Chapter TwelveWatch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.
“I couldn’t tell you if it’s Cinhil Haldane that makes the difference or if someone over there is learning fast but they had a strong picket last night and at dawn there were infantry standing too near the shore, some two thousand strong according to our own pickets.”
Kyprian frowned. “Don’t mince your words with me, Imre. For all your son’s valour yesterday we’ve suffered a reverse. Launching a second attack upon the ford will be a bloody business now – bloodier than it already was.”
“Defending a position is simpler than storming one, Sire.” Imre of Tolan spread his hands. “I see three alternative courses of action to a further assault on the ford.”
“Moving north to Grecotha or south to Valoret are obvious.” The king scowled at his brother–in-law. “What is the third though?”
“We could feign a retreat upon our position at the Priory of Saint Piran and draw the Haldane’s army forward and across the ford either in full or in part. While it would be galling to give even the impression that we’re in retreat, a battle on this side of the river would have advantages with his flanks no longer secure.”
“I’ll not give Urien Haldane the pleasure of thinking that we’re defeated, not even as a ruse.”
Arkady cleared his throat. “It seems to me, Duke Imre, that moving along the river has just as great a chance of drawing Prince Cinhil across the river as a retreat would.”
“You make an excellent point, Your Highness. And it’s likely the Haldane will need much of today to reorganise his army after the losses they took yesterday. Being driven back to the river after their counterattack faltered will have hurt their morale.”
“Then we’ll steal a march upon them and move now.” Kyprian smacked his knee. “South appeals to me and it should to you, Imre. Take back Valoret and the tombs of your ancestors. Seeing your son enthroned at Valoret and the usurpers toothless to prevent it should sway any doubters, wouldn’t you say?”
“It would be my own recommendation.” Imre drew out a map. “Our spies report a strong stone bridge across the Eirian at Saint Mark’s Abbey, east of its confluence with the Falling Water River. If our vanguard marches today then we should be there in three days and besieging Valoret the day after.”
“There is a possibility that may be worthy of consideration.”
Kyprian looked at his son. “What might that be, Arkady?”
“Nikola tells me that when he treated with Urien Haldane before the Battle of Saint Piran’s the Haldane seemed open to the possibility of settling accounts in a duel of champions, and even of contending himself against Nikola or I. If my royal cousin Marek were to send a herald across the river, offering a challenge to place the matter before God in a trial of combat… well, either Urien shows he believes God will not favour him by decline or he accepts.” Arkady bowed slightly to Duke Imre. “King Urien is hale, but your son is more than a decade younger and a fully trained Deryni to boot. He could even offer a duel of pairs, with yourself or Prince Festil to support him while the Haldane must commit his heir alongside himself.”
“An interesting proposition,” Imre conceded thoughtfully. “As things stand I would be inclined to defer such a challenge until my son’s wounds have had a chance to heal but if we offered such a challenge outside Valoret, whether we held the city or not, it might incline the Haldane to favour the proposal, particularly if some amnesty were offered to his younger sons.”
“You would spare them?” challenged Kyprian.
“That would be a matter for my son to decide, however I seem to recall that one of the boys had a religious vocation like his uncle. That would remove him as a dynastic concern so long as he agreed to pursue it at a religious house we could secure. As for his youngest son… some estate can be found and after a year or two, well accidents do happen.”
“If they accept the outcome.”
“Losing a king is a dire blow to any realm, Sire.” The duke looked back to Arkady. “A very interesting proposal, Your Highness and one that merits further discussion with my son. My thanks for bringing the possibility to my consideration.”
“It was my pleasure. So we march on Valoret then?”
“We do.” Kyprian rose from his chair. “Imre, if your son’s injuries require more time then take command of the left wing, which will now become our vanguard for the march south. Arkady, the right wing will become our rear-guard with the supply train between my own companies and yours. Your cavalry is best placed to respond to any attempt to interfere in our movements.”
“Of course father. It shall be as you command.”
