Chapter FiveBe sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into.
Not even the most thorough of wars leaves your time entirely full, Vasco had found. With little to do until more news arrived from the east, Cinhil had been called back to Rhemuth and promptly sequestered in the Queen’s gardens with Princess Rhetice. The girl had quite recovered from her sister’s death and had gladly set aside her dolls and burgeoning lessons in embroidery to play a game which appeared to involve running around the gardens, long dark hair unbound and trailing behind her like a flag, while her father chased after her, somehow never quite fast enough to catch the laughing girl.
Since this practise left no work for the Prince’s aide, Vasco had strayed as far as the butts and found Donal MacAthan steadily loosing shaft after shaft into the gold. Not wishing to disturb the other man, Vasco waited until Donal and used all the arrows in his quiver before approaching. “A fine performance, Sir Donal.”
The Deryni knight looked up and bowed to Vasco before rubbing his shoulder. “Thank you, Sir Vasco. I fear my duties of late have left me little time to practise.”
“It doesn’t seem to have hurt your aim.” Vasco walked with him to recover the arrows, admiring the fact that all twelve arrows had landed in a span that he could have covered with one hand.”
“My aim hasn’t suffered but my shoulder has.” Donal tugged carefully at a particularly well-embedded arrow, not wanting to damage the head. “I shouldn’t be feeling strained after less than an hour of practise.”
Vasco nodded. “If you’ll be riding with the King you may wish to work more with sword and lance. It’s a wasteof a fine horse-archer, but he’ll be surrounded by heavy cavalry.”
“Why do you think I’ve had so little practise of late? What time I’ve had to spare has been mostly spent working at the lance.”
When they reached the firing posts again, another man stood waiting for the butts to be clear.
“My apologies, Your Highness,” Vasco offered with a bow. “I hadn’t realised you were waiting.”
“We’re always waiting these days,” Duke Tambert answered. “Waiting for news from the east or from the west for that matter?” He gestured to the bow case beside him. “I don’t see a bow for you, Sir Vasco. Would you care to borrow my spare. You’re about my height so it may suit well enough.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.”
The three men took their marks, each carrying twelve arrows. Since Tambert had only brought one quiver, Vasco drove the tips of his arrows into the grass so they stood upright at his side.
“What say you, gentlemen. Shall we make this a sporting matter? A silver penny each, and the best of us takes all?”
Vasco sighed, mentally ceding his penny to Donal already. “I can stretch to that, Your Highness.”
“Aye, I’m not too proud to take your coin, Your Highness,” Donal added with a grin.
Tambert gave him an amused look. “Very good then. It’s a wager.” He drew back his bow and loosed his first shaft, spitting the gold exactly.
Vasco was tangentially aware that the men either side of him were shooting faster than he but he concentrated methodically on each shot, determined that if he was going to lose then he’d at least put his best into the contest. Adjusting for the unfamiliar bow took him three shots but all at least they were all on the butt and his other shafts were within the red circle – four striking the gold.
Checking to either side he saw that Donal had matched his earlier performance but so too, to Vasco’s surprise, had the Duke of Cassan. He’d heard many things of Tambert Fitz-Arthur Quinnell but that he was a master archer was not one of them.
“That was well shot, Sir Donal,” the Duke admitted graciously. “I can’t tell from here which of us had the tightest cluster.”
“Shall I give you a silver ha’penny each then?”
Tambert laughed. “Not at all. Let’s get closer and see first if either looks the better group. And if not, why then we’ll need to shoot again.”
They walked closer and Vasco reclaimed his arrows while the other two examined each other’s groups. “I can’t tell,” admitted the Duke. “What do you say, Sir Vasco?”
“I can’t see much between them, Your Highness. I could cover either group with my hand and I couldn’t say that either of you had the most arrows closest to the centre.”
“There’s nothing for it then.” Tambert started pulling his arrows loose of the butts. “One arrow each, perhaps, Sir Donal?”
“That sounds fair, Your Highness. And on the same butt so we can compare them easily.”
