Esumaro turned, frowning slightly. His weather-beaten face was raised towards the dark, lowering clouds. He let out a soft hiss from between crooked, blackened teeth and shifted his balance on the swaying deck before glancing swiftly about him. The seas around the broad-beamed ship were already reflecting the blackness of the clouds and the surface of the water was broken by short, choppy, white-crested waves. The seas were becoming angry and threateningly alive, although partially shrouded by sheets of gusting rain.
Esumaro moved his thoughtful gaze to the straining sails above him. The wind was increasing rapidly from the north-west causing even the mainmast to groan, protesting against the onslaught.
Beside him, Coros, his mournful-featured first mate, stood uneasily by the tiller, keeping an anxious eye on the captain.
'That's Inis Mhic Aoibhleain ahead,' he ventured, shouting to make himself heard above the moaning winds and breaking sea. He had stretched out a hand towards the dark outline of an island, almost obscured by the rain but slightly to portside of the vessel's bows. 'The wind is turning us to the east, captain. We won't be able to weather the island in these seas and if we keep it on our larboard we shall be driven on the rocks.'
Esumaro did not reply immediately. Already the motion of the squat timbered vessel had changed and the deck was bucking beneath his feet as if the ship were a horse not yet reconciled to its rider. The Sumerli was a sturdy high-bowed Gaulish merchantman, made for use in the heavy seas and violent gales of the ocean. It was a descendant of the ships that the Veneti of Armorica had used against Julius Caesar and his Roman invaders, built in the image of those solid oak, heavy vessels that had caused the lighter Roman war galleys so much hardship.
Esumaro had spent his life in such ships, and he had not been sailing these waters for twenty years without becoming familiar with the coastline and its dangers. He had already seen that they would not be able to beat around the islands of which Inis Mhic Aoibhleáin was the southernmost. The Gaulish captain knew every cross-timber and joint of the Sumerli, her iron bolts and chains and her heavy sails. He was sensitive to every protesting creak and groan of her timbers, and knew that this storm, which had suddenly arisen out of the darkening Atlantic with no more than a few minutes' warning, could dash her to pieces on any one of the numerous rocky islets that dotted this particular stretch of the coast of the kingdom of Muman. He had already estimated the dangers and had decided his next course of action. He did not need Coros to advise him. However, the first mate was only doing his duty.
'We'll turn and run before the wind,' Esumaro shouted back. 'We'll keep south of the islands and turn into the bay for shelter.'
'Those are dangerous waters, captain,' Coros called. 'That's Daingean Bay.'
Esumaro frowned in irritation.
'I know it well enough. I know these waters. I intend to run the Sumerli right up to the abbey of Colmán. I've traded there before. They'll take our wine and silver in exchange for wool, salted hogs and otter skins.'
The first mate looked surprised.
'But are we not supposed to be trading with Mugrón of An Bhearbha?' Coros was nothing if not conscientious. 'We can find a sheltered bay and ride out the storm.'
Esumaro grinned in the driving rain.
'We'll lose days if we wait for this blow to end. And we'll be trading with the devil if we try to beat around the islands to the land of the Uí Fidgente before we get a calm sea.' He shook his head in emphasis. 'Believe me, I know these waters. The good merchant Mugrón won't miss one cargo and we can still make a profit from the abbey of colmán. Swing her on to the starboard tack, Coros. We'll run before the storm into the bay.'
Coros hesitated barely a moment.
'Aye, captain. Starboard it is,' he shouted back as the wind increased its tempo.
He signalled to the two sailors who stood at the tiller, for it needed at least two of them to steer in the heavy seas, and together they pulled the great wooden arm across the deck.
Immediately, as she turned broadside on to the storm, the howling winds crashed against the larboard side of the vessel with terrific force. The sails shuddered and the wind, whipping through the rigging, screamed in protest.
Esumaro seemed to keep his feet on the deck with the same dexterity as if the ship was in still waters. His gaze was fixed on the straining sails. He knew he was going to put the ship into some heavy weather before they reached the safety of the calmer waters of the bay.