Although Vasco knew the Prince had only managed to snatch a few brief hours of sleep he seemed more relaxed as he watched the Lendour and Carthmoor men erect wattle fences down by the ford. The fences weren’t the most substantial of barriers but men behind them would be at least partially screened from arrows and the ‘bastions’ gave some landmarks to the otherwise torn and despoiled fields.
“It wouldn’t take more than a minute’s work by some axemen to cut a hole in those fences.”
“I certainly hope you’re right. It’s enough if they give the Torenthi the impression we’re more interested in building up our positions here than in moving forwards. If they’re too substantial they’ll obstruct our own soldiers marching across the ford.”
Vasco nodded his understanding. “And there’s something to be said for keeping the men busy.” He looked down the slope and then chuckled. “For that matter, Your Highness, when Duke Tambert arrives may I suggest having the men down there tear the fence up in sections and throw it over the worst of the mud. It’s at least ankle deep and that’s before we have thousands more of our men tramping through it.”
Cinhil actually chuckled. “Good thinking.” He turned to Jaron. “Pass those instructions on to Earl Euan, Jaron.”
“You’re in good spirits, Your Highness.” Vasco lowered his voice slightly in case anyone rode closer. “I don’t wish to intrude on your private business, but after the Deryni your father killed yesterday, it’s possible the enemy may use more magic today. The man did manage to kill Duke Tresham after all.”
“I’m not sure where you’re going with this line of questioning, Vasco.” There was a warning note in the prince’s voice.
Thinking better of asking if the prince had received the Haldane magic the previous night, Vasco quickly changed the thrust of his enquiry. “Are there any orders you’d like circulated to deal with that?”
“The churchmen with the army are dealing with that well enough. It’s the divinely decreed duty of every man in the army to slay any Deryni found among the enemy ranks.”
The knight winced at the cool disdain in Cinhil’s words. “They’re going to spark another purge if they keep preaching that.”
“I believe there are those among the Curia who wouldn’t disapprove of that. Bishop MacArt seems to take particular exception to Duke Jernian but there’s already been whispering among the northern contingents that Torenth may have Deryni spies within Gwynedd. There’s going to be an ugly backlash even if we win.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Keep a cool head, Vasco. And watch out for Sir Donal if you can. Father is confident of his loyalty but the army aren’t likely to see matters the same way if he’s caught using magic.”
“Are you convinced of his loyalty?”
Cinhil sighed. “That was a topic of discussion last night. Whatever he may say, it seems to Malcolm and I that our good Sir Donal has his own agenda. I’m not saying that that agenda is hostile to us but we can’t rely absolutely on him to remain loyal if our interests and those of his people diverge.”
“In the face of another widespread persecution, for example.”
The prince didn’t answer, instead tugging on the reins of his horse. “We should visit Earl Godwyn’s camp. I’ve not seen his men since I took command and no one should follow a lord into battle without ever laying eyes upon him.”
“And Earl Gillis would like to discuss deployments again. He still feels his division and the northerners should be moved across the ford to provide a closer support for the attack.”
Cinhil shook his head. “If we wait for thousands more men to cross the ford we’ll be doing well to attack before sun is setting.”
The Cassani pipers were silent as the pikemen marched into the camp. The sound of pipes would have betrayed their presence to the enemy just as much as carrying the heavy pikes shouldered. Instead the Cassan levies were preserving surprise by entering the camp carrying the pikes level – an awkward business requiring careful teamwork.
That was their forte though – while the border clans might excel in fast raids and skirmishes, Cassan had won independence from Meara and held onto it for more than a hundred years through their lowland clansmen fighting as a band of brothers. More than once a line of pikes, each man depending on those beside him to hold the line had proved impenetrable to light cavalry.
Now they would put that to the test against Torenth and if the veterans of Cleyde weren’t precisely glad at the prospect of battle they were at least looking forward to being able to carry their heavy and cumbersome pikes in the fashion they were accustomed.
