Chapter SixBe broken, O peoples, and be shattered; And give ear, all remote places of the earth. Gird yourselves , yet be shattered; Gird yourselves , yet be shattered.
There was something of the uncanny, Piran thought, about Ebor MacGregor. The Master of Trevalga’s response to Donal MacAthan’s letter had been everything that Earl Godwyn had hoped for. Indeed, beyond it because he’d even opened his own coffers to help feed and prepare the assembled force for the march east and back into Gwynedd.
There was nothing unwelcome in any of that, but MacGregor’s ability to produce the answer to any question that might arise couldn’t help but suggest to Piran that the man might also know more than he told them.
“You’re probably not wrong,” Prince Joran agreed thoughtfully after he’d prodded Piran, while they were on watch one afternoon, to explain why he – almost alone of the Earl’s party – hadn’t warmed to Ebor. “But on the other hand, he’s not from Gwynedd so he didn’t have to help us then and he certainly didn’t have to join us with thirty more men – and the Good Lord knows we need all the support we can find.”
“I know. I’m just worried.”
“Worry about more substantial matters, Sir Piran,” the prince suggested cheerily. “For example, we’re actually north of Culdi and there’s no sign of my brother yet. If Prince Jolyon decides to march by this way, we’ll be outnumbered by about ten to one or so they say.”
Piran rubbed his chin. “You’re right, your… Jaron. I’m much less worried about the MacGregor now.” He’d almost called Jaron ‘Your Highness’ again, a title the young man had insisted on being set aside when they were in private. He was, he’d pointed out, only a squire and a very young one whereas Sir Piran was a knight and in military matters his superior.
“I’m glad to be able to help in my own small way,” he replied with a grin.
Piran nodded and then looked past him. “What…”
“I said…” Jaron blinked and then turned around to see what had caught the young Knight’s eye.
Men in grey and yellow tartan were filtering along the road towards Transha, pushing their border ponies harder than the horseman in Piran felt wise. “Are they Mearan?” he asked.
The squire frowned. “I think those are MacArdry colours, but the Earl of Transha’s men ought to be with Earl Richard’s levies and the Cassan men.”
“Most of them are wounded. Dear God, you don’t think he’s been defeated do you?”
“We’d better find out.” Piran pushed the boy towards the horses. “Ride to the Earl and warn him we’re about to have guests. I’ll see what they’re about.”
Running headlong into what might be a routing border party didn’t sound like the safest thing he’d ever done, but there wasn’t much room to intercept them otherwise so Piran descended the side of the hill he’d been watching from as quickly as he dared.
He dared too quickly as it happened, riding boots and spurs not being ideal for negotiating the rugged slope. Tripping he fell against a tree, failed to get a handhold and resignedly brought his arms up to shield his face as he tumbled down the last twenty feet of the hill and rolled out onto the road almost directly in front of the first of the MacArdry men.
“Whoa!” exclaimed the man in the lead, hauling on the reins of his pony to keep from riding Piran down. “Easy lad, d’ye want tae be trampled?”
Piran shook his head, not yet able to speak as the last impact had knocked the wind out of him. He tried to rise, stumbled and almost fell again.
The mounted highlander looked around and then pointed up the hill. “Are ye being chased, lad?”
“No,” gasped Piran and he took a deep breath. “Are you?”
The man grimaced. “Yer no one of Marlor’s stragglers then. Aye, Jolyon Quinnell’s across the border wi’ an army. There’s twenty score o’ them on our heels.”
“Just twenty score? I’d heard ten times as many.”
“Aye, that’s just those chasing us. His main force is north o’ t’Cleyde.”
“Well if you head around the hill up there, the Earl of Carthane’s camped with almost five hundred men.”
“Truly?” A smile crossed the rider’s face. “Tha’s the best news we’ve had in days. Here, I’m forgetting my manners. Ardal MacArdry, Tanist of the MacArdry’s at your service.”
