In Behold a Pale Horse Peter Tremayne brings us a perplexing case of murder and conspiracy in the pagan wilds of Northern Italy
In 664 A.D., just after the events detailed in Shroud for the Archbishop, Fidelma of Cashel takes a unexpected detour on her trip home from Rome. While in the port at Genua (modern day Genoa), Fidelmasister of one Ireland's kings and an advocate in her country's law courtsreceives word that one of her old teachers, Brother Ruadan, is reaching the end of his days. Determined to see her old mentor one last time, Fidelma takes the treacherous journey to a remote abbey in the countrysidea place where the old pagan religion still has a hold and where even the Christians are often in bloody conflict with each other. But after she hears her dying teacher's last words, Fidelma's most dangerous adventure has just begun. With one murder after the next and a vicious war in the offing, it is up to Fidelma, alone and on her own, to unravel an extraordinary conspiracy before it is too late.
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Behold a Pale Horse
The elderly man was obviously a religieux. He wore the corona spina, the tonsure of St Peter, and a long brown woollen homespun cloak over a robe of similar material, with leather sandals on his feet. Marking him as being above the lower orders of religious brethren, he carried a staff of office topped with a small silver hook as if it were a crozier of the type a bishop might use.
He hurried by Sister Fidelma without a glance, the soles of his sandals slapping on the cobbles of the narrow street. Fidelma was sheltering under the thatch cover of a little house in the crowded section of the old seaport where she had found lodgings. She barely glanced up as the man passed her, registering the details only subconsciously. In truth, she was bored and her mind preoccupied with the question of how she could pass the time; pass another day in this dreary harbour town where she had been stranded for several days.
It seemed a lifetime ago since she had left Rome to travel down the Tiber to the seaport of Ostia and thence obtain a passage for Massilia. Everything appeared to go well at first. The ship set sail with a blustery wind from the south-east, and the captain was confident of an easy voyage. Before theday was out, however, everything had gone wrong. The wind suddenly changed direction, a storm came out of nowhere and a sail was ripped, a spar cracked and the ship was driven against some rocks, splintering the planking around the keel. Fidelma could not blame the captain for poor seamanship. In fact, he had saved the lives of his passengers and crew by being able to bring the crippled vessel into the nearby natural harbour of Genua before it sank. The sailors seemed to consider this as a blessing from the old gods. When Fidelma inquired why, she was told that Genua was named from the two-headed god Giano, who was the protector of ships. The superstitious sailors felt the god had reached out to save them.
The fact remained that the ship was beyond immediate repair. Fidelma was assured that the seaport of Genua was the crossroad of commerce and that she should easily be able to secure a new passage to Massilia. However, the assurances proved wrong. There were few ships in the harbour and none heading for Massilia nor to any adjacent port. There was some rumour that a Frankish fleet might be heading for the seaport and talk of war in the air, but she took no notice. Fidelma had wandered the back streets around the harbour until she was directed to a small hostel which catered for religious pilgrims. She had no complaints about the hospitality, but the days were long in passing and there was no sign of any ship on which she might continue her journey.
Genua was not a place which held her attention. The old woman who ran the hostel had related the general history of the area within one brief conversation. In recent years, various conquerors had seized the seaport for strategic reasons and it was here the ships of the ruling Byzantines had once harboured while they tried to stop the invading Germanic tribes, the Longobards, who now held sway and had mixed their culturein this centre of commerce. Alboin and his Longobards had swept down the entire Italian peninsula during the previous century and conquered it, with the exception of isolated territories such as the lands around Rome itself, which clung to their independence. Some thirty-six powerful Longobard dukes now ruled under their King.
Among the languages of the seaport, she could hear various tongues, and Fidelma could now distinguish the harsh gutturals of the language of the Longobards from the others. However, she was thankful that Latin was still the language of general communication, for at least she was able to make herself understood.
She was dwelling on these matters when the elderly religieux had hurried by. Some part of her mind registered this fact but would have dismissed it, had it not been for the two men following in his footsteps. It was their manner that caused her to glance up and give her full attention. They were hooded, their dark cloaks covering their tall figures, and they were bent forward, giving the impression of serious intent; one, at least, carried a cudgel in his right hand. Fidelma realised that this was what had caught her attention. The man's cloak had flapped back as he passed, thus momentarily revealing the weapon. They both seemed to be treading carefully, as if to avoid making the same noise on the cobbles that had marked the passage of their quarry.