“We’re clearing away some of the tents to give you a clear path down to the river,” Donal assured Tambert as the duke watched his men filter through the village. “When your pikes go up that’s the signal to clear away the obstacles by the ford as well. You can march right down and across.”
“Good.” Tambert turned his head from watching the men in his colours. “When this is over, Sir Donal, I hope we have another chance to see who the best archer is.”
“I’m sure I can find a silver penny somewhere in my coin purse, Your Grace.”
The duke laughed, as much for the sake of his men’s confidence as anything. “I must be getting old and morbid. So once we’re across the ford, we’re to turn left? That leaves our flank open.”
“The enemy’s best cavalry is on their right flank – our left – so turning keeps your men facing them. Our own horse will follow you across, dividing into two squadrons – Earl Godwyn on your left and Prince Cinhil on the right. Earl Euan’s division will follow then and take position to the right of the prince, with his own cavalry for the extreme right flank.”
“This all hinges on tight co-ordination then.”
Donal nodded. “The Torenthi camp isn’t fortified and their left struck camp and marched an hour ago. They’ll turn back when they hear we’re attacking but we couldn’t ask for more of an opportunity.”
“Very good then. The last of my men are arriving now so tell the prince we’ll be ready when he gives the word.”
“No, your grace.” Donal bowed. “The armies of Gwynedd stand ready. Prince Cinhil has given orders and we’re ready to march on your word.”
Tambert squared his shoulders. “Pass on my thanks then.”
He spurred his horse forward to where the pikemen were forming out of marching columns into the lines they’d fight in. Even packed tightly shoulder to shoulder they filled the space and more tents were being collapsed and moved aside as the last men arrived.
Duke Tambert pointed at the pipers and raised one hand before turning to look at Donal.
“Bring down those tents,” Donal called to the men waiting by the last tents screening the pikemen from the ford. They’d already been emptied and now the men yanked pegs and poles out of the ground.
Tambert’s arm dropped like an axe falling and the pipes began to skirl as the men of Cassan raised their pikes up on their shoulders with a cheer.
Stiofan de Corwyn tightened his hands on the reins of his horse as he felt the first distant touch upon his shields.
“Father, are you well?”
“I’m fine, Airlie.” Steadying himself, the heir to Corwyn adjusted the arming cap on his head as he felt another brush. “Cover for me,” he added under his breath. “Someone’s trying to reach me.”
“I don’t know yet.” He nudged his horse closer to Airlie’s and softened his shields to allow the contact, glad they were on steady riding mounts rather than more high-strung destriers currently being lead with the packhorses that carried his men’s battle armour. *Who are you?*
*Walther de Cynfyn… we’ve met two years ago at the King’s Christmas Court.*
Stiofan had to think for a minute before he placed the name. *Earl Euan’s cousin – you were attending in his place after he broke his leg hunting. I didn’t know you had any training.*
There was the sensation of a chuckle. *I prefer not to let it be widely known, for obvious reasons.*
*Why are you contacting me? And where are you?*
*As to the first, you’re the only Deryni I know who might be able and willing to shed some light on a pressing question.*
*I’m hardly a master of esoteric lore, Sir Walther. And if you don’t mind, I’m riding so this isn’t a good time.*
*It’s nothing esoteric, Lord Stiofan. I’ve a commission from my cousin and by extension from King Urien to find out where your levies are – I already know the camps along the Torenthi border are a sham. A few score old men and boys maintaining tents and campfires as if they housed a thousand men and their horses.*
Stiofan hesitated and then sighed. *You want to know my father’s intentions.*
*The hosts of Gwynedd and Torenth clashed yesterday and the outcome still hangs in the balance. If you’re riding north then adding your father’s levies to either side could tip that balance.*
*You’ve guess right. We should be somewhere north of Caerrorie right now. But even if I were willing to betray my father to you, I couldn’t – he hasn’t confided in me.* Stiofan frowned. *You’re reaching me from Corwyn?*
Walther’s voice was dry. *Not quite so far, and I’m being helped.* He paused. *Your father may rule Corwyn but everyone knows you’ve been his hands these last few years. As one knight to another, one Deryni to another… I hope you do the right thing.*
Then he was gone and Stiofan shook his head.