“Sir Piran ap Coran, in service to the Earl Godwyn Pirek-Haldane.” He looked up and saw a flash of crimson at the top of the hill. “I sent… a squire to alert the Earl of your approach. It seems he’s come to see for himself.”
It was indeed Earl Godwyn, he himself carrying a banner with the lion of Gwynedd in token of his loyalties. Rather than come directly down the slope mounted, he cupped his hands. “Sir Piran! Is all well!”
Piran cupped his own. “Mearan’s sir, chasing the MacArdry’s. Four hundred of them!”
Godwyn nodded and pulled up his coif. “I’ll bring the men to join you!”
Down on the road, Ardal gestured for his men to dismount and take up positions in the trees either side of the road. “The King’s sent us aid, lads,” he encouraged them. “It’s our turn to surprise Ramsay’s men.”
Piran drew his sword and followed Ardal into the cluster of men to the right. “What happened?” he asked. “Our last news was the levies from Cassan and Grecotha were coming to reinforce Kierney.”
“Jolyon moved faster,” Ardal explained grimly. “Between Baron Marlor, Earl Richard and my cousin Mael’s lads we were still outnumbered four ‘o them tae every one of ours. The old Earl, he could barely see but he knew we’d not stop them with that so he ordered the army to scatter. Go west to Cassan, east to Grecotha or south to meet Prince Cinhil, he ordered. And then he and his knights charged at the Mearans to give us a chance to get away. ‘Twas a braw sight but wi’ less than a hundred o’ them, how else could it end?”
“Do you think the others made it?”
“I don’t know, lad. We tried to go west with McLain – that’d be Sir Roger, who’s wed to the Earl’s daughter – but yon Ramsey caught us near the Cuille. I think McLain managed to get across the river but our Chief took an arrow and we’ve been chased south ever since. Barely managed to get clear of an ambush at Culdi and… hark, here they come now.”
Indeed they did. A strong band of men in leathers, the tartan of their cloaks not familiar to Piran; although that was hardly unusual. They sent up a cry when they saw the MacArdy’s had taken a stand, sounding almost like hunting hounds to the knight.
“There don’t seem so many.”
“This is just the first. They’re calling up their laird now. D’ye suppose your ain laird will be joining us any time soon?”
“The Earl will –!” Piran snapped and then saw the grin forming on Ardal’s lips. “Well these fellows don’t seem in a hurry so he might want to make sure his men are all fed well first.”
“Oh aye. A man always fight’s best with a full stomach. An’ it’d be a sweet thing if we can get Ramsay himself to make the charge before he knows the Earl’s waiting for him.”
“Well he seems a bit hesitant, should we send a formal invitation?”
“Nae, nae. He’ll come. He wants us finished so he can scurry back to his prince. He’s an ambitious man is Ramsay of Cloome, or so I make him. He’d nae want to be far from Jolyon when there’s lands seized to be handed out to the Prince’s supporters.”
Only moments later a much larger column of Ramsay men came into view and under the guidance of a cold-eyed man – alone amongst them in wearing mail – they fanned out through the trees, forming a thick line of armed men that crossed the road and deep enough through the trees to outflank the Transha men.
“MacArdry!” the man in mail called out. “You know you don’t stand a chance! Throw down your swords! You know the King in Rhemuth won’t send you aid! But my prince offers you his mercy. Swear yourselves to him and he’ll honor the MacArdry’s of Transha as highly as any of his Earls!”
Ardal drew his sword, a heavy claymore. It made a rasping sound as he pulled it from the scabbard. “Ye want my sword, Lere Ramsay?” he shouted back. “Come and get it, if you dare!”
“Then there’ll be many a red eye among the MacArdy maids!” Ramsay pointed his sword towards Ardal’s position. “Take them!”
The Ramsays surged forwards, a wild highland cry heralding their charge. Piran clutched his sword in both hands, wishing he had his shield.
He was a surprised as the Ramsays when the handful of arrows loosed by MacArdrys were joined by the rattle of dozens of shafts from above. Looking up he saw a line of Connaiti on the hill, a familiar dark-haired squire standing with them as they drew back their bows for a second volley.
