The Council of the Cursed

A Mystery of Ancient Ireland

Mysteries of Ancient Ireland featuring Sister Fidelma of Cashel (Volume 19 of 25)

Peter Tremayne

Minotaur Books

Chapter One

The two cowled figures were barely discernible in the dark shadows of the mausoleum. They stood silently by the large sarcophagus that occupied the centre of this small section of the musty catacombs, which seemed to stretch in every direction under the abbey. This was the ancient necropolis; old even before the abbey had been built. Since the site was sanctified, after the coming of the New Faith, it was where generations of abbots had been laid to rest.

There was silence here apart from the distant dripping of water. The atmosphere was dank and almost suffocating. A faint light permeated the underground caverns, giving a certain relief to the darkness, by which objects could be distinguished by their various differences in light and shade but without detail. The two figures stood without movement, almost as if they themselves were part of the stonework.

Then, in contrast to the faint dripping of water, there was a sudden soft shuffling noise, as leather came into contact with stone. One of the figures stiffened perceptibly as a glimmering light appeared across the cavern and caused shadows to dance this way and that in the gloom. A third figure, holding a candle, emerged between the tombs.

The figure also wore a hooded robe. It halted before the mausoleum.

‘I come in the name of the Blessed Benignus,’ its rasping voice intoned.

The waiting couple in the darkness visibly relaxed.

‘You are welcome in the name of Benignus of sanctified name and thought,’ said one, in a soft, female voice. The words were exchanged in Latin.

The newcomer hurried forward into the mausoleum and placed the candle on the side of the marble tomb.

‘Well?’ asked the second of the waiting figures. ‘Does he still have it?’

The newcomer nodded quickly. ‘He has placed it in his chamber.’

‘Then we might easily take it. It will be a sign that God has blessed our endeavour,’ replied the other.

‘But we must act swiftly. The envoy from Rome has already spoken with him about it. If we are to use it as our symbol when the time comes, we must remove it now.’

‘If this is to work in our favour and the people to be aroused, he must be prevented from spreading the truth of this great symbol. The people must believe in it without question.’

‘Are we prepared for what we must do?’ It was the woman’s voice again.

‘It is for the greater good,’ intoned her companion.

Deus vult!’ the newcomer added solemnly. God wills it.

‘It is agreed, then?’ asked the woman with a catch of breath, as if caught by a cold air.

‘The deed must be done tonight,’ the newcomer said firmly.

The three looked at one another in the crepuscular light, and then with one voice they murmured: ‘Virtutis fortuna comes!’ Good luck is the companion of courage.

Without another word, the three shadowy figures departed in different directions through the dark vaults of the catacombs.

‘I will no longer tolerate the arrogance of that man!’

There was an astonished silence in the chapel as the voice echoed in the stone vaulted building. The abbots and bishops, who sat in the dark oak carved seats arranged before the high altar, turned almost as one to regard their grim-faced colleague. He was still seated but pointed an accusing finger towards the religieux seated further along the row.

‘Calm yourself, Abbot Cadfan,’ admonished Bishop Leodegar, who was presiding over the meeting. The chapel had been so arranged to serve the function of a council chamber. ‘We are here to debate the future of our Churches, which are currently separated by language and rituals. Remember that blunt words may be spoken in seeking paths along which we might converge so that unity may be achieved. Such words should not be taken as personal insults.’

He spoke firmly in the Latin language that was common to them all.

Abbot Cadfan’s scowl merely deepened.

‘Forgive my bluntness, Leodegar of Autun,’ he said, ‘but I have the ability to recognise an insult from an opinion expressed in genuine debate. I will tolerate no insults from the enemies of my blood and my people.’

The elderly, grey-haired cleric seated at Abbot Cadfan’s right side laid a gentle hand on his companion’s arm. He was Abbot Dabhóc of Tulach Óc, who represented Bishop Ségéne of Ard Macha; the latter claimed episcopal primacy over all the five kingdoms of Éireann.

‘I am sure Bishop Ordgar did not mean to sound arrogant,’ he said diplomatically. ‘While we speak in Latin, it is not the language of our mothers and thus we often lack the dexterity of expression with which we are comfortable. It may simply have been a matter of clumsy usage, or possibly different interpretation of emphasis?’

