The night was warm and fragrant; but as oppressively scented as only a Roman summer's night can frequently be. The gloom-shrouded courtyard of the Lateran Palace was filled with the bitter-sweet scents of the herbs that grew in the well-tended beds around its borders; the muskiness of basil and the pungent smell of rosemary ascended, almost overpoweringly, in the stifling air. The young officer-of-the-watch of the palace custodes raised his hand to wipe the perspiration from his brow where it gathered in droplets on his forehead beneath the bronze visor of his helmet. Although the atmosphere was sultry now, he reflected that in a few hours he would be glad of the warmth of the tough woollen sagus, hanging loosely from his shoulders, for the temperature would sink into a sudden pre-dawn chill.
The single bell from the nearby basilica of St John chimed the midnight hour, the hour of the Angelus. As the bell chimed, the young officer dutifully mumbled the ritual prayer: 'Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae ... The angels of the Lord announced unto Mary ...' He muttered the prayer automatically, with neither feeling for the words nor the meaning of the sentences. Perhaps it was because his mind was notconcentrating on the formula that he heard the noise.
Above the tenor chiming of the single bell and the gushing of the small fountain in the centre of the courtyard, there came another sound to the young man's ears. The sound of leather scraping on paving stone. The youthful custos frowned, holding his head to one side to identify the direction of the noise.
He was sure that he had heard a heavy footfall in the dark shadows of the far side of the courtyard.
'Who's there?' he demanded.
No answer came back.
The officer-of-the-watch eased his short sword from its leather sheath, the broad-bladed gladius with which the famed legions of Rome had once imposed their imperial will on the peoples of the world. He frowned at his inconsequential thought. Now this same short sword defended the safety of the palace of the Bishop of Rome, the Holy Father of the Universal Church of Christ - Sacroscancta Laternensis ecclesia, omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput.
'Who is there? Show yourself' he called again, his voice raising harshly with the command.
No answer again but ... yes; the officer heard a shuffling, hurried step now. Someone was moving away from the shrouded courtyard and down one of the darkened alleyways. The custos silently cursed the darkness of the courtyard but, with swift strides, he moved over its paved stones and reached the entrance to the alley. In the gloom he could see a figure, with hunched shoulders, moving rapidly along it.
The young officer summoned as much force as he could into his voice.
The figure broke into a run, the leather of its flat-soledsandals slapping noisily on the stone.
Letting dignity go to the wind, the custos began to run down the alley. While he was young and agile, his quarry seemed more nimble for when the officer reached the end of the alley there was no sign of the object of his pursuit. The alley opened out into a larger courtyard. This courtyard, unlike the smaller courtyard from where he had come, was well lit with several blazing torches. The reason for this was simple; this courtyard was surrounded by the chambers of the administrators of the papal palace while the smaller courtyard gave entrance only to the guests' sleeping quarters.
The young officer halted, eyes narrowed, and stared around the large rectangle. On the far side, against the entrance to one of the main buildings he could see two of his fellow custodes standing guard. If he called to them for assistance, he might warn his quarry. He compressed his lips and continued his narrow-eyed examination. But he could see no one else. He began to walk across the courtyard with the purpose of asking the other custodes if they had seen anyone exit from the alleyway when he was halted by a slight noise behind him to his left.
He swung round peering into the gloom.
A dark figure stood before one of the doors facing onto the courtyard.
'Identify yourself' he commanded harshly.
The figure stiffened and then took a few paces forward but made no reply.
'Come forward and be identified!' snapped the officer, sword held ready across his breastplate.
'In the name of God,' wheezed a voice unctuously, 'you identify yourself first!'
Surprised by the answer, the young man replied:
'I am the tesserarius Licinius of the custodes. Now identify yourself!' Licinius could not help a sense of pride in his rank for he had been newly promoted. In the ancient imperial army the rank signified the officer who received from his general the ticket, or tessera, on which the password of the day was written. For the custodes of the Lateran Palace, it was the rank of the officer-of-the-watch.
'I am Brother Aon Duine,' came the reply in the lisping accent of a foreigner. The man made a further step forward so that the flickering light of a nearby torch fell on his features. Licinius observed that the man was slightly rotund and spoke with the wheeze of someone with respiratory problems, or someone who might have been running shortly before.
Licinius examined the man suspiciously and motioned him forward another pace so that the light might fully illuminate him. The brother had a full, moon face and wore the outlandish tonsure of an Irish monk whereby the front of the head was shaved from a line from ear to ear with the hair worn long behind.