Fidelma did not think about consequences. If there was some knavery here, then her training as a dálaigh - an advocate of the laws of her own land, now part of her very being - caused her to move automatically. Quietly, she followed the two men as they shadowed the elderly religieux along the narrow street. There were only two or three people moving along in the opposite direction and no one took anynotice of them. Then they approached a stretch which was devoid of people. One of the men began to increase his stride, and some instinct caused Fidelma to slip into the shelter of a tiny recess between the buildings - just as the second man turned his head and glanced back, as if to check whether anyone else was on the street. When she peered cautiously out again, she saw that both men were closing rapidly on the elderly man. He seemed unaware of their presence. The leading pursuer had already raised his cudgel to strike.
Fidelma found herself throwing caution to the wind and running after them.
'Caveo! Caveo!' she cried loudly in Latin.
The elderly religieux turned at her cry and met the downward strike of the cudgel with a dexterous movement of his staff, fending off the blow.
The second attacker turned immediately to face Fidelma and she realised that he also held a cudgel. He raised it as he ran back towards her. What happened next was over in a few seconds. Still running forward, she suddenly ducked and halted. Her antagonist had no time to stop his forward momentum. He went flying across her crouched body and came down heavily on the cobbles, his cudgel spinning from his hand. Fidelma swung round and kicked the weapon further from him as he lay momentarily winded on the ground.
She had only used the art of the troid-sciathagid a few times before. She had used it once in Rome not so long ago when she had been attacked. It was a traditional technique of her people, called 'battle through defence' which had been taught in ancient times by those wise teachers who felt it wrong to carry arms to protect themselves. In these violent times, lonely missionaries were often attacked, robbed and sometimes killed. Now, many of the peregrinatio pro Christo,the missionaries who went abroad, learned how to defend themselves in this manner without the use of weapons.
Fidelma adopted a defensive posture, ready to confront her attacker again. His cloak had fallen open and her eyes caught an embroidered symbol on his right shoulder. It was a curious design, like a flaming sword surrounded by a laurel wreath. She was still looking at it when there was a shouted instruction from behind her. The next moment, the first attacker brushed roughly by her, running down the street. His companion rolled over, came to his feet and joined him. Both of them disappeared swiftly into some side alley. Fidelma hesitated, not knowing what to do next, when a voice behind her called in Latin: 'Let them go, Sister. Let us not take chances.'
She turned back to the elderly man, who stood leaning on his staff. There was a slight abrasion on his forehead and a trickle of blood.
'Are you hurt?' she demanded, moving forward.
The elderly man smiled. 'It could have been worse, but thanks to you, Sister, I was warned in time to deflect the blow. And you? I have seen that trick done before by an Hibernian Brother. Are you of that country?'
'I am,' Fidelma agreed solemnly. 'I am Fidelma of Hibernia.'
'Then well met, Sister Fidelma. I am Ado of Bobium.'
Fidelma glanced at the silver shepherd's hook on the end of his staff. 'Abbot Ado?' she ventured.
He chuckled with a shake of his head. He was a handsome, intelligent-looking man, in spite of his advancing years. He had blue eyes and his hair was white and almost to his shoulders but well-tended. He gave the impression of a man of some strength, and the way he had handled his staff to disarm his attacker showed that he had not only strength but dexterity.
'An abbot? No, although some address me as Magister Ado as a token of respect for my scholarship and advancing years.' He glanced quickly around. 'However, I would advise that we do not tarry here in case our friends return. My destination is not far away. Come, let me offer you some hospitality for your timely assistance against those ... er, robbers.'
Fidelma felt that the elderly man had been going to use another word to describe his attackers, but she did not press him. Here was some distraction from the boredom she had been faced with just moments ago. She fell in step with him as they continued across the narrow street and, after her new companion asked a few prompting questions, she explained how she had come to be in Genua.
Magister Ado eventually came to a halt before a door.
'Here we are,' he said, raising his staff and knocking on it in a curious pattern which indicated a code. Almost at once, the door was opened by a young man with an anxious look on his dark, handsome features. He was also dressed in religious robes but seemed alert and muscular, as though designed to be a warrior rather than a man of the cloth. His expression became one of dismay as he saw the drying blood on the old man's forehead.