Bishop Ordgar, the subject of the initial angry outburst, had remained staring at Abbot Cadfan with sullen features. A sharp-featured, dark-haired individual with an unfortunate cast of the mouth that seemed to present a permanent sneer, he now turned his belligerent gaze on Abbot Dabhóc.

‘Are you accusing me of not knowing good Latin?’ he growled. ‘What would you, a barbaric outlander, know of the refinements of the tongue?’

Abbot Dabhóc flushed. Before he had a chance to respond, Abbot Cadfan gave a short bark of laughter.

‘Arrogance again–and from one whose people have not yet emerged from pagan savagery. Did we Britons not warn our neighbours of Hibernia that they should not attempt to convert these Saxons from their pagan ways, to teach them the ways of Christ and of literacy and learning? They are not yet sufficiently civilised to know what to do with it.’

Abbot Cadfan used the Latin name of Hibernia to refer to the five kingdoms of Éireann.

Bishop Ordgar thumped his fist on the armrest of his wooden seat. ‘I am an Angle, you Welisc barbarian!’

Abbot Cadfan shrugged indifferently. ‘Angle or Saxon, it is both the same, the same rasping language and the same ignorance. At least I call you by a proper name, but you, in your arrogance, call me Welisc. I am told this means “foreigner”. Yet it is you who are foreigners in the land of Britain. I am a Briton, whose people were in that land at the beginning of time, while your barbaric hordes came but two centuries ago. You entered our land by stealth and guile, and then by invasions, bringing slaughter and death to my people. You seek no more than the wholesale eradication of the Britons. I tell you this, barbarian, you will not succeed. We Welisc–as you sneeringly call us–will survive and may one day drive you from the land you are now calling Angle-land that was once our peaceful land of Britain.’

Brows drawn together, Bishop Ordgar had sprung to his feet, knocking his seat over backwards, one hand apparently searching for a non-existent sword at his side.

Abbot Cadfan sat back and gave another bark of laughter and glanced round at the serious-faced prelates at the table.

‘You see how the barbarian reacts? He would resort to primitive violence, if he had a weapon. He is not fit to call himself a man of peace, a representative of the Christ, and sit in discussion with those of civilised degree. He is just as savage as the rest of the petty chieftains of his people who, when they do not make war on us Britons, are at war with each other.’

A sudden noise interrupted the scene. A tall, swarthy-skinned man, seated beside Bishop Leodegar and wearing rich robes and a silver cross on a chain around his neck–which denoted he was of high rank among them–had risen to his feet and rapped loudly on the floor with a staff of office.

Tacet! Be silent!’ he thundered. ‘Brethren, you both forget yourselves. You are gathered in council under the eye of God and the bishop of this place. As the envoy from the Holy Father in Rome, I am ashamed to witness such an outburst among the chosen of the Faith.’

That the envoy of Rome, Nuntius Peregrinus, had felt forced to intervene was a rebuke to the lack of authority displayed by Bishop Leodegar in controlling the delegates to the council.

Bishop Leodegar now raised a hand and gestured to the envoy to reseat himself. Then he said firmly: ‘Brethren, you do, indeed, shame yourself before our distinguished envoy. This is a council of the senior abbots and bishops of the western churches, here to decide the fundamental ways of promoting our unity. It is true that this is supposed to be an informal opening, without the attendance of all our scribes and advisers, so that we could come to know one another before our main debates, but it is not a marketplace where we brethren can brawl and fight among ourselves.’

There was a muttering from the twenty or so men who were seated around the table.

Bishop Leodegar now turned to Bishop Ordgar.

‘Ordgar, you are here as the personal representative of Theodore, who has been newly appointed by our Holy Father Vitalian in Rome as Archbishop at Canterbury. Would Theodore truly utter the words that you have used to a prelate of the church of the Britons?’

Ordgar was about to respond when Bishop Leodegar’s stern look caused him to sink back in his chair with a sour expression.

‘Cadfan,’ continued Bishop Leodegar, ‘you have come here representing the churches of your people, the Britons. Do you truly represent your people when you preach war and the elimination of the kingdoms of the Angles and Saxons?’

Abbot Cadfan refused to accept this censure silently.