'Brother "Ayn-dina"?' He tried to repeat the name given to him by the monk.
The man smiled a pleasant affirmation of the name.
'What are you doing here at this hour?' the young officer demanded.
The rotund, middle-aged monk spread his hands.
'That is my office, tesserarius,' he said in explanation, motioning to the building behind him.
'Have you been in the small courtyard yonder?' Licinius asked, pointing with his short sword up the dark alleyway.
The moon-faced monk blinked and looked surprised.
'Why should I have been there?'
Licinius sighed in exasperation.
'I chased someone down that alley but a moment ago. Do you say that it was not you?'
The monk shook his head vigorously.
'I have been at my desk until I left my office just now. I came into the courtyard and was accosted by you as I stepped beyond the door.'
Licinius sheathed his sword and passed a hand across his forehead in perplexity.
'And you saw no one else, someone who had been running?'
Again the monk shook his head emphatically.
'None before you called on me to identify myself.'
'Then forgive me, brother, and be about your business.'
The rotund monk paused only a moment to bow his head in gratitude before scurrying away across the courtyard, the leather of his sandals slapping as he made his way through the arched entrance to the streets of the city beyond.
One of the guards from the main gate, a decurion, had crossed the courtyard to see what the disturbance was about.
'Ah, Licinius! It's you. What is happening?'
The tesserarius grimaced in his annoyance.
'Someone was skulking up in the small courtyard yonder, Marcus. I challenged him and chased him down here. Now he seems to have eluded me.'
The decurion named Marcus chuckled softly.
'Why should you be pursuing anyone, Licinius? What's so improper about anyone being in the small courtyard at this hour or any hour?'
Licinius looked sourly at his colleague, feeling bitter at the world and, in particular, the guard duty he had landed that night.
'Don't you know? The domus hospitale, the guest chambers, are situated there. And His Holiness has special guests; bishops and abbots from the outlandish Saxon kingdoms. I was told to mount a special guard on them, for the Saxons are said to have enemies in Rome. I have been told to question anyone behaving suspiciously in the vicinity of the guest chambers.'
The other custos gave a dismissive sniff.
'I thought the Saxons were still pagans?' He paused and then nodded in the direction in which the monk had vanished. 'Who were you questioning just now if that was not your suspicious character?'
'An Irish monk. Brother "Ayn-dina", he called himself. He happened to come out of his office there and I thought he might have been the man whom I was pursuing. Anyway, he hadn't seen anyone.'
The decurion grinned crookedly.
'That door leads to no office but to the storehouse of the sacellarius, His Holiness' treasurer. It has been padlocked for years, certainly ever since I have been a guard here.'
With a startled look at his comrade, Licinius grabbed the nearby brand torch from its metal holder and took it to the door from which the monk had claimed to emerge. The rusted bolts and padlock confirmed the decurion's statement. The tesserarius Licinius swore in a language totally unfitted for a member of His Holiness' palace guard.
The man sat hunched over the wooden table, head bent over a sheet of vellum, his mouth compressed in a thin line of concentration. In spite of the position of his body, it was obvious that he was a tall man. His head was uncovered showing the distinctive tonsure of the religious on the crownof his head, surrounded by tufts of jet-black hair which balanced his swarthy skin and dark eyes. His features spoke of a life lived constantly in a warm climate. They were thin, the nose aquiline and prominent; the nose of a Roman patrician. The cheekbones were conspicuous under the sunken flesh. The face was scarred somewhat, perhaps from the ravages of smallpox contracted in his childhood. The narrow lips were red almost as if their colour was artificially heightened.
He was quiet and still as he bent to his task.
Even if the tonsure had not marked his religious calling, his clothing did so for he wore the mappula, a white fringed cloth, the campagi, flat, black slippers and udones, white stockings, all inherited from the imperial magistrature of the Roman Senate, which now marked him as a senior member of the Roman clergy. Even more distinctive was the thin scarlet silk tunica and the ornate crucifix of gold inlaid with precious stones which also proclaimed him to be more than a simple cleric.
The soft tinkle of a bell interrupted his concentration and he glanced up with an expression of irritation.
A door opened at one end of the large cool marble hall to allow a young monk in a rough brown homespun habit to enter. The newcomer carefully shut the door behind him; then, folding his arms in his broad sleeves, he hurried to the table at which the man sat, his flat-soled slippers slapping hollowly on the mosaic floor of the hall as he seemed to waddle, almost duck fashion.