'Rig the lifelines fore and aft,' he called, sending Coros running forward to oversee the task.
Now the wind was like a musician in the taut weather rigging, plucking at the tightened strings like a maniacal harpist. Great frothy grey waves began to pound the side of the vessel and the ship heeled a little before coming upright again. Then she heeled again as once more the wind drove into her. In spite of the men at the tiller, the vessel swung awkwardly and the stern rose ponderously while the bow dipped dangerously towards the water. The captain knew that he must reduce the amount of canvas that the ship was carrying or the increasing winds would cause them to capsize.
'We'll take in a reef on the mainsail, Coros. Steady!' This last instruction was to the men on the tiller. 'Keep her stern to the wind.'
Each sail was divided into horizontal portions, called reefs, which could be rolled or folded to reduce the area of the canvas exposed to the wind. Each reef was marked by a reef-band, a strengthened portion of perforated canvas used for securing the sail to the sheets, or stay ropes, by means of reef knots.
Coros was already calling for the hands to shorten sail.
It was not long before the straining of the ship eased, but the wind was still vibrating through the rigging like fingers strumming against harp strings. The Sumerli was running quickly now into the broad entrance of the bay. The land on either side would eventually narrow like a funnel. Once they passed beyond the finger of land called simply Inis, 'the island', they would be in the calm sheltered waters of Loch na dTri Caol, approaching the harbour for the abbey of Colman. Esumaro had entered that harbour many times, though never with a darkening sky and in such a storm.
To larboard, Esumaro could begin to make out the dark jagged shapes of the mountains that, like a lizard's spine, ran along the peninsula there. To starboard, similar dark mountain tops could be seen through the rain. He could sense the bay narrowing from its broad entrance.
As the dusk of the winter's evening settled in, combining with the dark storm to create an impression of night, the wind was unabating. It hummed and groaned through the rigging. The ship still heaved and pitched and the heavy seas continued to batter against the stern timbers. He glanced back and clenched his jaw as he saw a wave rolling towards them like a large black mountain with a combing white top, threatening to overwhelm them. Then it crashed down under the stern, lifting the ship up and sending it speeding forward. Starboard and larboard Esumaro could see the white fringes that edged the breakers, the rocks that marked the shoreline, with the high dark land looming up behind.
Esumaro's eyes rested for a moment on the pale-faced sailors clinging to the tiller and he smiled to hearten them with a reassurance that he did not feel himself.
'We'll soon be sheltered,' he shouted. 'Ahead of us are two points of land which will bring us into a stretch of quiet water where we can make landfall.'
Suddenly there came a roaring gust and the sound of tearing, and for a moment the men on the tiller nearly lost their hold of the beam of wood, which suddenly became alive and threatened to wrench itself out of their grasp. They recovered even as Esumaro sought to regain his footing, for he had stumbled against the rail. It had prevented him from being tossed overboard, but it had winded him for the moment. He stood gasping, having to swallow mouthfuls of salt spray and rain. Then his eyes went searching upwards. The storm staysail had become a series of tattered ribbons fluttering on the yards. He could feel the ship swinging round as if it had a mind of its own and wanted to lay its bow back to the sea.
'Bring her around!' Esumaro did not mean to scream the order but he saw the danger of capsizing before many more moments had passed.
The men on the tiller, already alert to the danger, were throwing their weight against it, defying the rage of wind and sea. The waves were coming higher and were more curling than before, throwing themselves at the ship like anxious, clawing hands, accompanied by a deafening shrieking wind. Esumaro was praying silently, his skin cold and not from the weather conditions. His breath came in quick, short gasps. For a moment or two, the ship seemed to stand still, defying man and weather to move her, and then, reluctantly, slowly, she swung her bow back on course.
Esumaro's jaws clenched tight and he peered anxiously forward. They must be nearing what the locals called Island Point and Black Point. He knew there were shallow banks there but with such a sea running he should be able to negotiate his way through with plenty of water under his keel.
'A light dead ahead, captain!' cried Coros.
Esumaro stared in surprise into the blackness of the sheeting rain.
