Authors: Peter Tremayne
Tags: #_NB_Fixed, #_rt_yes, #blt, #Clerical Sleuth, #Fiction, #Suspense, #Medieval Ireland
For my old friend Professor Per Denez, who first suggested that Fidelma visit Brittany; for Bernez ar Nail, for his advice and guidance; for Yves Borius, former mayor of Sarzhav (Sarzeau) near Brilhag and Conseil Général du Morbihan; for Hervé Latimier and Jean-Michel Mahé, for their translations of Fidelma into Breton; for Marie-Claude and Claud David for their hospitality and, indeed, for all my many Breton friends.
Gant ar spi e c’hello pobl Vreizh adkemer un deiz he flas e-touez pobloù ar bed gant he yezh hag he sevenadur.
‘With the hope that the ancient Breton nation, its language and culture, takes its place once more among the nations of the world.’
Dat veniam corvis, vexat censura columbas.
The censor (magistrate) forgives the crows but blames the doves.
Juvenal, 1st – 2nd century AD
Non semper ea sunt quae videntur.
Things are not always what they appear to be.
15 BC –
of Cashel, a
or advocate of the law courts of seventh-century Ireland
of Seaxmund’s Ham in the land of the South Folk, her companion
of Cashel, Fidelma’s cousin and envoy of her brother Colgú, King of Muman
the cabin boy
On the island of Hoedig
a Roman cleric
On the Rhuis peninsula
of the abbey of the Blessed Gildas
At the fortress of Brilhag
son of the
(lord) of Brilhag
stewardess of the household
commander of the guard at Brilhag
his deputy and a tracker
, or judge to the
wife of Alain the Tall, King of the Bretons
commander of her bodyguard
her female attendant
(the Tall), King of the Bretons
, Lord of Brilhag
or judge of Bro-Gernev
an apothecary from Constantinopolis
Koulm ar Maro
, ‘The Dove of Death’
The events in this story occur during the summer of AD 670 and follow those described in
The Council of the Cursed
. Fidelma and Eadulf are returning after their adventure at the Council of Autun in the land of the Burgunds via the seaport of Naoned (Nantes) in what had been called Armorica – ‘the land before the sea’. The sea route home would bring them along the south coast of the peninsula before turning north, avoiding the Roches de Penmarc’h, and turning north-west across the Baie d’Audierne and on to Ireland.
Armorica had now become known as ‘Little Britain’ (Brittany). Its original Gaulish Celtic population had been reinforced by waves of British Celtic refugees during the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries. These Britons were seeking asylum from the invading Anglo-Saxons, who were then carving out their kingdoms in southern Britain – kingdoms that were eventually to unite in the tenth century as Angle-land or England.
As St Gildas (
. AD 570), one of the British refugees, wrote in
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain
), the British Celts were being either massacred or forced to flee across the seas from the
The British refugees brought to Armorica their dialect of
Celtic, which was not too different from the native Gaulish language, and are today called Bretons. I have used this name to make them more easily distinguished from the original Britons.
In Fidelma’s time the great Breton abbeys were centres of Celtic learning and literacy. The first surviving Breton language manuscript dates from the eighth century AD and is a century older than the oldest text in French. This is the
Leiden Mss Vossianus
held in Leyden in the Netherlands. It is a treatise on biology written by Breton scholars and unique among early medieval Celtic manuscripts for containing Celtic words in a medical context. It was in the eighth century also that it became possible to distinguish Breton from Cornish and from Welsh. Prior to this, the three languages were indistinguishable, not yet having developed as dialects of their British (Celtic) parent. This is why, in this story, Fidelma and Eadulf, who have some knowledge of the language of the Britons, sometimes find it hard to understand Breton.
There was also a great deal written in Latin by Breton religious. Texts of some forty saints’ lives are known from the seventh to fourteenth centuries. There is also a
Libri Romanorum et Francorum
, which is actually a collection of laws pertaining to Brittany. At one time, scholars wrongly ascribed it as
(Welsh Canons), but it is now thought to have been composed in Brittany in the sixth century. It survives only in a ninth-century copy.
Brittany at the time of this story was divided into several petty kingdoms, each giving allegiance to one overall ruler acknowledged as King of the Bretons. Because of the destruction of records and confusion of dating, the precise dates of reigns can never be asserted with absolute certainty. However, it is certain that Alain Hir (the Tall) ruled at this time.
Of the main Breton territories, by AD 670, Domnonia, in the
north, had become dominant and Alain Hir had descended from its ruling house. Domnonia had united with the southern lands of Bro-Erech, which became renamed Bro-Waroch in honour of one of its most famous rulers. There was also the south-west kingdom of Bro-Gernev (Kernev) later called in French Cornouaille. Gradlon ap Alain ruled it at this time. To the north-west of the peninsula was Bro-Leon, whose last King, Ausoch, had died around AD 590 and so this small kingdom had become a fiefdom. There was also the semi-independent territory of Pou-Kaer or Poher, which was eventually united with Cornouaille.
One can see, in the evidence of these place-names, some of the origins of the British refugees. Domnonia was settled by refugees from Dumnonia in southern Britain, the origin of the modern English county called Devon. Kernev or Cornouaille in Brittany is the same as Kernow or Cornwall in Britain.
For those of a technical questioning mind, I have accepted the chronology of St Theophanes Confessor (
. AD 758–818), the Byzantine aristocrat, ascetic monk and historian, when he refers to the invention of
(sea, or liquid fire) being in use just before AD 670. He points out that the invention of what we now call ‘Greek Fire’ was made by Callinicus, an architect and refugee from Heliopolis in Phoenice (the modern Becaa Valley in Lebanon). Callinicus had fled to Constantinople as a refugee after the Islamic conquest of the area. This
was difficult to extinguish – indeed, water served to spread the flames. Even as late as the tenth century, Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus cautioned his son, in
De Administrando Imperio
, not to give three things to a foreigner – a crown, the hand of a royal princess, and the secret of ‘liquid fire’.
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
– 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
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
, one degree below the highest the law school could bestow. Why didn’t you continue and become an
, 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
, 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
, 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
. 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.