They walked back and Tambert took the first shot. Glancing at Donal, Vasco saw that the Deryni’s eyes were narrowed in suspicion as he watched the Duke take aim. The shot was a splendid one, striking dead centre of the gold. “Hah, that’ll be one to beat,” Tambert noted. “You’ll have earned your prize if you can get closer than that, Sir Donal.”
“I can but try.” Donal raised his own bow and picked carefully from his arrows. Having drawn he waited a long moment at full extension before loosing his shaft. The arrow plunged into the butt so close to Tambert’s that Vasco could barely tell there were two arrows there and not just one.”
“By god that’s close,” Tambert admitted. They walked back to the butts and the Duke gave forth an oath that his confessor would probably chide him for. The second arrow had come so close to the first that it had shaved away one of the fletchings on Tambert’s arrow. “Egad, sir, I’ll call that your win. I’ve not seen a shot that fine since my grandmother passed away.” Tambert produced a penny and handed it to Donal with a smile.
“Aye. She was a fine archer when she had the mind. A veritable terror when she could be coaxed out on a hunt with her ladies. Father told me he thought she found the hunts boring and became so good so she’d have them over with as quickly as possible.”
“Well, Your Highness, I’d say you’ve inherited her talents. Who’s to say that if I’d shot first I might not be the one with a ruined shaft?”
“Well she did give me some pointers when I was a boy.” Tambert turned as he heard his title called from the entrance to the yard. “Excuse me, gentlemen.” Placing his bow alongside the one Vasco was returning to the case he walked briskly over to the approaching page.
Vasco leant close to Donal as he handed over his own penny. “Were you… doing something?”
“Only for that last shot,” the borderer said in a distracted voice. “I think he might have been too.”
“What?” Vasco gulped and lowered his voice. “Are you saying Duke Tambert’s a…”
“Well, perhaps a little. I didn’t pick up any shields or the other usual signs. Perhaps he has a touch of Deryni blood in him. Cassan and the other highlands were a refuge for the Deryni long before… Oh Lord, I don’t think he’s had good news.”
Tambert’s face was indeed thunderous as he returned for his bow. “You’d best both come with me,” he growled. “The King’s called his council – such of us as are here in Rhemuth. He may want you close to hand, Sir Donal, and no doubt Prince Cinhil will want Sir Vasco too.”
Pages and squires were running to send out instructions and bring back replies as Tambert crossed the great hall and led the two knights up to the doors of the Royal Council’s chamber. The heavy table of black wood stretched the length of the chamber with windows along one side for light. A bench opposite provided space for aides and officers not members of the Council to sit and Donal moved along to sit near at hand to the King while Vasco found a place near the foot of the table where Prince Cinhil’s chair was for the moment empty.
That gap was filled a moment later when the Prince arrived, his tunic grass-stained and hair ruffled. His manner was brisk though and he closed the door firmly behind him.
With the Earl Marshal absent in Valoret, Duke Tambert called the council to order. Beside himself, King Urien and Prince Cinhil only Constable Fulbert, Archbishop Marcus and Sir Allen FitzOsberne were present – not even half their full number.
“Lest the messages haven’t been sufficient, my brother the Bishop of Grecotha has sent an urgent message,” the King informed them. “It seems Jolyon of Meara has made his own move – most probably he’s only now been informed that Festil has crossed the border. A substantial Mearan force has seized Culdi. The garrison was quite modest but Jashan informs me his officers believe it’ll require more than the levies assembled at Grecotha to drive the Mearans back across the border.”
“I don’t believe we should drive them back.” Eyes looked down the table to where Prince Cinhil was sitting, eyes half-closed in thought.
“Please speak on, Cinhil,” his father encouraged him.
“If we push him back, he’ll just come back through another mountain pass and we’ll have to keep forces ready to repel him when we need our full strength in the east.” Cinhil looked up. “My brother Jaron and the Earl of Carthane should be almost at Trevalga by now. I propose to take all the horse mustered at Candor Rhea and join forces with him. Meanwhile we can send word to bring the Cassan levies south to Kierney and if Duke Tambert rides quickly he can join uncle Jashan and the army at Grecotha. That’ll give us more than three thousand men north of Jolyon and almost two thousand south of him.”