‘We did not ask the Angles and Saxons to invade our lands and seek our eradication,’ he snapped. ‘Is there a man among you who has not read the Blessed Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquesta BritanniaeThe Ruin and Conquest of Britain? Have you not heard how my people were massacred or forced to flee from their homes to other lands when the Angles and Saxons arrived? We are still being pushed to the west; others have fled to Armorica, to Galicia, to Hibernia and even to the land of the Franks, to seek respite from the ravening hordes.’

‘That surely was in the past,’ replied Bishop Leodegar. ‘We have to live in the present.’

‘Was Benchoer in the past?’ demanded Abbot Cadfan.

Bishop Leodegar looked puzzled. ‘Benchoer? I have noted that Drostó, the abbot of Benchoer, had not arrived here. What is it that you say about Benchoer?’

‘Well may you ask why Drostó of Benchoer is not here,’ went on Abbot Cadfan. ‘Benchoer is one of our oldest abbeys that housed three thousand brethren dedicated to Christ. I know that Drostó was meant to be the senior representative of our churches here, not I. Is the Saxon who sits before me afraid to tell you why Drostó does not sit in this place?’

Bishop Ordgar scowled. ‘The Welisc are always causing trouble,’ he replied tartly. ‘Their leader, whose outlandish name I can’t pronounce, has been particularly boastful of what he intends to do to my people.’

‘The King of Gwynedd is Cadwaladar ap Cadwallon,’ replied Abbot Cadfan angrily. ‘He descends from a line of great kings, great when your ancestors were scrabbling about in the mud!’

This time it was Bishop Leodegar who rapped on the floor for order.

‘We will disband this council immediately if this continues,’ he threatened.

Abbot Goelo of Bro Waroc’h, which lay in Armorica, cleared his throat. ‘With respect, Leodegar, I think the council needs to hear the answer to the question posed by our distinguished brother from Gwynedd.’

‘It is true that we had expected that the Venerable Drostó would represent your church at this council, Abbot Cadfan,’ Bishop Leodegar said. ‘What is it you imply about Benchoer?’

Abbot Cadfan turned his hard blue eyes directly on the tightlipped Bishop Ordgar.

‘The Abbey of Benchoer is no more and Drostó sleeps with the few survivors in the woods of Gwynedd, moving each night in fear of their lives. A months ago, the leader of the Saxons of Mercia…’

‘Angles,’ corrected Bishop Ordgar loudly.

‘…a barbarian called Wulfhere, led his hordes into Gwynedd and burned and destroyed our abbey at Benchoer, putting to the sword over a thousand of our religious. Is this the act of a Christian ruler?’

‘A thousand brethren?’ gasped one of the Gaulish delegates, in a shocked tone.

Abbot Ségdae of Imleach had been sitting listening to the argument in silence. He was chief bishop of the kingdom of Muman, the largest of the five kingdoms of Éireann. Now he stirred and gazed thoughtfully at Bishop Ordgar.

‘Is this true, Bishop Ordgar?’ he asked softly.

‘Wulfhere is Bretwalda and—’

‘Bretwalda? What is that?’ queried Abbot Ségdae.

‘It is a title which acknowledges that Wulfhere is overlord of the Welisc just as much as the kingdoms of the Angles and Saxons.’

‘Acknowledged by whom?’ Abbot Cadfan laughed sardonically. ‘Not by the Britons. It is a title without meaning. We would have no “lord of the Britons”, for that is what the title means, unless it be a Briton. We acknowledge no Saxon…’ he paused ‘…nor Angle,’ he added with emphasis, ‘as lord over us. Certainly, we would not accept that a barbarian has such a right. Anyway, we are told that Wulfhere is not even acknowledged as lord by the other Saxon kings.’

Bishop Ordgar glowered across the table. ‘Eorcenbehrt of Kent, the kingdom in which the primacy of Canterbury is placed, recognises him as such and gave him his daughter’s hand in marriage.’

‘Are you implying that Theodore, your archbishop at Canterbury, approves of that office?’ demanded Abbot Goelo.

‘Theodore has come to us from Rome and Vitalian has placed him as chief bishop of all the western islands.’

‘He has no right to claim that position in any of the five kingdoms of Éireann,’ Abbot Dabhóc immediately said.

Abbot Ségdae nodded in agreement and then looked at Bishop Leodegar, but addressed them all.