He shot his son a reassuring look. At fourteen Airlie was barely a man in the eyes of the law but he had a few years yet before the responsibilities of that had to fall on his shoulders – hopefully. “I need to talk to your grandfather. Do you think you can lead the column for a while?”
“All I need to do is follow the guide and do what your captains tell to.”
“That and be responsible if things go awry. Listen to them but make your own decisions, Airlie.”
The boy gulped and then nodded.
A long ride through the mountains had worn away at Jernian’s endurance and the old man was pinchfaced when Stiofan reached him. “What brings you, son?”
“Someone just contacted me. It seems your - our - deception about the camps along the Western river has been discovered.”
“Walther de Cynfyn – a cousin of the Earl of Lendour I know slightly. He claimed to be acting for King Urien but I’m not sure he was being entirely truthful.”
Jernian snorted. “More than likely not but that doesn’t rule out being generally in favour of the Haldanes. I’d be surprised if Lendour didn’t receive similar offers to those I did but he’s with the King’s army.”
“That hardly rules out the chance that his cousin couldn’t have been suborned. The first King Festil was generous to his supporters, his descendant might follow his example.”
“I’ve given him every cause to consider me at least neutral towards him.” The duke coughed, repeatedly, before continuing. “I think, at worst, he will be too focused upon the Haldane armies he faces to order any attack on Corwyn. And if I’m wrong then, as you told me, Coroth has never once fallen to a siege.”
“You’ll stand for Urien then?”
“Perhaps, but it remains too early to say for shore. I’d prefer not to burn a bridge I might yet want to cross. Marek of Festil will forgive me a slight deception if I sealed his victory. Urien, on the other hand, may let the Church have their way even if our men do turn the tide for him.”
“He’s only the more likely to do so if he suspects you’ve been in contact with the Festils.”
“My dear son, he’d suspect me of that even if I was entirely innocent.”
Arkady’s horse screamed and he kicked his feet out of the stirrups, barely getting his left leg up before the great horse fell and pinned the limb below it. “Jesu!”
There was no time to pity the poor beast – Arkady had to throw himself aside or the red surcoated knight who’d managed to drive a lance into the horse’s shoulder would have had him.
The only saving grace of the scramble that resulted was that at least he’d strayed far enough from his banner that it wasn’t obvious he was the prince. Otherwise every one of the Haldane lancers nearby would be turning to get him, hoping for a royal ransom for sparing his life or a royal reward from their master for taking that life.
As it was, he barely managed to move aside before another lancer was approaching him, sword out to strike at him in passing. Arkady took the blow on his shield, which cracked, and then flicked his own sword around to slash at the tendons of the lancer’s horse the way his instructors had taught him to. Hamstrung, the war horse stumbled and Arkady was upon the rider before he’d regained his balance.
Sword bloody, the prince glanced around. It was hard to tell with mounted men all around – some in his own colours, thankfully, but there was no sign they were making progress against the Haldane’s left. Wherever he’d found the mass of pikemen that fought under a blue and white banner, they were more obdurate than even the square of men-at-arms at Saint Piran’s.
He jerked his head around and saw a knot of Arkadian lancers charging towards him, Nikola at his head – sword in one hand and the reins of a second horse, one whose saddle was empty, gripped in the other.
Dropping his own shield, Arkady tore the Haldane lancer’s shield from the dead man’s grip and ran towards his brother. Flinging his left arm up to seize the saddlebow he fumbled a moment to get his foot into the stirrup and then swung himself up and into the saddle.
“You’re going to confuse people carrying a red shield.” Nikola leant over and slapped him on the shoulder. “It doesn’t go with the hart on your surcoat.”
“Thank you for the horse, brother, but unless you have some paint the shield will have to do for now.” It was a little heavier than he preferred but at least it didn’t have a spiked boss like some Moorish shields.