The Prince brought his hands together firmly. “Then we crush them between us and teach the Mearans a firm lesson. Break their army and remove Jolyon as a threat once and for all.”
“That could go poorly if Jolyon manages to bring his army to bear on one of the two forces without the other. You’ll be particularly vulnerable, Prince Cinhil,” warned Fulbert. “We don’t know his strength and you could be badly outnumbered if you don’t join forces with the northern force first.”
“If the worst comes to the worst, my only infantry will be that with Jaron. They can fort up in one of our castles and our cavalry should be able to stay ahead of the Mearans. I seriously doubt if there are a thousand heavy horse in all Meara.”
“It also places you well out of touch with the rest of the army,” Tambert noted. “If something happens in the east you’ll be out of contact.”
“That’s why Duke Tresham is at Valoret. As Earl Marshal he’s my second in command and I’ve written instructions to him that cover what I hope are all the likely possibilities for Torenthi action.”
Urien nodded and rose to his feet. “My lords, I’ve entrusted command of our armies to Prince Cinhil. The decision is his and has been made. So too is my own. I’ll ride north to Candor Rhea with Prince Cinhil and then north-east to Valoret. We need to concentrate our leadership closer to events and Valoret is the obvious centre of command for the north-east. Even if the weight of Torenthi action is to the south, it’ll leave us placed to accompany the army south down the Grande River after them.”
He looked at the Constable. “I know Rhemuth is safe in your hands, Fulbert, but my wife and granddaughter are also in your care. If I don’t return, if the worst comes to the worst, make sure they’re on a ship to Fallon. Breida will make sure King Tancrede extends his protection to Jaroni and Rhetice. We can retake Rhemuth but I’ll not see the women of my House endangered.”
“My lord, I will protect them at any cost.”
The archbishop cleared his throat. “Sire, I’ll join you in riding to Valoret. The primate will no doubt wish the counsel of as many of the Curia as can be assembled under the circumstances and it may offer some reassurance to the soldiers there.”
Arkady turned his horse off the road once he identified the rider ahead as his brother. They’d just crossed a small stream and his guards dismounted to let their horses drink as the Arkadians approached.
Swinging down from his saddle, Nikola handed off his mount to one of his companions to be watered and stretched before approaching his brother. Arkady tossed him a wineskin once he was close enough. The contents were cut with water but welcome enough after a long hot ride.
Nikola uncapped it and sipped eagerly. “Thank you, brother. That did my throat a world of good.”
“It’s not Fiannan but Arjenol’s vineyards show promise.” The two exchanged looks, remembering sharing Fianna wine while being rowed down the Beldour. “What news, Nikola?”
“Their scouts are out ahead of us but they don’t seem inclined to cross swords with us just yet.”
“Not even at Lochlyn?”
Nikola doffed his helm and raked sweat-soaked hair back from his face, working to tie it back once more. “I’d have thought so, but there wasn’t even the token garrison there was at Culliecairn. As soon as news reached them that you were moving in force through the Coldoire Pass they must have left. It wasn’t spur of the moment. It was cleared out. Even the village outside was abandoned.”
The elder of the two princes frowned. “If the Earl of Eastmarch isn’t willing to fight even for own ancestral home then someone must have him under tight discipline. It’s probably the right military move but it shames him in front of his vassals.”
“Wasn’t there a Rûman general who claimed the best battle was the one you don’t have to fight?”
“Father never approved of you reading Belzyman’s works and if all we were after was Eastmarch then yes. But we’re not just here for that and I doubt Earl Ivaar has more than half our numbers. You taking the Magas Pass while I struck at Coldoire was supposed to lure part of Gwynedd’s army into action under unfavourable terms for them. If he’s waiting for reinforcements then he’ll be a much harder nut to crack.”
“We could swing west and put more pressure on him.”
“It’s a thought.” Arkady considered and then shook his head. “That could let an army move between us and father’s army. We’ll continue as planned but let’s try something else to provoke Ivaar.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“If they re-occupied Lochalyn they’d have a fortress to our rear. Burn it.”