He thought that he was near the turning point where the land called Inis jutted out into the bay. It was a small islet separated from the northern mainland only during the high tides, and he had to steer south to avoid it. But there was a light to the south and it was bobbing up and down. Only another vessel could cause that motion. What was a ship doing there and in this weather? It must be anchored in the shelter of the southern shore. He decided that he must be too far to the south.
'We'll pass her on our starboard side,' he yelled quickly. 'Give her sea room.'
They pulled the tiller over a little to pass north of the light.
A moment later there came a panic-stricken cry from Coros.
Esumaro heard the cry a split second before he saw the white line in front of the Sumerli's bows. Then there was an awesome crashing sound, the vessel swung round in her own length and rolling waves crashed against her wooden planking, carrying her sideways against a shallow rocky shoreline. Now he could not hear the screams of his men at all but saw several of them simply washed away even as the deck slid from under him and he grabbed out at the ship's rail to prevent himself from following them.
The merchantman heeled over on its port side, broadside on into the shallows with monstrous seas washing over her. There came the sound of cracking as the masts broke with a splintering crash. Then a cataract of solid water was rending the wood of the vessel. Plank after plank was ripped away under this assault of Nature. With the deck at a forty-five-degree angle, clinging with both hands to the taffrail, Esumaro realised not only that his ship had been driven aground but that he and his crew were lost.
Around him, the sea was like a boiling cauldron. He could hear the fearful roar of the undertow sucking the pebbles from the shore, before another great wave smashed over the vessel.
Esumaro glanced around, trying in vain to look for survivors, but he was alone. He gave a gasping cry, begging God for help, and knowingthat there was no reasonable chance of survival. The ship was breaking up, that was for certain. He would not have long to cling to his precarious hold. Indeed, his arms were aching already as he tried to prevent the cascading weight of water from tearing him away. The wrenched muscles in his upper arms and shoulders were making him feel like screaming in pain. There was only one thing to do. As soon as the next wave started to recede he would have to slide down the deck into the shingle and run for the shore before the subsequent wave hit. How long he would have he was not sure. Everything was in darkness. He could not even judge the high water mark.
Esumaro was not one to be sentimental but now the images of his wife and children back in his home port of An Naoned swam before his eyes and he sobbed with a great, choking sound. Yet it was no good feeling sorry for himself. Even a rat fought when it was drowning. Now was the time to fight, whatever the outcome.
Once he heard that grim, sucking undertow passing below, he let go his hold, trying to control his forward motion as best he could as he slithered down the sloping deck. He hit one knee painfully on the far rail and then leapt over it, landing on all fours in the shingle. Fear drove him on. He was up, scrambling through the wet, slippery pebbles which did their best to clutch at his ankles and delay him. Several times he fell, yet terror forced him to pick himself up and move painfully forward. He could hear the roar of the approaching wave, hear it smashing the timbers of the ship behind him.
He restrained himself from looking round but he knew the wave was close. Immediately in front of him a sharp rock rose up, and he flung himself down, clasping his arms round it as one would hug a beloved after a long separation, as the raging, foaming waters hit and flooded over him. For a long, long time, or so it seemed, the waters boiled over him and he became desperate for air. He was tempted to release his clasping hands and try for the surface. Then he felt the powerful tug of the water as it began to recede. It was dragging him, dragging his hands apart. He exerted all the power he could to keep them clasped tight together. Abruptly, the water was gone and he heard the ominous grinding sound of the pebbles as the tide dragged them down in its wake.
Gasping, spluttering, moaning involuntarily in his fear, Esumaro clambered to his knees, peering round to get his bearings and then scramblingforward towards the beach again. He was among rocks, crawling upwards. He could hear the next wave coming in but then he was on sand and then grass. Even then he did not stop but went lumbering forward until a thorny bush prevented his progress by tearing at him and he collapsed face down in its midst and passed out.
It was still dark when he came to but the wind seemed to be dying away. He could hear the rumble of thunder in the distance and lightning silhouetted the tops of nearby mountains. Esumaro raised his head cautiously. He had been lying face down, where he had fallen, in the middle of an area of some undergrowth. He could hear voices in the distance and he blinked once or twice to clear his eyes. Then he made to get up but found he was quite weak with exhaustion.
