection of the treaty agreed between them. I demand—’
Bressal broke off in mid-sentence.
Fidelma saw him bend forward as if he had received a punch in the solar plexus. Then her cousin seemed to slip to the deck on his knees and topple sideways. It was then she realised, with horror, that the figure was holding a bloodstained knife in its hand.
‘You are wrong,’ came the mocking voice. ‘The ship and its cargo are under my protection.’
For a moment there was silence. The disbelief, the shock, was on the face of every member of the crew. The person of a techtaire, an envoy, was sacred and inviolable throughout the lands, and treated with respect even by the bitterest of enemies. The white wand of office had fallen from Bressal’s lifeless hand, the very hazel wand Fidelma’s brother would have presented him with at the start of his journey from Cashel. Now it rolled across the deck to rest at her feet. For a moment, she stared down at it as if she scarcely believed what she had seen. Then she bent down and picked it up.
‘This is murder,’ she said simply.
The white-clothed figure turned its head towards her but Murchad now stepped forward a pace. His voice was raised in anger.
‘This is an outrage. It is murder! It is—’
The knife swung again, thrusting up under the burly seaman’s ribs, and Murchad, the captain, began to slowly sink to his knees before her.
‘Kill those religious and any members of the crew who do not want to sail under me,’ called the figure in white, swinging on its heel and walking back across the deck even before Murchad had measured his length beside Bressal. ‘Quickly now, or the tide will be against us.’
Copyright © 2009 Peter Tremayne