Chapter FifteenNay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.
Arkady gave his father a dubious look. The working the previous night had raised his spirits, but it had also left him weary in body – too much so to take a commanding role. We’re quite a pair, the prince thought.
By default this left command of the assault to Marek and his intimates. The thought that this might have been the plan all along had crossed Arkady’s mind.
“With this mist we can’t tell if Gwynedd’s deployed as expected,” he warned. “Cinhil’s death could have changed their plans.”
“The command would have gone to the Earl of Danoc.” Kyprian looked confident. “He’s been complaining that Cinhil’s held back a reserve each day until now – the plan to commit their full force forward suits him better. It’s also the deployment everyone was informed of, he wouldn’t want to risk more confusion by changing the plan so soon.”
“Well if you’re right, it shouldn’t be long before Marek’s vanguard reaches the Cassani pikemen.”
“Eager for revenge?” Kyprian shook his head. “Breaking that wall is work for infantry, son. Your cavalry won’t be needed for that and your man Árpád knows what he’s about. Once the line’s broken they can take up the pursuit.”
They watched the mists in mutual silence and perhaps not entirely mutual thoughts (although each for their own reasons was impatient for the sun to burn away the shroud of concealment that lay over the battlefield) until the arrival of a courier alerted them to a change.
“My lord,” the man exclaimed. “King Marek reports a force of Haldane lancers has been encountered on the enemy’s left flank. He believes they may have caught the Gwynedders before they’re fully deployed and is pressing on towards the ford.”
“Excellent progress! No show of sloth today, by God!”
“It’s a promising first report,” Arkady conceded grudgingly. He raised one hand for the attention of his nearest aide. “Have Suleiman take his horse to probe the enemy right flank,” he ordered. “No heroics, just find their positions.”
“You suspect a trap?”
“In this mist, father, I suspect everything.”
One of Kennet’s riders bolted out of the mists and across the ford to where Donal, still in the guise of Cinhil, was engaged in desultory conversation with Sir Allen Fitz-Osberne and Jaron. The latter was particularly awkward between relief that whoever had attacked Cinhil last night hadn’t thought to also target the youngest Haldane prince and fear that Jaron was the most likely person outside their little conspiracy to recognise he was an imposter.
So far he thought he’d managed to leave them the impression that any oddity in his behaviour was down to concern at what might be happening across the river and hidden by the mist.
“The Torenthi are coming!” the rider called out. “Baron Danoc’s swinging his left flank back and away from them!”
“It seems your guess was right, Your Highness.” Sir Allen cupped his hands. “Forward to the water’s edge!”
“And bring the royal banners forwards!” shouted Urien. “Let the pretender’s men know they face the true King of Gwynedd.”
With cheers the Cassani pikemen moved forward, lowering their pikes while Sir Allen and Sir Piran brought the rest of their division around to the flanks. The mists finally began to give way and the brilliant crimson and golden banners of the Haldanes fluttered above the massed ranks.
The first Torenthi followed their own banners forward and barely seemed to slow at the sight of the mass of men facing them across the river. A gust of wind blew back the mist at last and a cluster of knights was revealed beneath the Pretender’s banner. To Donal’s satisfaction, the sight of fingers pointing at the banner behind him – the lion and three pointed differencing of a firstborn son – suggested they were suitably taken aback by the apparent presence of Cinhil.
“A Haldane!” he called out, riding further forward to improve their view.
The water foamed as the Torenthi foot splashed into the ford and then they met the eager pike-heads and the charge came to an abrupt halt as they tried, on the slippery stones, to battle past the long and deadly weapons to get at the men behind.
“Archers!” Donal ordered sharply and wished for a moment he was carrying a bow himself.
There were good archers from the Purple March though, and both Carthmoor and Lendour had their share too. Their volleys arched up and over the river, falling not among those pressing against the pikes but on the ranks moving up behind them.
The pike wall wasn’t long enough to cover the whole ford though – the Schilling ford was just too wide – and thus the flanks were bulked up by other footmen. Here the attack managed to spill around the pikes and close into deadly combat.
Bloody men fell and angry men swore and cursed.
Donal was almost one of them, but he restrained himself as it would be unprincely. Instead he studied the banners and faces.
The Pretender’s banner was accompanied by a second, similar banner. One with the same three pointed differencing as Cinhil’s banner. Marek and his eldest son then. And behind them among other ducal banners was the lion’s paw of Tolan.
The Torenthi wavered – not near to breaking but their initial momentum wasn’t carrying them further across the ford.
“Imposter!” A shout went up from across the ford and Donal saw a young knight forcing himself forward through the ranks towards the men in front of him. The knight pointed his sword at Donal. “The young Haldane is dead, that’s a fraud wearing his armour!”
Eyes searching the enemy ranks for archers, Donal tore off his helm. “He lies!” he cried out. “Look at my face, Torenthi and know your assassins have failed.”
An arrow plunged towards him but he was prepared and with a flicker of mental energy able to deflect it past his cheek. “You call me an imposter, but I name your lord nothing but a pretender, a pawn of the King of Torenth.” He flung out one hand towards Marek. “You yearn for Gwynedd but you won’t have it, not beyond the six feet we’ll use to bury you!”