‘I have come here to this ancient town of Autun in order to speak on the propositions that Rome has asked us to debate. It was a long and arduous trip with many dangers attending it. I represent the churches of Muman while my colleague, the Abbot Dabhóc, is here on behalf of Bishop Ségéne of Ard Macha. This argument is not germane to the propositions we have come here to discuss. The matters that are being argued, while horrendous and needing arbitration among the Britons and the Saxons, are not relevant to those matters which we have to decide.’

Abbot Dabhóc was shaking his head. ‘I disagree. Are these not matters that reflect on the suitability of Bishop Ordgar to sit among us at this council? Does he approve of the massacre of religious by his people? He appears to give that approval. I think we should discuss this further. Let us hear from the representatives of the churches of the Franks, of the Gauls, of the land of Kernow and the kingdoms of Armorica.’

‘It is right that we should have a say,’ agreed an elderly bishop. ‘I am Herenal of Bro Erech in the land of Armorica. I say that what I have heard from Bishop Ordgar does not reflect well on his calling as a man of peace.’

‘Pah!’ The sound was almost a spitting noise and it came from Bishop Ordgar. ‘These Armoricans, Gauls, Kern-welisc, they are all the same people! They stick together. Let us waste no time in listening to them. I am here at the invitation of my brother Franks to discuss the Faith, not to hear the whining of barbarians.’

At once there was a chorus of angry voices. Bishop Leodegar was shaking his head sternly.

‘Brothers in Christ! I beg of you to reflect on the matters that brought us hither from our various lands, from the peoples we represent. We have been instructed by His Holiness Vitalian to consider the statement of our fundamental faith in the Christ and of the Rule that we should all adhere to in every religious house in our lands. His Holiness has sent Nuntius Peregrinus to listen to our debates. These are the issues that should occupy our attention. These and no others.’

Abbot Dabhóc rose from his seat. ‘Brethren, it is clear the atmosphere is stifled with the heat of anger and accusation. I propose that we delay the opening of this council for a day and a night. We have no scribes, nor advisers in attendance, so none of these contentious matters will be recorded. Let us go away and reflect on what has been said.’

Bishop Leodegar looked slightly relieved. ‘An excellent suggestion,’ he said.

‘An insulting suggestion,’ came the acid tones of Bishop Ordgar. ‘You, Leodegar, as a Frank should be ashamed to be giving your support to these Welisc. They are as much enemies of your people as of mine.’

There were many cries of, ‘Shame!’

‘We are all one in Christ,’ pointed out Abbot Dabhóc, ‘or can it be that Bishop Ordgar would deny that? If it is so, then you have proven the point that Abbot Cadfan argues. You cannot be part of this council.’

‘My authority is from Theodore of Canterbury who, in turn, was directly appointed by the Holy Father in Rome. What is your authority, barbarian?’ Bishop Ordgar’s brows came together threateningly.

‘My authority is the church I serve,’ began the abbot. ‘And—’

Again Bishop Leodegar was rapping on the floor with his staff of office. He exchanged a questioning glance with Nuntius Peregrinus who shrugged and then nodded his head in answer. Bishop Leodegar took this as an affirmative to his unasked question and rose to face the delegates.

‘I am closing this session. We shall pray and contemplate the purpose of our gathering for a day and a night. When we return here, which will be with our scribes and advisers, we will have no more of such arguments. There are more pressing matters to consider and discuss. Should anyone here attempt to continue this argument, then they will be expelled from the deliberations of the council no matter from what corner of the world they come. My brothers, let me urge this advice on you: in medio tutissimus ibis–you shall go safely into the middle course. Now depart and go in peace, in the name of the Most Holy, under Whose stern and watchful eye we gather to do homage.’

The abbots and bishops now rose in their seats and received the blessing from Bishop Leodegar almost reluctantly–and with not a little resentment from the chief antagonists.

As the gathering began to disperse, Abbot Ségdae moved across to Abbot Dabhóc.

‘It is a long journey just to listen to the Briton arguing with the Saxon,’ he said heavily.

Abbot Dabhóc shrugged. ‘I have sympathy with the Britons. What Cadfan says is the truth. Both Angles and Saxons are constantly attacking the kingdoms of the Britons.’