'Beneficio tuo,' the monk bowed his head and uttered the ritual opening.
The older man sat back and sighed, not returning the ritual but simply waving his hand for the monk to state his business.
'By your leave, Venerable Gelasius, there is a young sister in the outer chamber who demands to be received.'
Gelasius raised a dark eyebrow threateningly.
'Demands? A young sister, you say?'
'From Ireland. She has brought the rule of her monastery to be received and blessed by the Holy Father and bears some personal messages from Ultan of Armagh to His Holiness.'
Gelasius smiled thinly.
'So the Irish still seek the blessing of Rome even when they argue against the practices of Rome? Is that not a curious contradiction, Brother Donus?'
The monk contrived to shrug with his arms still folded in his voluminous sleeves.
'I know little of these outlandish places, save that I believe the people follow the heresy of Pelagius.'
Gelasius pursed his lips.
'And the young sister demands ... ?' He accented the word for the second time.
'She has been waiting to be received these five days, Venerable Gelasius. Some bureaucratic muddle, no doubt.'
'Well, as this sister brings us word from the archbishop of Armagh we should receive her at once, especially as our young sister has journeyed all this way to Rome. Yes, let us see her and the rule she brings and hear her arguments as to whether the Holy Father should receive her. Does this young sister have a name, Brother Donus?'
'Indeed,' replied the young monk. 'But it is some peculiar name which I cannot quite pronounce. It is similar to either Felicity or Fidelia.'
A wan smile spread over Gelasius' thin lips.
'Either may be a portent, for Felicitas was the goddess ofgood fortune in Rome, while Fidelia means one that can be trusted - faithful and steadfast. Bid her enter.'
The young monk bowed and slapped his way across the expanse of the echoing hall to the door.
Gelasius set his papers aside and sat back in his carved wooden chair to watch the entrance of the young foreigner announced by his factotum, Brother Donus.
The door opened and a tall figure in the robes of a religieuse entered. The dress was obviously foreign to Rome, Gelasius observed; the undyed wool camilla and white linen tunica placed the wearer as someone newly arrived in Rome's warmer climate. The woman crossed the mosaic floor of the hall with a youthful spring to her step that seemed at odds with the demure posture required by the religious habit. But her manner of approach was not ungraceful. Gelasius noted that while she was tall, her figure was well proportioned. Rebellious strands of red hair streaked from under her headdress. His dark eyes alighted on the young, attractive features of her face and stayed fascinated by the bright green of her eyes.
She halted before him, frowning slightly. Gelasius remained seated in his chair and stretched out his left hand, on whose third finger was a large gold band inset with an emerald stone. The young woman hesitated and then stretched forth her right hand to grip Gelasius' hand gently, jerking her head forward stiffly from the neck.
Gelasius controlled his surprised features. In Rome a member of the religious would have knelt before him and kissed his ring in token of recognition of his high office. This strange young foreigner had merely bowed her head in acknowledgment of his office and not in obsequiousness. Herexpression was slightly fixed as if to disguise her irritation.
'Welcome, Sister ... Fidelia ... ?' Gelasius hesitated over the name.
The young woman's expression did not change.
'I am Fidelma of Kildare in the kingdom of Ireland.'
Gelasius noted her voice was firm and not awed by the tapestried splendour of her surroundings. Strange, he reflected, how these foreigners seemed unaffected by the might, wealth and sanctity of Rome. Britons and Irish reminded him of the stiff-necked Gauls he had read about in Caesar and Tacitus. Wasn't there a king of the Britons, brought by Claudius as a captive to Rome, who, looking on the mighty splendour, had not been struck with dread but merely said: 'And when you have all this, do you still envy us our hovels in Britain?' Gelasius was a man proud of his Roman patrician past and often wished he had been born in the golden days of the empire of the early Caesars. He stirred uncomfortably at the thought which was at odds with the humble ambition of his faith and brought his mind back to the figure before him.
'Sister Fidelma?' he repeated the name carefully.
The young woman gestured gracefully in acknowledgement of his pronunciation.
'I have come here at the request of the archbishop Ultan of Armagh to bring ...'
Gelasius held up his hand to still the tide of words that came rushing out.
'Is this your first visit to Rome, sister?' he asked softly.
She paused and then nodded, wondering if she had made some error of protocol in address to this senior figure of the church whose name the factotum had not even informed her of.
'How long have you been in our beautiful city?'