He levered himself up on his elbows and manoeuvred himself round to face the dark blustery sea. He was on a grassy knoll above a wide stretch of shoreline that faintly gleamed white with sand. Men were walking along with lanterns held high to illuminate the scene. The stretch of sand was littered with wreckage and bodies. To his right, where he had come ashore, the land rose up and was protected by a rocky coastline against which the Sumerli had been driven aground.
He shook his head to clear it and was about to call out to the men below to announce his presence. Another second and he would have done so. But then he heard a voice calling out in the language of the Éireannach, which he had learnt well during his years of trading with them.
'This one's alive, Olcán.'
Esumaro actually saw a man begin to raise a heavy wooden cudgel in the lantern light.
'Wait!' Another figure appeared holding a lantern in one hand. 'Stand him up!'
Figures bent down and dragged a man up into the light. From this position Esumaro could not see the features but it was clear that the figure must be one of his crewmen.
'Do you understand my language?' came the voice of the man who had been addressed as Olcán.
The sailor who had survived coughed and tried to find his voice. Obviously he had indicated that he understood for Olcán's voice came again.
There was a pause and the question was asked again more sharply.
'The Sumerli, from Gaul.'
Esumaro, watching the scene with confusion, recognised Coros's voice.
'Gaul? A merchantman?'
'Aye, sailing out of An Naoned.'
'Wine, and some gold and silver for the artisans of the abbeys.'
Olcán gave a curious chuckle that sent a shiver through Esumaro's body.
'Excellent. Kill him!'
The heavy cudgel descended and the figure of Coros dropped to the beach without another sound.
'We'll start salvaging at first light and stack the booty in the tower. Gold and silver, eh? We might have struck lucky.'
One of the men called: 'Shall I take the lantern off the horse?'
'That you may. The beast has served us well in luring this ship ashore.'
'How did you learn that trick?' The man who had killed poor Coros seemed to be cleaning the blood off his cudgel by wiping it in the sand.
'Trick? That a lantern fixed to a horse's head, bobbing up and down, can easily be mistaken in darkness for the light of a ship? Indeed, it is a good enough trick. The master taught me that. Make sure the men stack everything they find in the old tower. We have to be ready to leave soon after first light. We can return for the booty later.'
'I don't understand why we cannot stay and make a better job of it, Olcán,' protested one of the men.
'Are you questioning the orders of the master?' snapped the leader.
The man shook his head. 'But why ... ?'
'Because we have an appointment on the coast road. And the master will be here soon to make sure we keep it. Now let's get this spoil back to the fortress and get some rest. First light is not far off and it will be a long ride over the mountains tomorrow.'
He made to move away but his companion stayed him.
'Shouldn't we make a thorough search for any survivors?'
Olcán gave his humourless chuckle again.
'Anyone who survived would have made for this stretch of friendly sand. It's the only place there's a chance to land. The waves will have dashed most of them to their deaths on the rocks there. There'll be no survivors. If there are, we can make sure of them when it's light.'
Horrified, Esumaro pushed himself back into the undergrowth, not evennoticing the pricking of the brambles. He tried to make himself smaller, wishing he could vanish into the ground. Then he glanced at the sky. He would have to get away from this place before dawn when those men, whoever they were, came searching for survivors. They would surely kill him as they had killed poor Coros in cold blood.
It was beginning to get light when Esumaro came to his senses. He had a vague remembrance of walking in the darkness, of hiding behind clumps of reed and bushes, of crossing a stretch of waterlogged sand, of being propelled by fear: fear of those who had killed his first mate Coros and been responsible for the deaths of all his crew. He was trying to come to terms with the realisation that his ship had been purposely wrecked. Wrecked for its cargo. What kind of barbarians dwelt in this godforsaken place? Outrage, but predominantly fear, combined to propel him to place as much distance as he could between him and that awful shore before first light. He had no wish to suffer the same fate as Coros. When the fear had subsided, he told himself, he would find help to seek revenge on the wicked miscreants who had done this terrible deed.