Nikola nodded and drew a long dagger from his belt. “Since you mention it, let me know if you find another. I seem to have dropped mine somewhere.
A horn blew ahead and the mass of horsemen jerked as dozens of red-clad riders broke off and rallied to a banner waving invitingly.
The two brothers exchanged looks. “We can’t let Carthane rally for another charge. Those damn lowland horses…”
Arkady nodded grimly. The Earl of Carthane might not be the most subtle of cavalry commanders but he knew how to deliver a nicely massed charge and he’d demonstrated the previous day by grinding Suleiman’s light horsemen into the dirt on this very ground. “Then we have to charge first.”
“For Furstán and Arkadia!”
Men released from the melee by the Haldane horsemen consolidating came to that cry and somehow the horses found a second wind, hooves thundering as Arkady and Nikola flanked the Arkadian battle banner and plunged towards the Carthane banner.
At the last minute the enemy banner seemed to leap towards them and the Haldanes burst into a counter-charge, the two lines of horsemen crashing into each other with a sound like thunder.
Arkady had vague recollections of the Carthane banner, of his new steed rearing and its hooves flailing towards a knight with an earl’s coronet on his helm.
He must have been unhorsed again he realised, finding himself on foot, battering his shield against that of a tall knight – a spiked shield boss might have been some use there, actually and stabbing around it with his sword.
A tall black horse barged into him and Arkady got a brief glimpse of the earl’s coronet again. He staggered back and the knight he’d been fighting scrambled up behind the Earl.
Only a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye warned him of another threat and he barely turned in time to block the axe stroke with his scavenged shield. The axe-head broke a sliver of wood free and almost dropped him to the floor – the man he faced wasn’t especially tall but he was broad and the long-hafted axe was double-headed and heavy.
“F…” Phlegm filled his mouth and he spat it out. “Furstán!”
The axe struck the iron rim of the shield this time and actually bit into that! Arkady thrust but the axeman hopped back, spinning the axe in his hand – the head had been chipped against the shield rim at least.
Then he darted forwards with startling speed and slammed the undamaged side of the axe head against the shield. Arkady cried out as the shield boss tore free and his arm driven back against him.
A second sweeping blow and the prince’s sword was torn from his hand as he tried to parry. Stepping back he felt his heel catch on something and he reeled, understanding that once fallen he’d be as good as dead.
The axeman’s lips parted revealing white teeth against his black beard and then the axe lashed out once more.
A weight crashed against Arkady, tumbling him to the ground.
For a moment he thought it had been the axe but the weight remained upon him, far too large and heavy for even the weightiest of axes.
There was a scream and Arkady brought his head up from the ground, seeing a lance head emerge from the axeman’s chest. A moment later and Árpád’s sword cut the scream short, hacking halfway through the man’s neck.
Now, with a chance to take in his surroundings, Arkady realised the weight upon him was a man. He reached out and grasped the man’s shoulders, pushing him up and off his chest. “Th…”
Nikola’s head hung limp between the shoulders in his hands. His jaw worked but only blood emerged.
“N-Nikola?” The prince jerked his legs, pulling them out from under the deadweight… dead, oh God, no. “Nikola! Brother, speak to me!”
The axe, he realised. The axe struck him…
“Árpád! Help us!”
Nikola’s hand moved slowly up to where Arkady’s gripped his shoulder.
The elder prince moved his hand to take Arkady. “Hold on, brother, hold on to me. We’re…”
The corners of Nikola’s mouth twitched slightly as if to smile and perhaps it was imagination but Arkady could have sworn he felt his brother squeeze his hand.
The hand went limp and Arkady felt a cold weight within himself.
“Nikola…” He pressed his brow against his brother’s and tried to reach out to him. The fading embers of the life scattered like smoke from a hand as he tried futilely to knit them back together.
*Oh God, oh God, why couldn’t I have been born with a Healer’s gift!? Nikola! Come back to me!*
Blackness took Arkady’s consciousness.