“The village too?”
He nodded. “Lots of smoke to give him a good idea what we’ve done. His temper might get the better of his sense. And if you find any other castles in the same state, do the same.”
“You know, Marek junior probably won’t like us doing this to lands he’s been promised.”
Arkady threw his head back and laughed, knowing that the men crossing the stream a few score yards away would see his high spirits and be encouraged. “Nikola, my brother, our cousin Marek didn’t grant title to these lands to his brother and now his second son in order to invest them with rich lands they could use to establish themselves on as potential rivals to the senior line of his house. Let Marek junior whine, wiser heads knew that fighting over these lands wouldn’t leave them unscathed.”
Donal found that sea travel made Anscom Drummond unusually waspish. *You’re where?*
*About a day’s hard ride north of Rhemuth,* the knight repeated himself patiently. *I warned you that the court would need to move north to Valoret before too much longer.*
*I thought at least you could wait until I arrived.* Curled in his cassock, the old priest was pressed against the bulkhead of the trading ship carrying him north. There was no possibility of privacy on the ship to conduct any of the rituals that might have eased the demands of communicating over such a distance – not without giving the crew every reason to hand him over to the ecclesiastical authorities once they reached Gwynedd soil at any rate. Thus he was forced to rely upon Donal to carry the burden of the link. *If I’d known I needed to go to Valoret, I could have asked Walther or Ebor to show me a Transfer Portal somewhere in northern Gwynedd.*
*Events got ahead of us. Meara’s struck at Culdi and now reports indicate two separate Torenthi armies have crossed the Rheljans north of Marek.*
*That would rather force your hand I suppose. I hope Urien brought the royal regalia with him.*
Donal blinked and felt the link waver. *Part of it, naturally. Why is that important?*
*He’ll need the Eye of Rom and the Crimson Lion.*
*I’ll find out. Let me know once you reach shore. If I reach Valoret without hearing from you, I’ll try contacting you again.*
*Go with God, Donal.*
*And you, Father Anscom.*
Breaking the link, Donal sat back on his heels, taking his hands off Vasco’s shoulder. The younger knight was breathing steadily and when Donal checked his pulse, it was elevated but settling back towards normal. “Thank you, my friend.”
“Did it go well?” Urien asked in a low voice from where he and Cinhil sat at the pavilion’s table. He’d altered the original plan to ride with Cinhil for all the first day of the journey north. Officially it was to allow last minute discussions to be carried out on the march but secretly so that Vasco – as part of their tiny conspiracy – would be available to let Donal draw on his energy to support the link. With more time Donal could have imposed himself on one of the King’s other guards and the man wouldn’t have remembered a thing, but willing support was preferable when possible.
The third, unspoken reason, was that it gave Urien a little longer with his firstborn son before, for the first time in his life, the prince departed for war.
“It went well enough.” Donal touched Vasco’s face and brought him out of the trance state. “My old teacher isn’t much of a sailor it seems.”
“Hopefully he won’t run into bad weather on the way. The last thing we need is for him to be shipwrecked on the way.”
“Father Anscom can swim I believe. I don’t imagine he’d enjoy doing that in cold sea water but he’s probably got a better chance of surviving a shipwreck than most sailors.”
Vasco struggled to a sitting position. “Sorry, who’s been shipwrecked?”
“No one I hope.” Donal filled a goblet with fortified wine from the table and handed it to Vasco. “You did well, thank you. Conversing at that distance can be a strain if you’re doing it alone.”
Urien leant forwards. “Sir Donal, did he tell you anything else about what he’s learned about activating the Haldane powers?”
“A little, Sire. It seems that certain parts of the royal regalia are required. The Eye of Rom and the Crimson Lion he said.”
Cinhil exchanged looks with his father. “That would have been nice to know before we left Rhemuth.”
“The timing’s unfortunate, I agree. You do know both pieces? I didn’t get any description.”
Urien reached for his cloak and ran his hand over the massive brooch used as its clasp, the Haldane lion in gold, it was as large as the King’s fist. “This is the Crimson Lion. A bit of a misnomer since the lion isn’t crimson, just the enamel around it but it’s certainly old enough to have been used by previous kings although not King Cinhil. I believe one of his sons commissioned it.”