But still the charge came.
“MacArdry’s!” roared Ardal and stepped forward to meet them.
His clansmen joined him, a short push to meet the charging Ramsays head on and Piran joined them with a shrill “A Haldane!” The first man he met seemed startled to see his Carthane livery. Piran hacked down, splintering the man’s light targe and then stepped inside the arc of the man’s broadsword cracking the hilt of his sword against the man’s jaw.
Spitting blood the Ramsay stepped back, blocking the man behind him. There was more force than science to his next blow and Piran side-stepped it, then brought his sword around, the blade biting deep into his opponent’s side. He crumpled but another took his place.
Piran kicked out as their swords clashed, the heavy greave on his shin cracking against the other man’s soft boot and drawing a gasp. In return the Ramsay’s targe battered his elbow, which would leave bruises even through his mail.
Piran took a half-step back and out of nowhere – or so it seemed – Ardal’s claymore whirled in, putting a bloody groove in the skull of the Ramsay. “Press on!” the MacArdry shouted.
The MacArdry’s fought like scalded wildcats but despite the addition of archers, they were outnumbered and the gap between their two clusters of men was drawing Ramsays in between them. Soon they’d be able to out flank the loyal highlanders and then…
There was another cry of “A Haldane!” and calls of dismay from the Ramsays. Earl Godwyn and Ebor MacGregor led their force’s few cavalry in a charge headlong into the Mearans and behind them the grimly professional lines of Connaiti plugged the gap while others moved out to the flanks.
“Push them, MacArdrys!”
Ardal pushed forwards and Piran followed at his left hand, battering at any face he saw with the Ramsay colours. There seemed to be a succession of these, he was never quite sure afterwards if any fell or if they were just pushed aside as Ardal led a wedge of his clansmen into the heart of the Ramsays.
What brought Piran back to himself was the clash of his sword against another and the cold eyes gleaming at him from behind it. With a shock he realised he was crossing swords with the Ramsay himself.
Somewhere along the way, Ramsay had lost his shield but he clutched a dirk in his other hand and as he forced Piran’s sword back he tried to bring the shorter blade up below.
Piran shot his hand out and seized the other man’s wrist, halting the advance. They held there a moment pushing against each other and then the southern knight lunged forwards, bringing one foot down on his opponent’s. Ramsay faltered and Piran was able to twist his wrist, the Mearan losing his grip on the dirk.
Ramsay stepped back but before Piran could press his advantage, he’d seized the hilt of his sword with both hands and was back on the attack, hammering brutally at Piran.
Piran met him in kind and sparks flew as the two swords met again and again.
For a moment it was almost like a drill from back in Carthane, but this was a battle not a duel. A Ramsay clansman saw his chief’s plight and forced his way close enough to bring his axe down on Piran’s right shoulder. His mail saved him from a broken shoulder, or losing the arm completely, but Ramsay saw the weakness and his next blow sent Piran’s sword flying and a buffet with the butt of the battleaxe dropped the knight to the ground.
There was a cry of anger from Ardal and his claymore clove the axeman from shoulder to ribs but the burly Tanist of the MacArdry’s still had to push the man’s body aside before he could reach Ramsay.
With a sneer, the Mearan reversed his sword to deliver a blow against his fallen foe.
Scrabbling for his sword, Piran’s hand closed around the handle of the dirk Lere Ramsay had dropped only a moment before. Twisting he managed to avoid the downward thrust of the Mearan’s side and before he could recover to thrust again, Piran drove the dagger into his inner calf, below his mail.
Lere Ramsay screamed and then Ardal MacArdry’s sword ended the scream with brutal finality.
“That was well done,” Prince Cinhil assured them late in the day. The leading elements of his lancers, having been slowed by the need to carry supplies, had arrived in time to chase the last of the Ramsay men west and away from the fords over the Cleyde. “I’m sorry to hear of Earl Mael’s death, Sir Ardal. It’s my understanding that as his Tanist, you’re also his heir?”
“Aye. M’ cousin was wed but nae children tha’ live as yet.”