Piran gripped with his knees and hoped he didn’t slip off the back of Godwyn’s horse as he parried a scimitar from the Earl’s right.
Focused on the man to his left, the young Earl barely seemed to notice, leaning forwards to jab his sword below his opponent’s shield. He exclaimed in triumph and they pushed forwards but Piran couldn’t tell exactly what was happening.
Twisting to try to keep track of his own opponent, Piran saw the man pull back as the Arkadian banner was joined by that of Beldour.
“I’m not sure,” Piran admitted. “I think…”
The men carrying the banners turned their horses and they weren’t alone – an officer in black and white livery waved more riders back, forming them up around two horses that bore bodies across their saddles.
“I think their leaders are dead!”
“Good!” Godwyn made no move to press against the enemy though – his squadron and the Arkadians hadn’t been much different in numbers but the addition of the Beldour knights had almost turned the tide. Instead he raised his voice. “Rally!” he cried out. “Rally on me!”
The tattered squadron joined him, mostly mounted but some like Piran unhorsed.
“Sir Piran, take the dismounted men and reinforce Duke Tambert. There’s no time to round up remounts for you.”
Piran nodded then realised the Earl couldn’t see him. “Yes, my lord!”
Slithering down he almost staggered. The energy that could sustain a man in battle was fading as the immediate threat receded and he had to take two deep breaths before wiping his sword clean on his surcoat. “Dismounted men to me!” he called and started tramping towards the pikemen, wishing the heels of his riding boots were broader and better suited to walking.
The flanking Cassani gave the cluster of men in Haldane livery a brief cheer as they approached and a few moments later a cheerful looking knight offered Piran his hand. “Allen FitzOsberne,” he introduced himself. “Thanks for driving off those horsemen, the flank was looking a bit dicey for a moment there.”
Piran recognised the name, if not the face, of the Duke of Cassan’s second in command for this division of the army. “That’s one way of putting it. Earl Godwyn sent us to join the footmen.”
“The pikemen aren’t the best for storming the camp ahead, so they’ll be moving left around the edge.” The knight reached up and wiped at his brow. “You’d better join the Marcher men, the Duke’ll be leading them into the camp.”
“We’ll do that.” Before moving behind the schiltron, he looked towards the enemy camp. Companies of Torenthi were forming a thin to protect it. However fast the Cassani marched they were going to be striking at defenders who were at least awake and ready for them.
“Push them back!” Vasco shouted helplessly from behind the score of infantry crashing through the Torenthi camp. Somewhere the distinction between companies and even divisions had broken down. The Cassani were holding together around the Torenthi paddocks at the north end of the camp but amid the tangle of tents, order had broken down. He could see men from Grecotha, Lendour and Carthmoor fighting alongside each other in the ‘street’ in front of him.
“Aye, make for t’ big tent!” called out Sean-Seamus from beside him.
With the tangle in front of them neither could go forward but at least they could see further from atop their horses than the footmen could. “Too hell with the tent,” Vasco muttered, “Can you see His Highness?”
“I cannae see more’n thirty yards in this mess,” the highlander replied cheerfully. “But t’ big tent’s where the King o’Torenth would be and where the treasure’s likely kept. Either one’s going to draw a good many folk so why shouldn’t the Haldane be headed there?”
“I suppose that’s about as good a reason as any.” Seeing an opportunity, Vasco pushed his horse forward and cut down one of the Torenthi soldiers, opening up a gap for one of the Lendour men to open up the side of his own opponent and then somehow the skirmish was over, two surviving Torenthi throwing down their spears and fleeing. “Is this a battle or a street brawl?”
“Somewhat o’ both.” Sean-Seamus kicked one of the Carthmoor levy in the shoulder when he stooped for a pouch at the belt of one of the fallen. “What are you doing, you ninny? The real loot’s in the nobles’ tents, keep going before someone else gets there first.”
Somehow the knight doubted a more general chastisement of looting would have sparked the same enthusiasm for the men to keep forcing their way deeper into the camp. “Thank you for handling that.”