‘But I would have thought that Cadfan and Ordgar, as men of the Church, would employ diplomacy and turn their minds to what we came here to discuss.’

The two men had moved out of the chapel and into a courtyard with its central gushing fountain surrounded by scented gardens and tall buildings with Roman columns.

Abbot Dabhóc paused and looked upon the scene appreciatively.

‘The long journey is worth it when we see wonders like this, Ségdae,’ he observed. ‘The cities built by the Romans are so unlike those of Éireann.’

It was true that outside the abbey, the city of Autun was a sprawl of Romanesque buildings which had originally been built many centuries before, when the Romans had marched into Gaul and defeated the Gaulish armies of Vercingetorix. They had built the city by a river and called it Augustodunum, but as the Gauls and the Romans had receded and merged with the invading Burgunds, it had become known as Autun, one of the earliest Christian centres in the part of Gaul now called Burgundia. The abbey retained many of its ancient Roman buildings, palaces and temples now re-dedicated to the Christian Faith. To Abbot Ségdae it seemed like a miniature Rome with its towering manmade constructions, a totally alien place to the small urban complexes of his native land.

There was a sudden shouting in the courtyard.

Abbot Ségdae started from his contemplation and glanced in astonishment across to where several of the prelates were engaged in a scuffle. Among them was Ordgar, who was grasping another cleric by the neck. It was Cadfan. The two men were shouting and hitting each other like a pair of quarrelling children. The others began dragging them apart. Cadfan’s robe was torn while there was blood on Ordgar’s face. It took no great linguist to understand the profanities they hurled at one another.

Bishop Leodegar hurried across, Nuntius Peregrinus at his side.

The other clerics were holding each man back, for if set loose they would doubtless have physically engaged with one another again.

‘Brethren! Are you brothers in Christ or wild animals that you behave so?’ came Bishop Leodegar’s thunderous tone.

Abbot Cadfan blinked and seemed to come to his senses.

‘The Saxon attacked me,’ he said sullenly.

‘The Welisc insulted me,’ snapped Bishop Ordgar but he, too, was beginning to regain control of himself.

Bishop Leodegar was shaking his head with sadness.

‘Shame on you both. Return to your quarters and pray forgiveness for your transgressions against the teachings of Our Lord. Shame is your portion until you have made atonement for your actions. I will give both of you a last chance to participate in our deliberations, not because of who you are but because of who you represent. Messengers will be sent to Theodore of Canterbury and to Drostó of Gwynedd informing them of how you carry out your sacred duties. If, when we next foregather, there is still enmity between you, then I shall dismiss you both from this council and will proceed without your representation. Do I make myself clear?’

There was a silence and then, like sullen children, first Abbot Cadfan and then Bishop Ordgar muttered agreement.

Bishop Leodegar gave a deep sigh. ‘Now disperse,’ he ordered. He glanced around at everyone. ‘All of you, disperse.’

In ones and twos the men began to leave the luxurious courtyard, moving towards the main buildings of the abbey.

Abbot Dabhóc grinned at his companion. ‘I tell you, Ségdae, this is the most hotblooded council that I have attended. I thought the arguments among our people, debating matters of the Faith, were fierce enough, but I have never seen clerics come to physical blows before.’

‘I fear that our host is much too sanguine in hoping those two will declare a truce between them during the rest of this council,’ Ségdae replied. ‘And it will not just be the wars between Briton and Saxon but these ideas coming from Rome that will fuel the arguments. The Franks and Saxons support them–and we now have to argue against them. Such debate is bound to give rise to new animosities.’

‘It is of no concern to us what the Franks and Saxons do in their own land.’ Abbot Dabhóc grimaced sourly. ‘We have our Faith and our own liturgy. Whatever decisions are made at this council cannot affect us any more than the decision made at Whitby.’

Abbot Ségdae shook his head in disagreement. ‘First Whitby and now this council here in Autun. Where next? This erosion of our beliefs and cultures emanates from the new thinking at Rome, and I have no liking for it. Over the years, councils such as this have changed or amended the original concepts of the Faith until we can no longer be sure of the original teachings of the Founding Fathers.’