“I’m sure my father looks forward to welcoming you as one of his loyal Earls. Surely we need men of your quality upon the border more than ever before.”
The prince turned to Godwyn, Piran and his brother. “Your first battle command, Godwyn, but not the last I hope as nicely as it was dealt with. I understand that Jaron and Sir Piran have served you well.”
“Prince Jaron led our archers, Your Highness. And without Sir Piran’s quick thinking matters could have gone very much less well.”
Cinhil nodded. “And I’ll remember that. For now, we still have the problem of gathering up our forces so we can deal with Prince Jolyon with our full strength.”
“The Ramsay men went west and must ha’ reached Culdi by now. It will nae be long before Jolyon knows we’re here.”
“Quite right. I think I’ve learned a stern lesson on the needs of an army on the move. One that could have spared lives among your force if we’d reached you even a few hours earlier.” Cinhil looked over at Earl Godwyn. “From your reports it seems that the Mearans still hold Culdi and are using it as a base of supplies.”
“We’ve seen sign of a number of their wagons, so it seems likely.”
“Excellent. Our next step is to take that away from them. Fortunately I know Culdi quite well so we can reach the castle before sunset and if Jolyon can take it by storm then we can surely manage the same – particularly with the main force there being demoralised by the death of their leader.”
“If you’ll excuse me for saying so, cavalry aren’t the ideal force if you mean to hold Culdi against a siege.”
Cinhil touched Godwyn’s shoulder. “I doubt Culdi could hold us all. But it can contain our supplies and with an alert and reinforced garrison it can hold out against anything short of Jolyon’s main efforts. You’ll certainly not be short of supplies, with those we brought with us. Our wounded will also need the shelter of the castle.”
“Ye’re going tae leave your supplies behind? Foraging will slow ye just as much,” warned Ardal.
“We can go a day or two with short rations.” Cinhil assured the highlander. “I’d like some of your men to act as scouts, you know the hills north of Culdi better than I. Where do you think Sir Roger will likely gather the remaining Kierney levies and those of Cassan?”
The highlander frowned. “Drumlithe is where the roads come together best – it’s a port on the coast, perhaps midway betwixt Transha and Kilshane.”
“And could a fast column, with only the barest essentials of supplies, reach Drumlithe in two days.”
“Aye. With the right guides. You’re thinking to come around Jolyon from the west and catch him between you and t’ Earl of Culdi coming from Grecotha.”
“The Duke of Cassan will be in charge of the army at Grecotha but essentially yes. Without supplies coming from Culdi, Jolyon will have to slow to feed his forces by forage. It’s going to be hard on the lands he marches through but this is our best chance to smash him before we have to go east to face Torenth.”
“May I ride with you, Your Highness?” Earl Godwyn asked eagerly.
Cinhil eyed him. “It’ll mean giving up your independent command here.”
“I know I’ve only a few knights with me, Sire, but you’ll need every man you can against Jolyon and my infantry have to remain here to secure Culdi.”
“There’s something to that. Of course, if that’s so, it leaves only one possible choice to stay here and head our garrison here. Do you mind my leaving you here, Earl Ardal?”
The highlander dropped to one knee. “Yer highness, I’m your man o’ life and limb. There’s many a wounded MacArdry man that’ll need tae stay here and nae shame to I in staying wi’ them.”
“It’s decided then. I understand Sir Piran’s taken his share of wounds and you’ll need someone who knows the Connaiti.”
“I can still ride, Your Highness,” Piran protested.
“You’ll ride better for a few days recovering. And believe me, I’ll want you at your best once Jolyon’s dealt with. Remember, dire as things may look here, King Kyprian has three armies just as large in the East. This is just the first rain of the storm we’ll face there. Jaron, I want you here too. I know it’s not the most glorious job but while Earl Ardal and Sir Piran are managing the defences, you’re in charge of organising the supplies.” He held up his hand to still any protests. “I know it doesn’t sound as exciting as riding with me, but you’ve shown your courage already. Now show me you can handle the responsibilities that go with commanding an army.”