“It’s Concardine workmanship,” Cinhil advised him. “I went through the inventory with mother once. It was made for King Rhys on the orders of his wife, Queen Michaela.”
“It may have replaced an earlier piece,” speculated Donal. “Or perhaps the initiation was refined over time. King Rhys died when his sons were very young. He may have imprinted the brooch with instructions to his supporters so they could activate his son’s powers when the time came. May I examine it?”
Urien removed the brooch and handed it to Donal, who turned it over in his hands, admiring the workmanship, before gently probing at it with his mind. “Good Lord. This is the right piece, alright. You’ll understand once your potential has been activated, Sire. This has seen use in potent rituals. I can still feel the weight of your royal forebears’ touch.”
“Well at least that’s one.” Urien held out his hand for the Lion and pinned it back into place on his cloak.
A chill of worry went through Donal’s head. “One, Sire?”
“I haven’t worn the Eye of Rom since my coronation. Both of my uncles were wearing it when they died and father always felt it was ill-omened somehow, despite all the legends around it.”
“Legends?” asked Vasco, from the sound of him still somewhat muddled from the working. “You mean that tale about it having been one of the Magi’s gifts to the infant Christ.”
“You know how stories get around?” Urien leant back. “Another tale says a saint delivered it into the hands of Cinhil Haldane and instructed him to wear it when he confronted Imre Festil.”
Donal shivered. “That may be more than just a tale, Sire. My teacher claims descent from Saint Camber of Culdi. I know his sainthood was revoked but it’s very possible Camber gave the Eye of Rom to Cinhil as part of the very first Haldane activation.”
“Then I suppose we’ll need some excuse to send someone back for it.”
“Easy enough to explain that you always meant to take it with you but forgot to order it added to your baggage. I’m sure everyone’s left something in the rush,” observed Cinhil. “But neither of us can just go back and, no offense to you or Vasco, Sir Donal, but we’re talking about one of the most valuable parts of the royal regalia. If we send either of you back, Fulbert will probably insist on sending messages back to father before handing it over.”
“Then we need someone of suitable rank… Uncle Jashan?”
“Unfortunately I don’t think my brother would be pleased at being used as a messenger, particularly when Culdi’s been taken by the Mearans. He’ll probably insist on waiting until that situation’s been resolved and that could take longer than sending Donal.”
The two Haldanes exchanged thoughtful looks, faces suddenly looking very similar to each other in the candlelight. “Malcolm,” Urien decided.
“Malcolm? He’s rather young.”
“He’s second-in-line to the throne,” pointed out Urien. “A seminary education may serve him well but he’s not a priest yet and I’ve been giving thought to calling him to join the army anyway. Sending him back to Rhemuth serves two purposes, collecting the Eye and reminding the court he exists. I suspect they’re all a little more sure that Jaron is next after you in succession and he really is rather young.”
“There’s a third purpose too. If Malcolm’s going to Rhemuth then he can bring your teacher with him Donal. An old man riding alone across Gwynedd might not be safe – from accidents even if sending all our levies east hasn’t made bandits bold on the roads. I’d feel better,” Cinhil assured Donal, “If he had an escort. One more priest in Malcolm’s party won’t attract much attention.”
The sound of trumpets ahead told Arkady that the burning of Lochalyn had served its purpose. “Tythus. Keep the infantry marching south. Suleiman, Árpád, it seems our cavalry screen has found the enemy. We’ll do this just as planned.”
Prepared for this possibility, the officers gave their signals with flags and without more than the most unavoidable noise, Arkady led the cavalry of his force away from the road, companies of Moorish light cavalry sweeping ahead on south before forming up on his left while Árpád and the mounted men at arms seasoned in years of war against the Northmen formed disciplined ranks to the Prince’s right.
Although they were skirting the Plain of Iomaire, Arkady had picked a route along the foothills of the Rheljans and it was only as the Torenthi cavalry crested the last hill between them and Nikola’s cavalry screen that the Eastmarch forces recognised their presence.