'Magister Ado! Are you hurt?'
Again the elderly religieux smiled and shook his head.
'Nothing serious,' he replied. 'But my companion and I will be the better for a cup of wine, Brother Faro.'
The young man looked curiously from Magister Ado to Fidelma. Then he forced a smile.
'I am sorry for my hesitation. Please enter; come in quickly.'
He held the door wide open and Fidelma noticed that, once they had passed in, he had gone out into the street and glancedup and down as if to ensure that no one had observed their entrance into the house.
Magister Ado waited until the young man closed the door and led them through the stuffy interior to a small courtyard at the centre of the building. The air was still warm here but seemingly cooled by a tinkling small fountain in the centre. A moment later a young woman emerged from another doorway.
'Ah, Sister Gisa,' greeted Magister Ado. 'My companion and I are in need of wine. This is Sister Fidelma of Hibernia.'
The young woman - she was scarcely more than a girl - was examining the elderly religieux with concern.
'You have blood on your forehead, Magister ...' she began.
'I am fine. Do not worry.' He turned to Fidelma. 'These are good comrades of mine - Sister Gisa and Brother Faro. They tend to fuss over me. Now, Sister Gisa, fetch that wine.'
The girl, with a quick, worried nod of greeting at Fidelma, moved to a side table and took up a flagon and clay beakers. Brother Faro's anxious expression did not diminish. 'What happened?'
'An attempt at robbery, that is all. Thankfully, Sister Fidelma was near since, without her help, things might have been worse.'
'You mean that they know you are here?' demanded Brother Faro.
Fidelma noticed that the older man glanced with a frown at his young companion before resuming his pleasant expression. 'Hurry with that wine, my child. The dust of the street is still in my throat.'
Sister Gisa glanced shyly at Fidelma, as she poured the wine. She was quite attractive, Fidelma noted. Her eyes were dark, matching the colour of her hair which could be seenat the edges of her headdress. The skin of her face was an olive brown, but not tanned by the sun as Fidelma had noticed others were in this southern clime.
'How did you come to have a hand in this matter, Sister?' the girl asked. So far, everyone spoke in impeccable Latin and not the local language.
Fidelma gave a half-shrug. 'I saw two men sneaking up behind Magister Ado and was able to shout a warning to him. That is all.'
Magister Ado was shaking his head. The smile he had resumed had not left his features. It seemed his permanent expression.
'All? She did more than that, my friends. One of the brutes turned to attack her and she was able to throw the man to the ground. I have seen such a thing done only once before and that was by one of our Hibernian Brothers.'
Brother Faro seemed overcome with gratitude.
'Then you have saved the life of our master. I thank you, Sister.'
'I was Brother Faro's teacher,' explained Magister Ado. 'I still am, if youth will listen to age.'
Youth was a relative term, for Fidelma estimated Brother Faro to be in his twenties.
'One thing I would like to know is why you were attacked?' Fidelma asked, sipping slowly at the wine. 'They were obviously more than mere street robbers who were involved in this matter.'
'Your senses seem very sharp, Sister.' Magister Ado frowned slightly and she noticed that a note of suspicion rose in his voice.
'It is my nature. In my country, I am a trained advocate of our laws.'
'Sister Fidelma?' Sister Gisa suddenly turned. 'Have you recently come from Rome?' Before Fidelma could confirm it, the young sister said excitedly to Magister Ado, 'It was a week ago, just before we left the abbey to come to meet you, when one of our brethren returned with gossip from Rome. He spoke of a Sister Fidelma from a place called Cashel in Hibernia. She had solved the mystery of the murder of a Saxon bishop which had taken place there. Even the Holy Father praised her. Are you this Fidelma of Hibernia?' she added, seeking confirmation.
Fidelma made a slight embarrassed grimace. 'I do not deny it. My father was Failbe Flann, King of Muman, whose capital lies at Cashel in Hibernia. My brother is now the heir apparent to the kingship. But I am merely an advocate, as I have said, and was on a mission to Rome on behalf of the bishops of my country.'