Four days later the army Cinhil was leading south across the Purple March had lost almost all resemblance to the brightly caparisoned column that had left Rhemuth. Men and horses had stripped away everything they didn’t need and both could have benefited from a day or two’s grooming.
Bolstered by Sir Roger McLain and what remained of the Kierney levies, as well as a thousand more Cassani knights and pikemen under Roger’s younger son Arnall (who was married to Duke Tambert’s daughter) it was also a much larger force. But even so, the best information that the MacArdry scouts had provided suggested that Jolyon could still field the larger army of the two princes.
“He’s not seeking battle though,” Cinhil replied thoughtfully when Vasco voiced his concern. “He was decisive enough against Earl Richard, so there must be something else on his mind.”
“I can only think of two likely causes, Your Highness.”
“Either he’s short of supplies or there’s another army he knows about and we don’t.”
“If it’s the former I’d expect him to be working west, back towards Culdi – right towards us in other words. But instead he’s moving south, into Marlor.”
Sir Roger nodded. “He’s aggressive or at least his captains are. Most likely his own scouts have found someone south of him and he’s got the bit between his teeth, rushing south to hammer them the way he did Earl Richard and I.”
“The only other army I can think he could be facing is Duke Tambert and Bishop Jashan’s force. He might believe he can beat them first then turn back and take us on.” Cinhil nodded. “Then we need to press the pace. We can catch his tail with our cavalry and force him to honour both threats. He can’t go further east without running into our armies mustering at Valoret. If we’re squeezing him north and south then he’ll either have to stand and fight or swing back west towards Culdi and let us combine our armies and outnumber him at last.”
“Shall we send more scouts out?”
“Yes, and prepare the men for another late evening. I want to move as far south as we can before the light fails.”
As the sun finally dipped behind the Culdi highlands off to the west, Cinhil’s vanguard was almost at the small castle of Marlor which therefore became the rallying point for the weary army.
Vasco was directing a company of Cassani spearmen to set up tents on pastures south of the castle when one of the MacArdrys arrived, his pony almost staggering.
“Claibourne,” the man exclaimed as he dismounted.
“Claibourne?” exclaimed Vasco. “What would Duke Tresham be doing here?”
“I couldnae say, but they’re Claibourne colours and there’s near eight hundred o’ them camped maybe five miles up the road.”
Vasco looked around and then collared one of the infantry. “See to this man’s mount,” he ordered and then gestured to the castle. “The Prince will want to hear this.”
They entered the castle where the hall, largely stripped by the Mearans, was now accommodating the royal party. There was little to serve that wasn’t the rations the army had brought with them but at least there was shelter.
“Your Highness.” Vasco led the scout directly past the other officers to the prince. “This man has a report you should hear.”
The short scout repeated himself and Cinhil stood, walking towards the fireplace. “Eight hundred men under Claibourne colours can only be Keene MacEwan’s army. Tell me, did you happen to see this heraldry as well?” He pointed up at the carving above the fireplace.
The scout squinted. “Aye… Something like, perhaps. But there was a bar across the top.”
Cinhil removed his Haldane signet and showed it to the MacArdry. “In the same way this ring shows a bar across the top of the Haldane lion.”
“Aye!” he smacked one fist into his hand. “’Twas that exactly, yer highness!”
“Those are the arms of Baron Marlor’s eldest son,” Cinhil explained to the man. “Can you guide my aide Vasco back to that camp?”
“I can! But my horse maybe cannae.”
“We have remounts.” Cinhil looked at Vasco. “Marlor’s held by a cadet branch of the MacEwans. If Drummond MacEwan reached Grecotha and found Keene there he could well have persuaded him to march west as reinforcements. It’s the only thing that makes sense. If he brings his men up then we can match Jolyon even without Tambert and Jashan.”
Vasco looked at the chamber where he’d left his gear. It seemed he’d not be sleeping long tonight. “I don’t know the state of his men but five miles could take half the day.”