He blinked his eyes in the morning light. It was so bright. He groaned, for he realised he was frozen. It was a moment before he understood what was causing the brightness. He lay in a great expanse of snow. Even the trees bent their branches under its weight. He felt weak and chill and groaned again. He was trying to move when there came the sound of a woman's nervous cry.
'I think he is alive, Reverend Mother.'
Esumaro blinked again and tried to focus his eyes. It was painful.
He realised that a young woman was bending over him. Under a heavy fur cloak, she wore the brown woollen robes of a religieuse with a metal cross hung from a leather thong round her neck.
A few yards away six other women, similarly clad, were standing watching with nervous expressions. They were mostly young.
The one who stood by him turned and called again more cheerfully: 'He is alive.'
Esumaro tried to ease himself up on one elbow. One of the watchers, a tall, handsome woman of middle age, came to her young companion's side and stood looking down. She wore a more ornate cross. She smiled and bent down.
'We thought you were dead,' she said simply. 'Are you ill? What hasbrought you to lie out here in the open in the middle of a snowstorm? Your clothes are soaked and torn. Have robbers attacked you?'
Esumaro strained as he tried to follow. Her speech was quick and accented.
'I ... I am cold,' he managed to say.
The woman frowned.
'Your speech is strange. You are not from this land?'
'I am ... am of Gaul, lady,' he stammered.
'You are far from Gaul. You seem to be wearing the clothing of a seaman.'
'I am ...' Esumaro clenched his jaw suddenly. He realised that everyone in this land was a potential enemy until they proved otherwise.
'What are you doing here?' continued the woman. 'You could freeze to death in this winter snow.'
'I was walking when I was overcome with fatigue.'
'Walking?' The woman looked at his feet with an inquisitive smile.
Esumaro glanced down and saw that he was wearing only one of his seaman's boots. He had no memory of losing the other. He was unsure whether it was lost during his escape from the wreck or later.
He asked quickly: 'What are you doing here, lady? Who are you?'
'I am the Abbess Faife from the abbey of Ard Fhearta. We are all from Ard Fhearta. We are journeying on the annual pilgrimage to the oratory of the founder of our abbey on Bréanainn's mount.'
Esumaro regarded her with some suspicion.
'But Ard Fhearta is to the north across these mountains. I have seen Bréanainn's mount from the sea and that also lies on the north side of this peninsula. This is the southern shore.'
Abbess Faife frowned but replied easily: 'You seem well acquainted with this area for a Gaulish sailor, for that is what I presume you are. But you seem distrustful, my friend. We have spent two nights at the abbey of Colman, where we had business to conduct. Having passed two days there, we are now on our journey westward to Bréanainn's mount. Why are you so suspicious?'
Esumaro felt slightly reassured.
'I am sorry, lady,' he said, deflecting her question. 'I am cold and hungry and very fatigued. I beg your pardon for my churlish questions. Is there some dry shelter nearby where I can rest?'
'There is a shelter a short distance behind us. We can spare some foodand a dry cloak - even shoes. The fire will still be warm for we have just paused to break our journey. We left the abbey of Colman well before dawn. Do you think you can walk?'
The Abbess Faife bent forward to help him as Esumaro rose painfully to his feet. He staggered for a moment and then managed to regain his balance. The young woman who stood by him came forward to help.
'And in what direction is the abbey of Colman?' he grunted.
'Not far along there to the east, but you have to walk round the bay.' She indicated the direction by inclining her head. 'You cannot walk far in your condition.'
'Thank you. I will rest awhile and then make my way to the abbey.'
'First you must get warm, put on some dry clothes and have some food. Come, let us get you to the shelter and you may change out of those sodden garments.'
Esumaro looked alarmed and the religieuse smiled.
'Have no fear. We are taking a bundle of clothing and shoes to Brother Maidíu who keeps the oratory on Bréanainn's mount. He is about your size, and if you have no objection to wearing the robes of a religieux for a while, his robes will fit you exactly.'