Sister Gisa was almost clapping her hands in delight. 'Do you know Brother Ruadán of Eenish Keltrah?'
Fidelma took a moment or so before she realised the young girl meant 'Inis Celtra'. Her eyes widened in amazement. Memories of her childhood studying at the school run by Brother Ruadán came flooding into her mind.
'Brother Ruadán of Inis Celtra was my tutor before I reached the age of choice. What do you know of him?'
'Brother Ruadán serves our abbey,' smiled Sister Gisa. 'When your name was mentioned by our Brother from Rome, he said he knew you.'
Fidelma tried to hide her surprise. 'But Brother Ruadán ... he must be very aged. Are you saying that he is dwelling in an abbey somewhere nearby here?'
'Not exactly near here,' Brother Faro intervened. 'He is very aged. Alas, when we left the abbey a week ago he was confined to his cubiculum with the ague.'
'But where is he? In what abbey?'
'He is at the Abbey of Bobium,' replied Sister Gisa. 'He spoke of you with great affection, saying that he had once taught the young daughter of his king. He was certain that the Sister Fidelma mentioned at Rome was the same person that he once knew.'
Magister Ado was regarding her with interest. 'And is this true? Are you the same person who has won such approbation at the Lateran Palace from the Holy Father himself?'
Fidelma was uncomfortable at the fuss and repeated: 'I am Fidelma of Cashel. Where is this Abbey of Bobium? I should like to see Brother Ruadán again.'
'It is up in the mountains, Sister. About three days' ride on a good horse.' It was Brother Faro who responded.
Fidelma's face fell a little with disappointment. Three days on horseback and, doubtless, she would need a guide in this unknown terrain. With little prospect of finding an immediate ship for Massilia, she could possibly afford the time, but where could she find a horse and guide? She still had a long journey before her to reach home.
'Ah, then time and means prohibit my journey to see him,' she said. 'I beg your pardon, Magister Ado. I was letting emotion rule my mind. What was I saying?'
Sister Gisa was refilling the clay goblets. 'You were saying that you did not think the attack on the magister was just some street robbers taking their chance.'
'What makes you think so?' the elderly religieux asked.
'Your demeanour for a start,' Fidelma said. 'Your hesitation about describing the men who attacked you. The way Brother Faro here was anxiously awaiting your coming and the words you exchanged. The fact that he waited while we entered this house before checking to see whether anyone wasobserving ... There are many good reasons why this does not appear as some chance attempt at robbery. That is even before we get to the behaviour of the attackers themselves.'
Magister Ado suddenly snorted with amusement.
'I think that there is little that escapes your eye, Fidelma of Cashel.'
'Except the explanation for this drama,' she pressed.
There was a moment of quiet before Magister Ado responded.
'You say that you only intervened because you saw that I, a religieux, was about to be attacked? You never saw me before that moment in the street?'
'I am a stranger here. Why should I know you?'
'Do you know much about this land, Sister? I mean this land of the Longobards?'
'Very little,' she confessed, still puzzled.
'Did you know that our Abbey of Bobium was founded by a great teacher from your country called Columbanus?'
'Colm Bán?' She automatically corrected the name to Irish form. 'I know of him and his works. But I thought his missionary work lay mainly among the Franks of the north. Also, I thought that he had died many years ago.'
'He did die many years ago - for it was over fifty years ago that he crossed the great mountains and established our abbey. I entered it as a young man to study in the great library that he left us.'
'The Magister Ado is renowned among our people,' added Brother Faro in a tone of pride. 'He wrote the great Vita Cummianus.'
'Not great, my son,' reproved the elderly man. 'I was young. It was a work of poor quality at best. Do you know of Cummianus, Sister?'
'I only know that Cuimmíne is a common name among my people.'
'The man I speak of was also a bishop from your land who came to Bobium when he was elderly but lived with us for many years. He was a truly saintly man, worthy of a better hand than mine to transcribe his life and deeds.'
'My magister is modest,' insisted the young religieux. 'He has written several works and is known through the land of the Longobards as a great scholar.'
Fidelma was thoughtful. 'Yet this still does not explain why you should be attacked.'
'Quite right. Quite right,' acknowledged the elderly man. 'How learned are you, Fidelma of Hibernia?'
'Depends?' He was surprised at the answer.