Cinhil nodded. “Fetch me a map and I’ll explain what I want Keene to do.”
The camp fires were sufficient to help the scout – Sean-Seamus MacArdry, he’d given his name as – to lead Vasco back to the camp.
As they reached the edge there was a rustle of movement and the shadow of an armed man moved between them and the nearest fire. “That’s close enough,” he warned. “Who are you and why’re you skulking around our camp at night?”
“I’m a messenger from Prince Cinhil.” Vasco held still, unsure how many more guards there might be. “Our scouts spotted you before sunset.”
“How can I know that? You could be a Mearan spy.”
Sean-Seamus snorted. “And you could be a cockerel, with your preening. It’s twa late o’ t’night fer this.”
“He certainly sounds like a Mearan!”
“I’m frae Transha, ye fool!”
Vasco shook his head and - realising that probably wouldn’t be recognised - put a restraining hand on the scout. “I don’t know if Lord MacEwan will recognise me, but I have a letter from the Prince with his seal on it. You’re welcome to disarm me until he can check that.”
“Don’t think I won’t take you up on that. Alright, come ahead one at a time, your loud-mouthed friend first.”
Sean-Seamus grunted. “I’ll give him loud-mouthed. D’ye want me to clout him when I get close, then we kin get to the Lairds tents wi’ out this?”
“No, give him your weapons. Lord MacEwan is one of the king’s generals. He’ll recognise an order from the prince.”
“On yer ain head be it.” The short highlander approached the and reluctantly handed over his bow, his axe, the long knife at his belt and then a shorter one he’d kept in his boot.
Vasco gave the little arsenal an amused look and the leather cord used to tie Sean-Seamus’ hands behind his back a less pleased on. “I don’t recall agreeing to that.”
“You’re a little late to argue,” the sentry warned. “Come ahead now.”
With a sigh, Vasco complied and unwrapped his swordbelt, scabbarded sword and its companion dagger along with it.”
“No hidden daggers on you then?”
“Just a penknife I use for quills.”
“Hand it over.”
When the ‘weapon’ was produced the guard scoffed. “I couldn’t menace a chicken with that.”
“Ah… put it away!” He tied Vasco’s hands too. “Now follow me and no funny business.”
There were more guards outside the pavilions of the little army’s commanders and the two prisoners were left standing in front of their amused looks while the sentry reported their arrival and – hopefully – either Keene MacEwan or at least the Baron of Marlor’s son Drummond MacEwan, could be woken.
“D’ye think you could reach that wee knife of yours?” Sean-Seamus asked in a whisper. “I reckon it’d make short work of this cord even if a chicken would laugh at it.”
“I’m keeping that in reserve,” Vasco replied just as quietly. “Who’d need a knife to frighten a chicken anyway?”
“One of these Kheldour lads, obviously. Sean-Seamus laughed at his own joke.
The tent flap was pushed back and a short, broadly built man with fierce red hair and clad in Kheldour tweeds emerged. “Alright, what’s all this fuss about?”
“He says he has a letter for you from Prince Cinhil?”
The man – Lord Keene, unless Vasco was mistaken – nodded impatiently. “And does he?”
“I’d show you, but I’m a little tied up,” offered Vasco.
“You don’t exactly look like a prince’s aide. Where is it?”
“In my wallet.” Vasco nodded down to the stout bag still at his waist. “And as for my grooming, it’s been a busy week.”
Keene opened it and reached in, only to swear and pull his hand back. “You’ve a knife in there.”
“Your man didn’t think it was a threat.”
The redhead scowled and ran one finger across the small cut on his finger before retrieving the letter more carefully. He examined the wax seal carefully before breaking it and unfolding the letter.
“Untie them, Graham,” he ordered at last. “This is Cinhil’s seal and I recognise his handwriting. It seems we’re only a few miles from his army and perhaps not so much further from Prince Jolyon’s. My apologies for the caution, Sir Vasco but there’s been little news from the west so we’re unsure what might have happened.”
“It’s quite understandable, my lord. It’s the same reason his highness didn’t set out his orders in writing.”