Abbess Faife turned and together with her younger companion helped Esumaro stumble a short distance across the snow. It was not far before he saw they were leading him to a small, conical, beehive-shaped hut of stone. He remembered that it was what people in these parts called a coirceogach, a very ancient stone dwelling. It stood back among the trees, hardly noticeable from the main track on which they had found him. Only the disturbed snow showed that people had used it recently. As they climbed towards it, he saw a wisp of smoke rising from it. Abbess Faife had been right.
There was soon a fire blazing. By its warmth he stripped off his sodden remnants of clothing and was given dry woollen robes from some of the bundles carried by the young Sisters of the Faith. The abbess had been correct when she had judged that the robes would fit him. They were warm enough and he did not complain. By the time he had changed, the young woman who had helped him was pressing on him a drink of some distilled spirit, and there was bread, cheese and cold meat laid out for him. Esumaro received them with expressions of gratitude but his eyelids were dropping and he could not hold back the wave of sleep engulfing him.
It was one of those short sleeps that, as captain, he had grown used to taking on board ship. It was deep but lasted only an hour before he raised his head, blinking and feeling refreshed. To his surprise, the group of religieuse were still seated by the fire.
The young woman who had discovered him was by his side and smiled softly.
'We thought it better to remain until you awoke,' she explained. 'There are wolves in the woods along here.'
The abbess moved over to them as he rubbed his eyes and sat up.
'I am rested,' he assured her before she had a chance to ask the question already forming on her lips.
'Are you sure that you will be all right now?' she asked. 'Rest a while further if you must, but do not fall asleep unless you can be sure of waking immediately. Wolves abide in these forests, as Sister Easdan has explained. But your journey to the abbey will be easy now. As for us, we must press on to the west, otherwise we will not reach our destination before sundown.'
'I am very well now,' Esumaro asserted solemnly. 'I am invigorated already and can never repay you for your kindness. Perhaps I will be able to pick up a Gaulish ship at the abbey of Colman?'
Abbess Faife shrugged.
'We saw no large ships when we were there and the steward of the abbey told us it has been several weeks since any arrived. It seemed to worry him. The abbey relies on the sea trade,' she added, not realising that Esumaro knew that fact well.
He was about to ask another question when the sound of galloping horses came to his ears. He joined the abbess to peer from the doorway of the stone hut and saw several horsemen riding swiftly along the track just below them. One of the men gave a sudden cry, pointing up towards them. The company changed direction and within a moment a dozen or so rough-looking warriors had surrounded them, their horses stamping and giving out great smoky wreaths of hot breath. The warriors carried their swords in their hands. Esumaro saw that in their midst was a shorter figure swathed from head to foot in grey robes so that no part of the body was visible. The cowl was drawn well down over the head. The figure was slight and the shoulders were rounded.
The Abbess Faife went forward and stood facing them with a frown.
'What do you seek here?' she demanded authoritatively.
The leading horseman, a coarse-looking man with a rough black beard, and a scar across his forehead, chuckled. It was not a pleasant sound.
'Why, we seek you and your religious brood, woman. Our master has need of you. So you are to come with us.'
Esumaro felt himself go cold. He recognised the voice as that of the leader of the wreckers from whom he had escaped. What was his name? Olcán!
'We serve only one master, that is the Christ, Jesus,' the abbess was replying. 'We are on our way to--'
'I know where you thought you were going, woman,' snapped the man. 'But I know where it is that you are now destined for. You will soon serve another master.' He spoke as if in a dark humour. 'Come, we have no time to waste.'
The abbess stood resolutely.
'I am the Abbess Faife of Ard Fhearta. Put up your swords and depart in peace. For we intend to go on to Bréanainn's mount and--'
Esumaro noticed that the black-bearded leader had glanced in the direction of the small grey-robed figure. There was an almost imperceptible movement of the cowled head.
But it happened without warning. It happened quickly.
The bearded leader simply leant forward from his saddle and thrust his sword swiftly into Abbess Faife's heart.
She was dead before she began sinking to the ground with an expression akin to surprise. As she fell back, the leader of the warriors turned to the abbess's shocked companions.