'It depends what subject that you are inquiring about, for is it not said that everyone is ignorant of things that they have yet to learn?'
Magister Ado chuckled. 'I see that you like precision in your language.'
'I am a lawyer and taught to be so.'
'Very well. Let us say that there are many discords among the people here. There are factions, talk of civil wars and intrigues. They manifest themselves not just in the civil life but even among those of the Faith.'
'So why the attack upon you?'
'Bobium has stood above these intrigues and recognises the authority of the Holy Father in Rome and the creed of the Faith adopted at Nicaea. For some, that is a position worthy of death.'
Fidelma looked shocked. 'I do not understand.'
'We, who declare our creed to be that given by the FirstCouncil of Nicaea, tend to band together for protection in this land.'
'Protection?' queried Fidelma. 'From whom?'
Magister Ado hesitated before he answered her. 'The majority of the people of this territory either remain devoted to the old gods of their ancestors or they believe in the doctrines of Arius. Some are more fanatical in their belief than others.' He lowered his voice. 'Wanton destruction and tumult marks the path of their leaders, and their war bands desecrate this land.'
Fidelma tried to recall something about Arius. She knew that he had been declared a heretic at the First Council of Nicaea. She could not remember exactly why.
'I would appreciate some elucidation, Magister Ado,' she finally said.
'Arius was from Alexandria where he taught the Faith three hundred years ago. While we uphold the Holy Trinity, Arius taught that there could only be one God. While God the Father had existed eternally, God the Son, born as Jesus, did not and was therefore created by, and thus inferior, to God. He even argued that this meant, at one time, Christ did not exist.'
'But we are taught the Trinity, that God is three in one - God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.'
'Indeed,' Magister Ado solemnly agreed. 'But Arius and his followers declare there is one God, always existing before time began, and creator of the world. God the Father created His Son, Who was subservient to the Father, Who also created the Holy Spirit, Who was similarly subservient to the Son.'
Fidelma saw a logic to the argument, which she had never heard before, and decided that she must look further into these teachings. However, she kept this thought to herself.
'I fail to see how such differences in interpretation can lead to bloodshed,' she finally observed.
Brother Faro shook his head sadly. 'It already has. An Arian nobleman, visiting Bobium only a short time ago, was so incensed when one of our brethren refused to acknowledge his arguments, that he drew his sword and cut him down.'
'We must apologise to you, Sister Fidelma,' Sister Gisa added. 'I think Brother Faro tried to save you any anguish by saying that Brother Ruadán was sick with ague. In fact, he is confined to his bed having been beaten by these same followers of Arius. It happened the day before we left to come to Genua.'
Before Fidelma could express her shock, Magister Ado turned to Brother Faro. 'You should have told me this at once.'
'As Sister Gisa said, it happened the day before we left Bobium to come and meet you,' admitted Brother Faro. 'I would have told you sooner but my mind was filled with your safe arrival.'
'And the details?' pressed the magister.
'Brother Ruadán was found outside the gates of the abbey early one morning. There was a piece of papyrus pinned to his bloodstained clothing with the word "heretic" scrawled on it.'
Fidelma was astounded. 'You say that he is injured and confined to his bed? How badly injured is he?'
Sister Gisa compressed her lips. 'He is bad, Sister. Our physician did not hold out any great hope. As you know, he is elderly and there is little strength left in him to fight.'
Fidelma turned to Magister Ado. 'And do you believe that these men who attacked you were also followers of Arius? That they sought to attack you because they knew you were from Bobium?'
'The brethren of Bobium are known for their criticisms of Arius,' Brother Faro intervened quickly. 'Other than that, Bobium has no enemies.'
'I can only think the same,' Magister Ado agreed. 'There is no need to harm the brethren of Bobium other than by those who are enemies to the Nicene Creed. But how these Arians knew I was in Genua, I do not know. I only stepped ashore this morning.'
Sister Gisa nodded thoughtfully. 'Magister Ado has only just returned from Aquitània. We came to accompany him back to Bobium.'
Fidelma had the impression that Magister Ado shot Sister Gisa a glance of both disapproval and warning. 'I had heard that a ship had put in from Massilia today,' she said, 'and I was hoping that I would be able to return on it. However, the master of the vessel told me that he was on his way to Ostia. Indeed, you are right to raise the question as to how these people would know you were here and thus able to launch an attack on you.'