Before Arkady he could see only horsemen, a wild melee of border horsemen and Nikola’s Arkadian lancers. Lines had long since broken and knots of men cursed and struck at each other when they closed only to fall back again as momentary advantage flowed back and forth.
Rising in his stirrups, Arkady picked out Nikola’s banner above one such knot and that of the Howells of Eastmarch not far away. “Suleiman,” he called and made a hooking gesture with his left arm to indicate that the Moors should sweep around the right flank of the borderers.
Turning the other way he gestured towards the banners and waited until Árpád raised his hand in acknowledgement. “Sound the advance,” Arkady called to his signaller and the man raised his trumpet, the familiar sound a signal for the horses as much as for the men. As the force began to trot down the hill, picking up speed, Arkady lifted his shield from where it hung upon the saddlebow and secured it to himself.
Seeing they were now outnumbered, the Eastmarch men pulled back, some of them producing short bows and firing back as they did so. Nikola’s men took the opportunity to draw clear, those on the right and left of Arkady’s line spilling out of the way. Árpád and Arkady parted their forces, each leading half the heavy horses around one side of those in the centre, now reforming around Nikola’s banner.
With this obstacle out of the way there was nothing between the Torenthi and the Eastmarchers. “The charge!” Arkady cried out, lowering his lance. “For Furstán!”
The charge rang out from the bugle and almost five hundred heavy horse broke into a gallop across the last brief interval.
Arkady aimed his lance for the chest of a border man who’d turned, sword drawn and shield held a hair too low. The lancepoint skipped up off the rim of the shield and caught the Borderer in the throat. Torn from his saddle the man fell away, most likely under the hooves of another horse.
Little caring for the man’s fate in this rush of steel and blood and screaming horses – and quite unable to turn back to him in any case – Arkad drove his lance into the chest of a borderer who still clutched a bow he should have discarded for the axe hung from his saddle. The lance broke and Arkady released it, drawing his scimitar to ride on and crash against a tall, pale-haired man – helm lost or discarded earlier in the day.
They exchanged blows twice, the momentum of the charge having passed. Then Arkady drove his shield against the border-marcher’s and reached over to jab the rump of the man’s horse with his scimitar. The horse screamed and bucked wildly, almost throwing his rider. It certainly did nothing good to his guard and in a whirl of steel, Arkady managed to land a long slash along the inside of the man’s arm, guarded only by leather no match for the sharpened steel.
With a scream, the borderer fell and looking around Arkady saw that the only Eastmarchers still mounted were those riding desperately to get ahead of Suleiman’s fleet-footed southerners. Some would make it perhaps, but those whose horses wearied would undoubtedly fall prey to the Moors.
With that assured, Arkady turned and looked for his own guards and for the banners he’d seen earlier. For the most part his party, along with his signaller and his own banner, had been close on his heels and seeing their Prince didn’t mean to join the pursuit, as some of the other heavy horse had, they closed around him, screening him from any desperate Eastmarchers with their swords.
Nikola, carrying his own banner, was riding to join him, followed by his lancers and Eastmarch’s banner, though it still flew over the soil of its land, did so in the hands of a Torenthi knight, who must have seized it from the bearer. “A trophy for you, my lord,” the knight offered.
Arkady shook his head. “Keep it for now, brave sir. But bring it to me at our camp tonight and I’ll redeem it from you as the valour of your deed deserves.”
The knight bowed as far as his armour permitted and dismounted to see to his horse.
“My thanks for your swift arrival, Arkady,” called Nikola as he reached his brother. “A hot business, I think we must have pricked Earl Ivarr’s pride as you intended.”
Arkady looked at the broad vale in which they’d battled, now marked in so many places by fallen horses and men – many of Eastmarch but some Arkadians and even a few of his own company. “He’ll have learned better if he managed to escape today.”
“Unless I miss my guess, he didn’t.” His brother gestured to where three Eastmarch men stood over one of their fallen comrades. Outnumbered many times their brave stand could accomplish nothing, but dismounted they had no chance of flight.