“’Tis nothing. There’s going to be more a riot than a brawl if the lads get out of control.”
As if on cue, shouts arose from the southern end of the camp.
“Riot, you said?” The two riders exchanged frustrated looks and Vasco turned his horse onto a path leading in that direction.
“Aye. Bluidy church levies, I’ll be bound. Should hae left them to guard the ford.”
“The enemy left’s turned about and marching for the prince’s right flank!”
Gillis Gillespie dropped the mug he’d been drinking from, not caring that the ale spilled into the grass. “What! They should be a good two hour’s march away!”
Kennet Howell shrugged. “Well they’re not. I’ve no idea why, but they’re there and Euan of Lendour only has his own horse to screen the camp – it’s a mess through there, half the centre’s still fighting the Torenthi and the others are sacking the camp.”
“Alright fine. What are Cinhil’s orders?”
“I don’t know! I couldn’t find him!” exclaimed Howell. “For all I know he’s dead.”
“I doubt that very much.” Urien took Gillespie and Howell by the shoulders. “Lord Danoc, with my son out of touch you’re in charge. Lord Howell, you’ve done right by reporting here. Now what are the next steps?”
The baron bowed his head in thought and then clasped his hands together. “Lord Howell, send one of your messengers to the Cassani levies. They’re outside the camp so they should be in good order. They’re to fall halfway back to the ford and take up a defensive formation to the north of the road.”
He turned to his own second. “Earl Custus, our division is ready to act as a reserve. Start moving them across the ford and form them up south of the Cassani. That gives the rest of the army something to fall back upon.”
“Retreating again?” Custus protested.
“The prince has sacked their camp and caused them a great deal of losses. Their right wing, with the best of their cavalry, is still in disorder. If we can bring the army back together then we’ve won the day but if they catch our right flank hanging open then they can still turn this around on us.”
“Well said.” Urien turned to Donal. “Have Prince Malcolm bring up my guards. Someone has to alert the men in the Torenthi camp to fall back and we’ve the most rested horses.”
Donal bowed and ran for the paddock. The fact it was the truth wouldn’t make it any less dangerous.
Malcolm was waiting, sitting with some of the younger knights. His tonsure was growing out and from the friendly banter going on, Donal suspected the young prince was perhaps finding in himself a new vocation rather than the church. He hoped so. “Mount up the men,” he called. “The king needs us.”
“What’s gone wrong now?” The prince scrambled up, tossing aside the apple he’d been eating.
“I’ll explain on the way. Take the banner –“ At least carrying that, Malcolm would have some reason to avoid getting into the worst of the fighting “- while I fetch your father’s horse.”
It took the help of another knight to uncase the banner but Malcolm was holding it ready before Donal returned astride his horse and holding the reins of one of the King’s warhorses, this one a grey part of a line descended by the matched pair of mares that had been part of Queen Jaroni’s dowry thirty-seven years ago.
“The Torenthi column that marched south turned back faster than expected,” Donal explained at an imperious look from the prince as they cantered back towards the king’s position. He could see grooms bringing forward horses for the Archbishops and a score of ecclesiastical knights were forming up to join them, which was a more welcome addition to their number than the clerics. “The right wing’s in danger and no one can find Cinhil to warn him.”
Malcolm nodded. “We’re going to take the reserves and hold them back?”
“The army’s falling back on the reserves. We’re going out there to recall the soldiers fighting in the Torenthi camp.”
“It’s less glorious but it’s not as likely to get us killed.” He felt a brush against his shields and frowned. It felt familiar… *Anscom?*
*Yes. We’ve not heard from you since I left Valoret.*
*This really isn’t the time. Try contacting me tonight.*
*We tried last night and you were too sound asleep,* the old priest protested.
Donal sent an impression of the previous day’s chaos. *Battles are tiring, Anscom.*
“Are you listening to me?” Malcolm snapped.
He sighed. “I’m sorry, Your Highness, I wasn’t.” *Anscom, go away!* He brought his shields up. “Your brother isn’t the only one missing right now.”
