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Peter Tremayne

The Dove of Death

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.

Phaedrus, c. 15 BC — c. AD 50

Chapter One

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 Gé Ghúirainn, the Barnacle Goose — 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 Barnacle Goose 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 anruth, one degree below the highest the law school could bestow. Why didn’t you continue and become an ollamh, 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 Barnacle Goose, 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 Barnacle Goose, 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.

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