Peter Tremayne


“Fidelma! Do you have a moment?”

Fidelma had been crossing the quadrangle of the law school of the Brehon Morann when she was halted by the voice of the Ard-Ollamh, the chief professor, himself. She turned and smiled nervously as Brehon Morann approached. She had been studying at the famous law school for six years now and had recently passed her examination for the degree of clã shy;, which meant she was now able to practise law in most courts in the land but with limitations as to the cases that she could undertake. However, she was ambitious to become a fully qualified advocate, able to practise defence or prosecution in all fields of the law, and that would mean at least another two years of study.

Even with her present qualifications, she was still in awe of the distinguished figure of the chief professor of the school.

“I understand from the Ollamh Neit that you have recently been studying the laws relating to sanctuary with him?” Brehon Morann said as he halted before her.

“I have,” she acknowledged cautiously.

“Excellent. Then you will be interested in accompanying me to my chambers to hear some questions that a visitor has come to put to me. It seems he seeks advice on this subject.”

“He wishes to consult you on the law of sanctuary?” asked Fidelma, before she realised that her question had already been answered, and Brehon Morann hated repetition. The chief professor did not bother to answer her. Fidelma bowed her head slightly. It was something of an honour to be singled out by the chief professor and given such an invitation.

“I will be most interested,” she responded contritely.

A man was waiting in Brehon Morann’s chambers. A tall, pleasant-looking individual, with sandy-coloured hair, whose clothing and accoutrements pointed to the fact that he was a man of some rank.

“My steward, Adnaà shy;, informs me that you are Faichen Glas, an aire- deise of the shy; Echach Cobo,” Brehon Morann greeted him.

Fidelma realised from this introduction that Faichen Glas was a noble of some wealth and his people dwelt in the northern kingdom of Ulaidh.

The chief professor then introduced Fidelma and indicated that they should all be seated.

“What is the matter that brings you hither, Faichen Glas?” he prompted.

“I need advice, Brehon Morann. For a week I have been chasing a killer. A man who killed my own cousin. I have sworn an oath to capture him and take him back to my own people for trial. He has eluded me until now. I tracked him to a place not more than a day’s ride from here. However, I have found that he has taken refuge in a chapel where the priest in charge claims that he has been granted sanctuary. I have come to ask you, what can I do?”

Brehon Morann sat back with a sigh.

“The Laws of the Fénechus, our own laws, have very strict rules about the concept of refuge, and these predate even those on sanctuary brought in by the New Faith of Christ.” He paused. “I think you should tell us your story first and then we will come to the law in a moment. Who exactly is this killer that you seek?”

The noble of the shy; Echach Cobo grimaced.

“He is a man called Ulam Fionn, a drover without fixed land, who has long been suspected of taking cows from the local farmers among my people. He was never caught. It was noticed that he made a good enough profit at markets but nothing could be proved about the provenance of the livestock he sold there. Nine days ago, my cousin, Nessán, and his wife were awoken by the lowing of their cattle herd. It was in the morning, about first light. My cousin went out to see what ailed the cattle. The thief was caught in the act but he turned on my cousin and slew him before escaping.”

Fidelma coughed nervously.

Brehon Morann glanced at her.

“You have a question?”

“How was this man, Ulam Fionn, identified if your cousin was slain and he escaped?”

“Easy enough to answer,” replied Faichen Glas. “My cousin’s wife was the witness to the evil deed.”

“She was the only witness?”

“Only she, apart from her husband, saw Ulam Fionn.”

“Then why was she not attacked?”

Faichen Glas frowned, trying to understand the question.

It was Brehon Morann who explained Fidelma’s thinking.

“If she was the only witness to this deed, then this Ulam Fionn might well have contemplated silencing her- the silence of the grave.”

“From what she told me, the killer did not see her,” the noble replied. “She observed the killing from the window of the farmhouse and was too horrified and fearful to emerge before he left.”

“There is no doubt of her identification? She had a clear view of this man, Ulam Fionn?”

“She did. There is no question,” Faichen Glas assured her. “And his flight confirms his guilt. I have pursued him for nine days now in order to bring him back to my chief for justice.”

Brehon Morann looked thoughtful.

“He has taken refuge in a church here, you say? How did you find him?”

“It was known that he had a cousin named Ulpach who dwelt in this area. I do not know the man, but I was told that they are each as bad as the other, in so far as their morals are concerned. I thought that he might seek refuge with Ulpach but I could not trace either of them. I found a shepherd that had heard a rumour that someone had sought refuge with a religieux in the chapel of St. Benignus…”

“That’s about half a day’s ride from here,” mused Brehon Morann. “I do not know the religieux who has charge of it. He is fairly new to the area, by all accounts.”

Faichen Glas nodded in agreement.

“I rode there and this man, Brother Mongan was his name, told me that he had given Ulam Fionn sanctuary. I came to you, learned Brehon, to ask whether there is any way that I can take this murderer from the sanctuary and return him to Ulaidh for trial?”

Brehon Morann sat back for a moment and then turned with a smile to Fidelma.

“My young colleague here will tell you of the rights of sanctuary.”

Fidelma coloured, feeling ridiculously proud to be called a colleague of the chief professor. “Well,” she began hesitantly, “our laws provide for a place of asylum for those fugitives who seek refuge. And the rules of the New Faith are fairly similar to our concepts. Those of our scholars who have travelled abroad find the same system common in many lands.”

Faichen Glas was obviously impatient at the preamble but a frown from Brehon Morann checked him as Fidelma continued.

“In our law we have an area called the maigen, a precinct in which a fugitive may claim sanctuary surrounding any chieftain’s home. Its extent ranges from that of a minor chieftain, where it is reckoned as the extent of one spear cast from the central house, to that of a chief of the entire clan, where it is reckoned as the extent of sixty-four spear casts from the house. In the maigen, a fugitive can claim safety from all who seek to harm him.

“With the coming of the New Faith, the abbeys, churches, and monasteries have assumed the same role as the chieftain’s maigen in our law. The place of the fugitive is confined to what they call Termonn Land.” She glanced at the Brehon Morann. “The word is borrowed from the Latin word terminus, the limit or extent of the church lands. In these areas, for a pursuer to kill or injure a fugitive is to commit the crime of dà shy;guin, the violation of protection. For that there are prescribed punishments. A fugitive cannot be captured or harmed in these areas…”

“Unless?” It was Brehon Morann who prompted her when she hesitated.

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