Gelasius wondered if he had heard that young woman repress a sigh? There was a slight movement, an exaggerated rise and fall of her bosom.
'I have been seeking audience with the Bishop of Rome for five days ... I regret that I have not been informed of your name or position.'
Gelasius' thin lips trembled with the hint of a smile. He admired the young woman's directness.
'I am Bishop Gelasius,' he replied. 'I hold the office of nomenclator to His Holiness. My function is to receive all petitions to the Holy Father, assess whether he is to see them and offer my advice to him.'
Sister Fidelma's eyes lightened.
'Ah, now I see why I have been sent before you,' she commented, the square set of her shoulders dropping slightly as she relaxed a little. 'It is difficult to respond adequately when no one tells you of the rituals of office here. You will forgive me if I make mistakes and blame it merely on my foreign birth and upbringing?'
Gelasius inclined his head in humorous solemnity.
'Nicely said, sister. You speak an excellent Latin for one whose first visit it is to our city.'
'I am also versed in Greek and have a little Hebrew. I have a small facility with languages and even speak some of the tongue of the Saxons.'
Gelasius stared hard at her in case she was gently mocking him. There was no boast to the woman's tone and Gelasius was impressed by her continued directness.
'And where did you achieve these accomplishments?'
'I studied as a noviate at Kildare, in the house establishedby the Blessed Brigid, and later with Morann at Tara.'
Gelasius frowned in surprise.
'You studied and learnt your languages only in Ireland? Well, I have heard of your schools but now I have proof of their excellence. Be seated, sister, and let us discuss the reason for your visit here. The journey from Ireland must have been long and tiring and fraught with dangers? Surely you did not make it alone?'
Fidelma glanced round in the direction Gelasius had indicated, saw a small wooden chair nearby and moved it into position facing the bishop. She sat down and settled herself before replying.
'I journeyed here in the company of Brother Eadulf of Canterbury who is scriba to Wighard, the archbishop-designate of Canterbury in the Saxon kingdom of Kent.'
Gelasius raised a quizzical brow.
'Surely I am told that you Irish have little in common with Canterbury or are you one of the few Irish brethren who has accepted the rule of Rome rather than that of Columba?'
Fidelma smiled faintly.
'I hold to the rule of Palladius and Patrick who converted our small island to the faith,' she said quietly. 'I had been attending the synod at Witebia and came to know the Saxon delegates. It was at the end of the synod that Deusdedit, the archbishop of Canterbury, fell sick and died of the Yellow Plague. Wighard, as archbishop-designate, announced his intention to journey here, to Rome, for the papal blessing of his office, and, as Ultan had instructed me to bring the Regula coenobialis Cill Dara here, I decided to journey in the company of Brother Eadulf, whom I had come to know and respect.'
'And what were you doing in attendance at the council atWitebia, sister? I have already had news of that argument between the advocates for usage of the customs of Rome and those of your own Irish churches. Did not our Roman representatives win the argument and cause the withdrawal of your Irish delegates?'
Fidelma ignored the mocking tone in Gelasius' voice.
'I attended the synod to give legal advice to the delegates of our church.'
The bishop's eyebrow shot up in astonishment.
'You were there to give legal advice?' he asked in bemusement.
'I am not only a religieuse but a dálaigh of the Brehon Court of Ireland ... that is, I am an advocate tutored in both the code of the civil law of the Senchus Mór and of the criminal law of the Leabhar Acaill by which our country is governed in justice.'
Gelasius' face was a mask of incredulity.
'Is it then the custom for the kings of Ireland to allow women to be advocates in their courts of law?'
Fidelma shrugged indifferently.
'Among my people, woman can fulfil any profession including kingship and the leadership of their people in battle. Who has not heard of Macha of the Red Tresses, our greatest warrior queen? Yet I have heard that women are not so equally regarded in Rome.'
'You may be assured of it,' Gelasius replied vehemently.
'Is it true that no women can then aspire to any of the learned professions for public practice in Rome?'
'Then it is a strange society that denies itself the use of the talents of half of its population.'
'No stranger, good sister, than a society that allows women an equal place. In Rome you will observe that the father or husband has complete control over the women of his family.'
Fidelma grimaced sarcastically.
'It is a wonder that I am allowed to tread the streets of this city without being accosted for my effrontery.'