Keene gestured towards his pavilion. “Come inside and I’ll send Graham to wake Lord Drummond so you only need to go through the orders once.”
The river plain of the Cleyde was packed full of men as Vasco crested the rise looking down upon it.
A scant few hours of sleep snatched before dawn had refreshed him at the time but now after hours on the march it felt as if it had been too little.
The sight before him swept all that away.
The Cleyde was fordable here but the small army of levies from around Grecotha, reinforced by the Bishop’s household guards and a handful of men at arms in the livery of Culdi, held the other shore. Their placement couldn’t have been better for they closed the gates to the south as Cinhil’s army formed a solid line across the north-west, the Cassan schiltron along the river and flanking the vengeful Kierney-men in the centre. The left flank of the Haldane line had evidently been the Prince and his Haldane lancers, now driving deep into the Mearans, heavy lowland horses and their well-armoured riders taking a toll on the enemy light cavalry.
Banners waved above the field, marking out the commander’s places. Duke Tambert had somehow crossed the river at some point for his banner swayed above the Cassani while to the south Culdi’s banner was conjoined with the episcopal standard of Grecotha and even a ducal banner for Carthmoor, all the rightful sigils of Jashan Haldane though few if any of the southern duchies’ men would be with him this day.
The two most critical banners – those of Prince Jolyon and Prince Cinhil – flew above the cavalry melee, the roaring lion of Gwynedd and the dancing bear of Meara never quite managing to close upon each other.
“We’ve arrived in time, Lord Keene.”
The general nodded, eyes sweeping the battle. “We’ll do this as planned then. Will you stand with my footmen, Sir Vasco?”
“It would be my honour, Lord Keene, but my place is with the prince.”
“Good luck then.” They shook hands and Keene rode to the head of the infantry companies, to lead them down to the river and begin a sweep westwards and close the door upon the Mearans. Vasco turned instead to the general’s cousin.
“We’re more than ready, Sir Vasco.” The Baron’s son – likely the Baron himself soon, for his father had reached Grecotha strapped to his saddle, wounds already festering – was of a colder, grimmer temper than his distant cousin. “You’ll be so good as to ride at my right?”
Vasco moved to the correct position, seeing Sean-Seamus attaching himself to the rear of the line of horsemen. “Gladly, sir.”
Drummond rose up in his stirrups. “See there, lads! That’s the banner of Meara and below it is that cur Jolyon of Meara, the fetid dog that thought to gnaw on Gwynedd’s bones. Kill him and their whole army falls apart! Now ride!” He spurred his horse forwards, perhaps forgetting in his excitement that he led Claibourne men. “Marlor forever!”
“A Haldane!” shouted Vasco and then, remembering who he led, “MacEwan!”
“MacEwan! A Haldane!” roared out voices behind him and the cavalcade of riders descended into the cauldron of battle.
On their own the charge of a hundred more men might not have turned the tide. But for all their long ride that morning, the Claibourne horsemen were better rested than those already in the battle and they crashed into the flanks of men already engaged.
Vasco’s fine R’Kassi gelding bowled over one Mearan, trampling down the rider and battering his way deeper towards Jolyon’s banner.
A sword clattered off Vasco’s shield and he ducked slightly, looping his sword around in a feint before stabbing into the throat of a gorget-less Mearan. Glancing to his left he could no longer see who might have struck at his shield so he forced his horse onwards.
The Mearan banner seemed to be getting closer despite the difficulty making progress and Vasco cut down another rider before suddenly breaking out of the knot of fighting into one of the brief gaps between lines of combatants.
Directly ahead of him, seeming much surprised at the appearance of a knight wearing Haldane colours, was Prince Jolyon himself, his banner bearer and two of his household knights. They must have been moving to rally the flank against this new threat.
Hoping he wasn’t alone in breaking through, Vasco turned his horses head directly towards Jolyon. “A Haldane!”
“To me, Mearans!” shouted the prince, his guards sweeping forward to block Vasco. His gelding crashed against one, shoulder against shoulder, the two riders striking savagely at each other, shields out of position.