“You may be right.” Arkady made to spur closer but one of his guards moved in his pass. “Your pardon, Your Highness, but the man on the ground might have a bow.”
“Well ride closer and find out then,” grumbled the prince.
The guard obeyed and returned a moment later. “No bow, Your Highness, but I wouldn’t put it past them to throw a dagger if you get too close.”
“Is it Lord Howell who lies there?”
“It is, though I think him sorely wounded.”
With a nod, Arkady rode closer to the little group although he was careful not to come so close as to risk an opportune dagger throw. “I’m told you guard your lord, Earl Ivaar of Eastmarch,” he called out. “Is he well enough to speak?”
The three exchanged looks and then the oldest shook his head. “Nay, he is not. I reckon not he’ll rise again.”
Frowning Arkady unravelled the thick dialogue. “He’s dying?”
“Like too,” came the dour response. “His leg’s in poor state and one of yon fellows planted a lance below his ribs.”
A belly wound. Nine in ten men wounded so would die, and that before the Earl’s other wound was considered. “If the three of you will swear upon the Holy Bible not to fight against Torenth again this year, then I’ll have my men fetch you some of your horses to take him north. He may not survive the ride but it’s a better chance than he has any other way.”
The grizzled borderer considered that. “And if we say nay?”
“I have archers,” Arkady explained simply.
The man hung his head. “Aye, you do. Fetch your Bible. We’ll swear.”
“Cousin Marek won’t like you doing that,” warned Nikola as Arkady’s chaplain was called up with the bible he carried in his saddlebags. “And you were less generous fighting Norsemen.
“These are Christian folk, not the barbarians of the North. Marek can slaughter who he chooses. I don’t recall ever agreeing to be his executioner.”
The great church of Arx Fidei near Valoret had been founded more than a hundred years ago to provide the spiritual home of the Ordo Custodeum Fidei. Established to replace the once-great Deryni monastic orders of Saint Michael and Saint Gabriel, the ‘Guardians of the Faith’ had spearheaded the early pogroms against the Deryni and despite the breaking of their temporal power a decade later, the grandeur of the buildings almost made Donal sick.
He was glad King Urien didn’t intend to spend the night there, or he’d have had to make some excuse to demur. God only knows what he’d be exposing himself to psychically after so many innocent Deryni had suffered here.
In what might have been consideration of that fact, Donal had been left with the greater part of the royal party, to wait outside the walls of the abbey. Tonsured monks had brought out baskets of food but Donal restricted himself to an apple from his saddlebags and stood next to his horse, washing down bites of the fruit with sips from a jug of cider he’d bought in one of the villages they rode through the previous day.
The voice of monks raising their voices in praise of the Lord God did nothing to dispel his darker thoughts. While the words were no different from those he’d heard a hundred times before, here they were inextricably linked in his mind with the Statutes of Ramos, codified not so very far to the south to forever bar good men like Anscom Drummond from the Church for no better reason than fear of their race.
Thus distracted, he didn’t realise that the Abbey gates had opened until the King came into view, followed by a youth perhaps the same age as Earl Godwyn. The Earl of Carthane and his cousin had more in common than just their age. The same Haldane dark hair covered their heads save for the modest tonsure that marked Malcolm’s head and mounted on the spirited young mare Urien had brought for him, Malcolm showed the same instinctive horsemanship.
“Sire, Your Highness.” Donal swept a bow to the pair. “We can press on to Valoret as soon as you’re ready.”
“We may not want to set too hard a pace. Malcolm’s not ridden in a while and Valoret isn’t all that far away.”
“I can keep any pace you prefer, father.”
“You’re going to be in the saddle for a great deal of the next few months,” the King warned. “There’s no shame in wanting to ease back into it.”
“I promise, I won’t slow you down.”
Urien looked down at Donal. “Very well then. Since my son’s so confident, Sir Donal, have everyone mount up. If we can make the city swiftly enough then we may be in time to observe Vespers at All Saints Cathedral. That would no doubt please Archbishop Marcus.”
