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Peter Tremayne

Our Lady of Darkness

Darkness brings our fears to light rather than banishes them.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (‘The Younger’ c. 4BC-AD65)

Chapter One

The horses cantered along the dusk-shrouded mountain road. There were four of them, snorting and blowing as their riders urged them forward. The travellers consisted of three men and a woman. The men wore the garments and weaponry of warriors but the woman was distinguished from her companions not only by her sex but by the fact that she was clad in the robes of a religieuse. While the evening gloom cloaked their individual features, it was clear from the state of their mounts and the fatigued attitude with which they rode them that the four had journeyed many a kilometre that day.

‘Are you sure that this is the right road?’ called the woman, casting an anxious glance around at the entangling woods through which they were rapidly descending. The track across the mountain dipped steeper into the valley. Below them, just discernible in the fading light, was a broad glen with a sizable river snaking through it.

The young, dust-covered warrior who rode at her side spoke out.

‘I have ridden many times as a courier from Cashel to Fearna, lady, and I know this route well. A kilometre or so ahead we will come to a place where another river flows from the west to join the river you see below us. There, by the joining of the rivers, is Morca’s inn where we may spend the night.’

‘But every hour counts, Dego,’ replied the woman. ‘Can’t we press on to Fearna tonight?’

The warrior hesitated before replying, doubtless wondering how to make himself firm but phrasing his words with respect.

‘Lady, I promised your brother, the King, that I and my companions would keep you safe on this journey. I would not advise travelling in this countryside at night. There are many dangers in this area for the likes of us. If we stay at the inn and make an early start in the morning, we will be at the castle of the King of Laigin well before noon tomorrow. And we will arrive refreshed after a night’s rest, rather than tired and weary from riding through the night.’

The tall religieuse was silent and the warrior called Dego tookher silence as an acceptance of his advice.

Dego was a member of the warrior guard of Colgú, King of Muman; it had been the King himself who had summoned him with an order to escort his sister, Fidelma of Cashel, to Fearna, the capital of the Kingdom of Laigin, whose lands bordered Colgú’s kingdom. There had been little reason to ask why Fidelma was making this journey, for the news had been freely bruited about the great palace of Cashel.

Fidelma had arrived home from a pilgrim voyage to the Tomb of St James, her journey hastened by the news that Brother Eadulf, the Saxon emissary to Cashel from Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, had been accused of murder. The details were as yet unclear but, so the gossip had it, Brother Eadulf had been returning to Canterbury, which lay in the land of the Saxons to the east when, passing through the kingdom of Laigin, he had been captured and accused of killing someone. There were no other details.

What was well known among the people of Cashel was that, during the past year, Brother Eadulf not only had become a friend of King Colgú but a close companion of his sister, Fidelma. The talk had it that Fidelma had determined to journey to Laigin in order to take up the defence of her friend, for she was not merely a religieuse but a dálaigh, an advocate, of the law courts of the five kingdoms.

Gossip or not, Dego knew that Fidelma had landed from the pilgrim ship at Ardmore, ridden hard for Cashel and spent barely an hour or so with her brother, before setting off for Fearna, Laigin’s capital, where Eadulf was being held. In fact, Dego and his companions were hard pressed to keep up with the grim-faced Fidelma who seemed to be able to ride better than any of them.

Dego was nervous as he glanced at her now. There was a glint in her blue-green eyes which boded ill for anyone who would contradict her will. He was certain that his recommendation was the best course of action, but he was also anxious that Fidelma understood his reasons for suggesting it. He knew well enough that she was anxious to reach the Laigin capital as soon as possible.

‘There is enmity between Cashel and Fearna, lady,’ he ventured, after some thought. ‘There is still war along the border of Osraige. Should we fall in with wandering bands of Laigin warriors, they might not respect the protection of your office.’

Fidelma’s stern features softened momentarily.

‘I am aware of the situation, Dego. You are wise in your advice.’

She said no more. Dego opened his mouth to speak again but another glance at her made him realise that to say anything else would merely be superfluous and might annoy her.

After all, there was none better qualified than Fidelma to know the position of the dispute between Cashel and Fearna. She had clashed with the excitable young King Fianamail of Laigin before. Fianamail was certainly no friend of Cashel and, in particular, he now nursed a grudge against Fidelma.

Young Dego, knowing this, admired his lady’s courage for riding immediately to the aid of her Saxon friend, straight into the enemy’s lands. Only the fact that she was a dálaigh of the courts allowed her to move so freely, without let or hindrance. No person in the five kingdoms would dare lay hands on her for they would face a terrible retribution; the loss of their honour price, to be outcast forever from society, without the law to protect them. No lawful person would knowingly lay hands on a dálaigh of the courts, especially one such as Fidelma who had been honoured by the High King, Sechnassach, himself. The mantle of a dálaigh of the courts was a greater protection than being either sister to the King of Muman or, indeed, being a religieuse of the Faith of Christ.

However, it was not those who subscribed to the law that Dego was worried about. He knew the minds of King Fianamail and his advisers could be dark and deep. It would be so easy to have Fidelma killed and swear it was done by a wandering band of outlaws. That was why Colgú had sought out his three best warriors and asked them to accompany his sister to Laigin. He did not order them to go for they would be in as much danger as she was, although he did present each with a wand of office indicating that they acted as his emissaries under the protection of the laws of an embassy. It was the maximum that was in his power to give them as legal protection.

Dego, and his companions, Enda and Aidan, riding behind with eyes constantly alert for danger, had no hesitation in accepting the charge laid on them, in spite of their misgivings about the trustworthiness of the King of Laigin. Where Fidelma went, they would willingly follow, for the people of Cashel reserved a special place of affection for the tall, red-haired young sister of their King.

‘The inn is just ahead,’ called Enda from behind.

Dego screwed up his eyes to penetrate the gloom.

He could see a lantern swinging from its pole, the traditional methodby which innkeepers announced the presence of their establishments — to literally light the way for weary travellers. Dego halted his horse before the group of buildings. A couple of stable boys ran forward from the shadows to take their mounts and hold them while the riders undid their saddlebags and moved towards the tavern doors.

A broad-shouldered, elderly man opened the doors, letting a shaft of light fall across them as they approached the wooden steps on which he stood.

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