Abbot Dabhóc looked shocked but Ségdae continued, ‘It is true, I tell you so. This is not the first time we have had to argue with Rome over the way they have altered even the very date on which Our Lord was martyred. Did not our own Columbanus argue with the Bishop of Rome over the date?’

‘True enough, although at Ard Macha we begin to think it would be better for all Christendom to worship on the same day.’

‘Better to worship in truth than in myth,’ muttered Abbot Ségdae.

‘Well, at least this council is not concerned with calendars and dates of ceremonies but in what we believe and how we should conduct ourselves in the religious houses,’ Abbot Dabhóc concluded. ‘I, for one, am looking forward to the debates.’

For the first time Abbot Ségdae allowed a brief smile to flit across his sombre features.

‘At least, judging by the action of our brothers, those debates will be lively,’ he joked.

They had halted in the corridor of the hospitia or guest quarters where individual chambers had been set aside for the accommodation of the senior delegates during the course of the council.

‘I hear that your advisers have not arrived as yet?’ Abbot Dabhóc suddenly remarked.

A worried expression returned to Abbot Ségdae’s features. ‘They were travelling separately and should have been here some days ago.’

‘The seas can be tempestuous and it is a long voyage, even before coming to this land. Then there is a long river journey. Who are they? You have many good scholars in Muman.’

‘Fidelma of Cashel has agreed to come to advise on the legal aspects of what we may agree–as it applies to the laws of the Fénechus, that is.’

Abbot Dabhóc’s eyes widened. ‘Fidelma? Her name is a by-word anywhere in the five kingdoms, especially since her investigation into the murder of the High King earlier this year. But murder is one thing; advising on how the decisions of this council may affect the laws and practices in the five kingdoms is another entirely.’ He laughed suddenly. ‘Perhaps, if our Briton and Saxon friends continue as they have done so far, we may be able to provide her with a new murder to investigate.’

Abbot Ségdae was disapproving.

‘One should not be flippant about such matters, my brother. I simply wish, having found the circumstances that prevail in this abbey, that I had never asked her to come here in the first place. Anyway, the hour grows late. There is barely time to bathe before the evening meal.’

Someone was shaking him. He was aware of a voice calling urgently. Abbot Ségdae awoke, blinking against the light of the candle enclosed in a lantern that was held above him.

‘Bishop Leodegar says you must come at once!’

Abbot Ségdae focused on the shadowy figure of the religieux who had been trying to rouse him from a deep slumber. He realised it was still dark and the room felt cold.

‘What is it?’ he demanded.

‘Bishop Leodegar says—’ began the other.

‘I heard you,’ replied the abbot, struggling to sit up. ‘What has happened?’

The religieux seemed agitated. ‘I cannot say…you must come.’

With a sigh, Abbot Ségdae swung from the bed and began pulling on his robe. Within a few minutes he was following the religieux along the darken corridor.

‘Where are we going, or can’t you tell me that, Brother…Brother…?’

‘I am Brother Sigeric.’

‘So where are we going?’

‘To the quarters of the Saxon bishop. Bishop Ordgar.’

‘Why?’

‘I am told only to bring you there at the urgent request of Bishop Leodegar.’

Abbot Ségdae sighed irritably. It was clear that he would get no further information.

However, it did not take long to reach a chamber where the door was open. Brother Sigeric motioned him inside. The sight that met his eyes caused Abbot Ségdae to pause on the threshold.

The first thing he saw was a religieux bending over a figure on the floor. He recognised the body immediately as that of Abbot Cadfan. A groan came from the man and Abbot Ségdae realised that Cadfan was semi-conscious–alive, Thank God! Then he saw Bishop Leodegar standing by a second body that lay beyond Cadfan. That body was also clothed in religious robes.

‘Bishop Ordgar?’ he asked tersely. ‘Has Cadfan killed him then?’

There was a groan from the bed behind the door.

Abbot Ségdae swung round. Bishop Ordgar of Canterbury was lying on the bed barely conscious. Bewildered, the abbot turned back to Bishop Leodegar and the second body.

‘I am afraid that it is your colleague, Abbot Dabhóc of Tulach Óc,’ said Bishop Leodegar heavily. ‘That is why I sent for you, brother. Abbot Dabhóc has been murdered.’

THE COUNCIL OF THE CURSED. Copyright © 2008 by Peter Tremayne.