Vasco was barely aware of a shout: “Marloooor!” before Drummond MacEwan’s lance smote the second knight. Focused entirely on Vasco, the man had no chance to do more than cry out as he was unhorsed.
An instant later and Vasco’s own opponent gave a startled cry and had to leap clear of his collapsing mount, the doughty Sean-Seamus having pushed forward and brained the horse with his battleaxe.
Jolyon’s own lance wasn’t in evidence and Drummond discarded the splinters of his own, grimly closing in upon the older man who rode forward with equal fervor.
Ignoring both Vasco charged the banner-bearer and burdened by the pole, the knight had only one hand to defend himself with. Vasco was in no mood to deal chivalrously with him and feinted to draw the man’s sword away before following up with a slice to the throat of the banner-bearer’s horse.
He seized the banner as the knight was brought down, one leg trapped in the stirrups and thus beneath the weight of his horse. Raising Meara’s banner above his head, Vasco turned it and drove the head and silks down into the blood and muck. It caught on something and with Vasco and his gelding’s weight against it, the shaft snapped.
There was a sound something like a sigh in the air.
“Mearans!” Jolyon screamed out, trying to affirm that he lived still.
Then Drummond swept his sword around in a short arc and it hammered into the prince’s neck below his helm. Stunned, Jolyon slumped in the saddle and dropped his sword. Unsatisfied, Drummond drew back his sword, aimed carefully and then thrust at the arm-pit where the mail had to be weakest. There was a dreadful crunch and rich crimson blood spilled furiously from the prince’s body.
“By God, this for glory,” murmured Cinhil, looking down on the fallen on the shores of the Cleyde.
Jolyon Justinian Jedediah Quinnell, Sovereign Prince of Meara lay dead before the prince, but he was far from alone in that.
The Mearan’s trapped from all sides had fought with a fury until, late in the day, a force led by one of the Mearna earls - Kincaid of Kildaren some said - had managed to force the Grecotha levies back from the south shore and escape that way.
Others had flung themselves into the water and let it sweep them downstream. Those who managed to escape the water’s grasp might well manage to return to the hills and mountains of Meara.
At this moment Vasco didn’t begrudge them that. No knight could be a stranger to death but here the Archangel Uriel must surely weep as he gathered the dead of both sides.
Sir Roger McLain wouldn’t rule Kierney in his wife’s name for he’d died somewhere in the melee and been trampled until only his torn surcoat let him be identified. Twice bereft, Glorian McInnis-McLain would now need to lean upon their sons Tairchell and Arnall.
“No, Cinhil,” disagreed Bishop Jashan. “There’s no glory here. But there’s a lesson here for those with eyes to see.”
“Do teach me uncle.”
“This is defeat.” The Bishop crouched beside Jolyon, examined the man’s face and then looked up seriously. “It is what Kyprian of Torenth and his kinsman Marek would have us suffer. Do not diminish those who’ve bled for Gwynedd or fallen for her by equating his state here to your own.”
Cinhil shook his head. “I do not. But I can grieve yet that his ambition demanded that the price be paid.”
“For that I can at least grant you absolution. And perhaps a higher judge will also absolve Jolyon his part in this.” Nonetheless, he took Jolyon’s hands and crossed them across the dead prince’s breast before standing again. “What would you do with his earthly remains?”
“Do you think I’d despoil his body? Cut it into quarters and display them in all the parts of the Kingdom?”
“It has been done before.”
Cinhil shook his head. “But I will not.” He turned to Duke Tambert. “Your Highness, for all he was our enemy, this man was a kinsman to your house. Will you have his body carried north to Cassan and laid to rest amongst your Quinnell ancestors.”
“Since you ask it of me, Your Highness, I shall. And if his daughters ask the return of his remains?”
“Then I shall have no objection. Neither my father nor I sought war with Meara, and perhaps if we treat gently with them there shall not be more bloodshed between our two kingdoms. God grant this has been enough.”Next Chapter