Magister Ado shrugged. 'Our Arian enemies are doubtless well-informed, Sister. Bishop Britmund of Placentia is our most implacable enemy. He could have heard that Brother Faro and Sister Gisa were coming to meet me.'
Brother Faro flushed and said: 'We were careful not to reveal the purpose of our journey to anyone outside the abbey.'
'I am not blaming you, my young friend,' Magister Ado replied. 'But sometimes an attentive enemy can make logical deductions.'
'And that being so, we should not tarry long in this place,' Sister Gisa said nervously.
'Then you plan to set out for the Abbey of Bobium soon?' asked Fidelma.
'Tomorrow at first light,' Brother Faro affirmed.
Fidelma hesitated. 'If what you tell me about Brother Ruadán is true, I feel it my duty to try to see him before ... before ...'
She did not want to finish the thought. Brother Ruadán held a special place in the affections of Fidelma. Her mother had died giving her birth and her father, King Failbe Flann, had died when she and her brother, Colgú, were still very young. When the time came for Fidelma's schooling, she had been sent to Brother Ruadán's tiny community on Inis Celtra. From the age of seven until the aimsir togu, the female age of choice, at fourteen years, Brother Ruadán had been charged with the care of her education. He had become almost the father figure she had barely known. It was in him that she had placed her childhood feelings before going to further her education at the law school of Brehon Morann of Tara. Therefore, it was no sense of duty but an emotional need that compelled her wish to see him.
'You could accompany us, Sister.' Sister Gisa's voice was eager.
'It is a long ride through the mountains,' pointed out Brother Faro, with a reproving look at the girl.
'That would not stop me if I could find a horse. But I do not have the means to do so.'
Magister Ado looked thoughtful for a moment or two. Then, as if he had come to a decision, he turned to Brother Faro. 'Did you bring a mule in case there was extra baggage to be carried?'
Brother Faro looked at him in surprise and then reluctantly nodded. 'We did. We brought a mule with us for the baggage.'
'Perhaps ...' began the magister.
Sister Gisa cut him short. 'There is not much baggage and I can ride a mule.'
'Can you ride?' Magister Ado asked Fidelma.
'I can,' she answered immediately. She had ridden almost before she could walk.
'It is a long ride and the terrain may be difficult for you,' Brother Faro protested.
'I have travelled long distances over mountain terrain,' Fidelma assured him.
'I was impressed that Sister Fidelma was able to see beyond the fact that my attackers were not simply street robbers,' Magister Ado told the young man. 'I think she may be useful to us.'
Before Fidelma could ask in what way, Sister Gisa said enthusiastically, 'Then it is settled. It will be good to have you as our companion on the journey.'
Brother Faro sighed, apparently accepting the inevitable. 'I think you should collect whatever you need to accompany us, but do not bring more than is essential for your needs, and do not speak to anyone more than you can help. When you return here, ensure that no one follows you. We shall set off into the mountains at first light.'
'I shall try not to be a burden to you, Brother Faro,' she told him solemnly, but he did not notice the humour in her voice.
'After the attack on Magister Ado, there is no need to impress upon you that we should be vigilant.'
'Very well, Brother Faro,' Fidelma replied. 'I shall make my preparations. I can leave anything I do not need in the hostel where I am staying, and will return here before sunup so that darkness will veil me from prying eyes.'
As she rose to her feet, so did Magister Ado.
'Perhaps it would be best not to mention at the hostel that you are even journeying to Bobium,' he suggested. 'It is not an impossibility that my erstwhile attackers could decide to ask questions at any hostel in this port, seeking information about you and, therefore, about me.'
Fidelma did not show her intrigue at her newfound companions' conspiratorial methods.
'I shall be back before first light,' she said. 'And shall look forward to our journey to Bobium.'
'It is a difficult route through the mountains, Fidelma,' Brother Faro repeated, still sceptical. 'Some three days in the saddle. So I trust you prove as good a horsewoman as you say.'
'I am good enough,' replied Fidelma, suppressing her irritation at not being taken at her word.
'Then we shall make good time to Bobium,' Magister Ado said soothingly.
Copyright © 2011 Peter Tremayne
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