“My brothers, you mean. Jaron’s out there with Earl Euan’s mounted men at arms.”
“You’re right. My apologies.”
Malcolm shook his head. “Anyway, that’s not what was distracting you… you were doing something.”
Donal leant towards him. “Something best not discussed right now, your highness.”
“A secret, in other words.”
“Something best discussed in private. If you want to know then remind me later and I’ll tell you.”
The prince eyed him suspiciously. “Really?”
Donal crossed himself. “You have my oath, Your Highness.”
Piran swore as he saw a Haldane squire’s horse go down trying to pick its way between two tents. One leg caught in the multitude of ropes holding the tents up and there was a nasty crack as the horse fell.
Running closer he saw that the lad had flung himself clear in time. “What were you thinking!?” he demanded and only then saw that the burgundy-dyed britches and boots visible below the steel and leather brigandine were too well made for just another squire.
“I thought he could make it!” The young face below the arming cap was that of Jaron Haldane, a prickle of tears evident. “I had to hurry!” Reluctantly he drew a long dirk and went to the stricken horse’s throat.
Piran watched him do the necessary deed before asking: “And the hurry, Your Highness.”
“Sir Piran? Oh thank god. Have you seen Cinhil? The Torenthi have rallied, they’re pushing into the camp from the south and cutting the church levies apart.”
Grabbing the boy’s shoulder, Piran pulled him after him, uttering some oaths that might be an education to the thirteen year old. “I haven’t see him but I saw Duke Tambert’s standard a moment ago. He’ll need to know this and he might know where your brother is.”
Crossing between another row of tents; they spotted the banner beyond a sizeable pavilion. Piran jammed a hand over the prince’s mouth a moment before the boy exclaimed because an armoured man was furtively entering the pavilion and he wasn’t wearing the colours of any Gwynedd contingent the knight recognised.
By a miracle the man had been looking inside and he let the tent flap drop behind him without looking back. Piran and Jaron exchanged looks and crept forwards to the tent. There was no sound of voices from within and Piran was about to carefully look inside when there was a sudden ripping noise from the far side of the tent.
“Medras! Medras!” came a wolf-like cry and there were shouts of alarm and pain from beyond the tent.
Piran and Jaron burst into the tent, swords bared and voices raised in their own warcries. “A Haldane!” “Carthane forever!”
Within they saw the rear of the tent had been slashed in and the man they’d seen was just one of at least a dozen piling out into battle with those outside the tent.
Intent upon their ambush, only one of the Torenthi paid attention to the words from behind. He whirled and his sword crashed against Jaron’s.
Piran cut down one of the men and would have gone to the prince’s aid only to see him coldly force the man’s sword aside and slash ruthlessly for the throat with his dirk. The knight turned back to his own work and hamstrung another of the Torenthi before they truly grasped they were under attack from behind.
“Who are you?” demanded an angry knight in Cassani blue and white as the three surviving attackers backed upon each other, swords out and faces paling as other knights surrounded them and they realised there was no escape.
Piran pointed his sword at the knot of Torenthi. “Sir Piran ap Coran and a Haldane squire.” Which was true without advertising Jaron’s actual identity. “I don’t know who they are.”
“I am the Count of Medras,” one of the Torenthi offered. “I would be worth a considerable ransom.”
“I’ll ransom you!” The Cassani knight threw himself forward and his sword forced the Count back. One of the other Torenthi struck back and red soaked the knight’s sword arm but it was the last blow he struck before more knights closed in and the Torenthi were cut down in a welter of blood.
Jaron gaped and then shook his head. “That man was seeking quarter!”
“No quarter for a sneaking assassin like that,” snarled the Cassani knight. “He’s shed better blood than he boasted of and did so like a sneak thief in the night.” He gestured to one side, beneath the Cassan banner that still flew above the carnage.
There, a surprised look on his face, lay Duke Tambert, blood pooling beneath his body.Next Chapter