'I presume that no one else wants to argue with me? Gather your bundles and walk ahead of us or you will remain here with your abbess ... and join her in the Otherworld.'
Any cries of distress were silenced by momentary disbelief at what had happened.
Then the young religieuse who had first discovered Esumaro threw herself on her knees by the body of the slain abbess.
'You have killed her!' she sobbed, seeking in vain for a pulse. 'Why did you kill her? What kind of brute are you? Who are you?'
The man raised his sword again in a threatening manner.
'You ask too many questions, woman. Do you wish to remain here with her?'
Esumaro moved quickly forward, holding up a hand as if to ward offthe man's blade. At the same time, he bent swiftly and raised the young woman from the ground.
'Now is not the time to protest!' he whispered quickly. 'Not if you want to live.'
She paused for a fraction, glancing at the threatening warrior, turned her eyes to Esumaro and then nodded quickly, regaining her composure with just a tightening of the mouth to show the effort it took. As she rose, she reached out one hand as if to touch the breast of the abbess. Only Esumaro saw her fingers clutch at the thong that held the abbess's cross and wrench at it quickly. It came apart in her hold. She turned as if she was allowing Esumaro to help her away from the body and pressed the cross into his hands.
'You had better become one of us, until we find out what this means,' she muttered under her breath. Esumaro was surprised at the girl's quick thinking.
He took the cross. As his fingers closed over it, the voice of the warrior's leader snapped at him.
'You! That man there!'
Esumaro turned to him with narrowed eyes.
'Who are you?' The leader was looking suspiciously at him. 'You are not of the community of Ard Fhearta. I had not heard that a Brother of the Faith was accompanying this band.'
Esumaro thought rapidly, glancing towards the still silent figure hidden in the grey robes.
'Why ... I am ... Brother Maros, accompanying these Sisters in the Faith to Bréanainn's mount for the vigil.'
'Yet you do not wear the symbol of the Faith on your robes?'
Esumaro hesitated a moment. Then he held up the crucifix the quick-thinking young religieuse had passed to him.
'I was adjusting it when you and your men rode down on us. Do I have your permission to finish replacing it round my neck?'
'You are not from these parts?' The warrior's voice was suspicious when he heard Esumaro's accent.
'We of the Faith have to travel far and wide in search of souls to save,' intoned Esumaro with what he hoped was the correct tone of reverence.
The young woman, defiance on her features, came to his help.
'Brother Maros joined us at the abbey of Colman. He is a noted scholar from Gaul.'
The warrior frowned suspiciously. Again he seemed to glance for instruction to the grey-robed figure.
'From Gaul? How did you get to the abbey of Colmán? There have been no ships reaching there in many months.'
'I came to the port of Ard Mór in the south and have spent some months travelling through your country. How else would I speak your language so well?'
The warrior thought for a moment, glanced again at the small silent figure and shrugged. He seemed to see logic in the reply but was not completely satisfied.
'Yet you do not wear a tonsure. All religious wear tonsures.'
It was the young woman who answered for him.
'Brother Maros is a follower of the Blessed Budoc of Laurea, a learned scholar in his own land. His followers do not wear a tonsure.'
The warrior's eyes narrowed at her intervention.
'Can't he answer for himself?' he snapped.
Esumaro edged forward protectively in front of the young woman.
'I can. It is as my Sister in the Faith, Sister Easdan, says. I follow the Blessed Budoc.' He was glad he remembered the name that Abbess Faife had identified the girl with.
The black-bearded leader grunted, seemed about to say something, and then glanced once more at the robed figure. It was as if some communication passed between them again for he turned away and gestured for the company to move.
'Forward now and in silence,' he called. 'Remember, it is up to you if you wish to live or die. My men will be watchful.'
Esumaro turned his head to the young Sister Easdan with a look that he hoped conveyed his gratitude. He would have to ask her who this Budoc was. But what situation had he landed himself in? God in heaven! What evil had he been plunged into?
MASTER OF SOULS. Copyright © 2005 by Peter Tremayne. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. 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.