“Of course, Sire.” Donal placed his foot in one stirrup and heaved himself up into the saddle. “Unfurl the royal banner,” he called to the standard bearer. “His Majesty wants to celebrate Vespers at All Saints so we’ll be picking up the pace.”
“I received the messages you sent ahead,” Tresham MacEwan confimed as the Royal Council convened in a side hall of Valoret’s Royal Palace. Still maintained as a secondary royal residence, the Palace was well-equipped to accommodate the court. “And we’ve more information from the east as well.”
Urien gestured for the Earl Marshal to continue.
Tapping a map of Gwynedd’s northern and eastern territories to illustrate his points, Tresham obediently clarified: “The northern column came though Coldoire. It’s led by Prince Arkady, Kyprian’s heir and we think he has around three thousand men – half mounted and the rest on foot. He took Culliecairn, marched right through the pass and turned south. He burned Lochalyn in passing and did much the same to anywhere else that happened to be in his path, keeping a good perimeter of light cavalry to keep us from seeing his exact strength. Unlike some of the reports from the south, he’s at least letting people leave the villages before he burns them.”
“The Earls of Rhendall and Eastmarch disagreed upon how to deal with that. Braham’s holding their combined infantry north of Saint Cassian’s Abbey but the Earl Ivaar led his mounted men forward to try to push through their cavalry for a closer look. It doesn’t seem to have ended well, the Earl and most of his men haven’t returned but stragglers are still finding their way back. From what they’re telling us, there are heavy and light horse from central Torenth as well as a strong force of Moorish cavalry.”
“And our losses?”
“Unless a great many more return, two or three hundred dead and wounded. I’ve ordered Braham to move down to Saint Cassian’s and sent word to Marbury for the Marley levies to come south as well. With Arkady’s movements it doesn’t seem that Kyprian has his eye on Kheldour or Marley.”
Urien nodded. “Your own levies at Claibourne as well?”
“Somewhere at sea,” the Duke admitted. “There’s been no word of them reaching port at Carbury yet, but once they do they’ll march straight for Grecotha.”
“It should still save us time compared to having them march the whole way.”
“The second column came down from Cardosa. Mostly infantry and a sizeable supply train but a solid core of cavalry as well. The black hart’s been seen so Kyprian will be leading them in person. They’re moving more slowly than Arkady, with the wagons. Our best guess is they’re going to head for the northern tip of the Lendours and then follow the Falling Water River down to Valoret.”
“How many men does he have with him?” asked Malcolm studying the map.
“We don’t know. Carcashale’s a mess and the last news was that Earl Zion’s brother might be making some accommodation with Kyprian.”
“Perhaps. Or maybe Kyprian ensorcelled him somehow. He’s Deryni, who knows what he might be able to do once he got his hands on a man?”
Urien held up his hand to cut off speculation. “We can deal with Lord Genlis in good time. His brother Zion upheld his loyalty to me to the end and I owe him better than to condemn his brother on hearsay. Now, what do we know about Marek’s movements to the south?”
“Earl Euan reports he’s not tried to force any of the passes. On last report he’d crossed the Grande River and but it’s not clear yet if he’s turning north to join Kyprian or if he plans to continue south into Corwyn.”
“Most likely the latter,” Archbishop Marcus declared harshly. “Jernian de Corwyn will welcome him and their combined forces move west through Carthmoor to threaten Rhemuth.”
“I’m not convinced of that, your eminence.” Urien looked at the map. “I believe my son left orders for this contingency though, Duke Tresham?”
“Aye.” Tresham’s northern accent escaped past his usual efforts to maintain a cultured veneer over his northern heritage. “If that’s so then we can nearly match Kyprian and Arkady’s forces here well before they reach Valoret. Once the prince arrives with his army from the west we’ll be strong enough to hammer them back across the Rheljans without a doubt. Marek and Jernian wouldn’t stand a chance w’out Torenth’s help so if we beat Kyprian here we can crush them easily.”
“Either way then, the best course of action is to continue to gather our forces here then.” Urien nodded. “I see my son has picked his commanders wisely. He’s placed his faith in you, Duke Tresham. I cannot be better guided than to do the same.”Next Chapter