'Your habit is recognised in place of the stola matronalis and you may not only visit public places of worship, but theatres, shops and law courts. However, these privileges are not open to one who does not wear the habit of a religieuse or who is unmarried. Maidens must remain in the proximity of their own homes. However, women of our upper classes can even take an influential part in affairs of business provided it is done in the privacy of their own palaces and conducted through their husbands or fathers.'
Fidelma shook her head sombrely.
'Then this is a sad city for women.'
'It is the city of the Blessed Peter and of Paul who brought us light in the darkness of our paganism and it was given to Rome to spread that light throughout the world.'
Gelasius spoke proudly, perhaps too proudly, as he sat back and studied the young woman. He was a man of his nation, his city and his class.
Fidelma made no reply. She was diplomat enough to realise when words led only to bolted doors. After a moment or two it was Gelasius who prompted the conversation.
'Your journey, then, was without incident?'
'The journey from Massilia was quiet except for one point when a sail appeared on the southern horizon and the captain nearly ran the ship on to some rocks for fear.'
Gelasius' expression was serious.
'It might have been a ship of some of the fanatical Arabian followers of Mahomet who have been raiding throughout the Mediterranean against all the ships and ports of our Emperor Constans. They continually ravage our southern ports. Thanks be to God, that your ship was safely delivered from their hands.' Gelasius paused to reflect a moment before continuing: 'And do you have good accommodation in the city?'
'Thank you, I have. I am lodging in a small hostel not far from here next to the oratory of the Blessed Prassede by the Via Merulana.'
'Ah, the hostel administered by the deacon Arsenius and his good wife Epiphania?'
'Good. I shall know where to contact you. Now let us examine the messages you have brought from Ultan of Armagh.'
Fidelma's well-shaped chin raised a little pugnaciously.
'Those are for the eyes of His Holiness alone.'
Gelasius' brows drew together in annoyance, he stared at the bold green eyes confronting him and then he seemed to change his mind and nodded with a broad smile.
'You are quite right, sister. But it is the rule here that they pass through my office as nomenclator. I must also examine the rule that you have brought for the Holy Father to bless. That is in my jurisdiction to examine,' he added with mocking emphasis.
Sister Fidelma reached within her robes and drew forth the rolls of vellum. She handed them across to the bishop. He unrolled them, glancing through their contents before setting them aside on his table.
'I will read them at my leisure and then ask my scriptor toexamine them. If all is well, we can arrange an audience with His Holiness seven days from now.'
He saw the corners of her mouth turn down.
'No sooner?' she asked in disappointment.
'Are you, then, in such a hurry to leave our beautiful city?' Gelasius asked mockingly.
'My heart yearns for my own country, lord bishop, that is all. I have been away from her shores for many months now.'
'Then, my child, a few days more will not matter. There is much to see here before you return, especially as it is your first pilgrimage to this place. Doubtless you will wish to visit the Vatican Hill where the basilica of the Blessed Peter stands over the tomb of that saintly man, that saintly rock upon which Christ ordained that his church should be built. On that very hill we are told that our blessed Lord appeared to Peter as he was leaving the city where Nero was persecuting his brethren. There Peter turned and retraced his footsteps to the city to be crucified with his flock and there he was taken for burial.'
Fidelma lowered her head to hide her irritation that the Bishop presumed her so lacking in knowledge.
'I will await your summons then, Gelasius,' she said, rising from her seat and standing as if waiting for his dismissal. Indeed, Gelasius had to hide his astonishment again that this young girl seemed to be effortlessly in control when he was so used to being in charge.
'Tell me, Fidelma of Kildare, are there many like you in that country of yours?'
Fidelma frowned, trying to understand his meaning.
'I have met many men from your country, we even have some working here in the Lateran Palace, but my experienceswith the women of your land are limited. Are they all as forthright as you?'
Fidelma smiled evenly.
'I can only speak for myself, Gelasius. But, as I have told you, in my land a woman is not subservient to a man. We believe that our creator made us equal. Perhaps, one day, you should journey to the land of Ireland and see its beauty and its treasures.'
'I may well do so. I may well, though I am afraid the passing of my years have been too many to contemplate arduous journeys now. In the meantime I hope you will enjoy our city. You may go. Deus vobiscum.'
Satisfied that he had finally managed to take control of the ending of the interview he reached forward and rang a tiny silver handbell.
He held out his left hand and once more, to his irritation, Fidelma simply took the hand and inclined her head rather than kissing his ring of office as was the custom in Rome.
The tall sister turned and walked across the chamber to where Brother Donus stood holding the door open.
Copyright © 1995 by Peter Tremayne.