With a roar both sides surged towards each other with renewed fury and Donal’s horse plunged further forward, shouldering through the startled men between him and the enemy.
“Take him! Take him!” The young knight – not even Malcolm’s age, Donal guessed – doffed his own helm and waved his sword. The sharp features coincided with memories shared by Blaine Makrory and he knew it was Prince Festil himself.
Men in Tolan’s colours rushed forward as Donal reached the front lines and he drew the prince’s sword, cutting the first of them down. “Come and take me yourself if you’re worthy of your spurs!”
There was a shout of “A Haldane!” and more riders in red were flanking him. Urien on one side and Malcolm on the other. Behind them he could sense Vasco and Sean-Seamus fighting their way towards them.
Urien rose up tall in his saddle and pointed his sword, Gwynedd’s sword of state – directly at the banner of Tolan in challenge. “Come to me, Imre son of Imre-Marek! For forty years you’ve coveted my life! Bring forth your gage!”
The banners held their position and then plunged forwards.
“What are you doing!?” Vasco cried out.
“Look to our right.” Donal held his voice as low as he could and still be heard. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw Vasco obey.
On the banks, the last of the mists were fading and men in Haldane red were streaming towards the exposed flank of the Torenthi attack, beyond them the banners of the northern lords following suit… and distracted by Donal and the two Haldanes, the House of Festil were ignoring the threat entirely.
Stiofan looked down the slope at the battle unfolding. Before him lay two targets, each equally vulnerable: to the left the exposed rear of the MacEwans and the other northern lords. To the right split from the battle by the burnt out wreckage of an army’s camp was a second, intact camp – the Torenthi.
“We have to act now!” he hissed.
His father nodded his head but still swept the landscape with his eyes before speaking. “Who is that beyond the camp? They’re in Haldane colours.”
Stiofan shaded his eyes and then nodded. “Haldane lancers under Carthane’s banner. I don’t know how they managed to get all the way around behind the Torenthi army but what does it matter?”
That got a sharp nod from Jernian. “Perhaps not at all.” Then his hand swung out. “See there, the Torenthi horse!”
“Damn!” Stiofan nodded. The horsemen were breaking out of column as they left the camp. “They’ll catch the Duke of Claibourne in the flank.”
Jernian’s smile was cruel. “Aye. If they reach them.”
The duke nodded. “Save the Haldanes, my son. Win their gratitude for yourself and for Corwyn.”
Stiofan almost gasped in relief. “Airlie, the banner! Let them know the Gryphon of Corwyn has come for them.”
“The young Gryphon,” Jernian corrected him. “It matters not what Urien blames me for, win his sons; favour for yourself. Whatever they feel for me will die with me, for good or ill.”
Looking at his father Stiofan shook his head. “Always the schemer, father.”
“Pah! It’s the part of an old man to carry the blame if by doing so he can make his son more secure.” Jernian pointed down the slope. “Go, go. There’s glory to be won for you and Airlie, glory and the gratitude of a king.”
Stiofan nodded and spurred his horse forward, Airlie at his left hand, the great black banner with its emerald gryphon streaming out behind the boy. “Bugler! Sound the charge!”
Furious as Marek of the house of Furstán-Festil might be, he wasn’t bereft of all tactics.
Nor, it seemed, was he going to settle matters with steel alone. The Pretender threw his lance aside as his destrier splashed into the ford and reached out to either side with his hands. Into his left hand settled the hand of his father and into the right – with an almost audible crack – smacked Prince Festil’s hand.
Then, three generations in unison, they roused power and an arc of blue light swelled behind him. A warding, Donal recognised it, and a deadly one, for those who were even brushed against it were flung aside and did not rise. It said everything of Marek’s ruthlessness that the first victims were soldiers in his service that didn’t make room swiftly enough for him.
“Give us room!” cried Donal to the men around him, hoping that they would. Hoping even more that Urien and Malcolm’s grasp of their power was equal to this.
“For God and for Gwynedd!” A horse spurred past him and Donal saw Archbishop John, mitred helm on his head and crozier raised in challenge. “Back, you spawn of the devil!”
There was a crackle of energy and Donal saw Imre of Tolan flick his hand dismissively. The Archbishop’s horse screamed and bucked, hurling the bold Archbishop from its back. He crashed down to the stones of the ford, crozier lost and lay stunned.
Crimson light flared behind Urien and he extended his hands, raising his own warding line to close the circle that Marek of Festil had begun.
“Stand back!” Donal called out, Cinhil’s voice between his lips. “Let God defend the right!”
Perhaps in answer to his words and perhaps in fear of the powers being conjured in front of them, soldiers fell back from the trio in Haldane crimson and gold. Vasco and Sean-Seamus hesitated, but then the knight reined his gelding around and the highlander followed him upon his pony.
Malcolm took up the same low chant as his father and Donal joined the pair, drawing out the arc of ruby light to meet the sapphire fire of the Festils. The two lines met with a crash, red wavering and pushed back in part by the force behind the Pretenders and in part by the lines closing upon John of Benevent where he lay in the waters. The archbishop didn’t even scream as fire in both colours raged across his body and tore it asunder.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Donal said quietly, nodding towards the Archbishop’s remains.
Brought sharply to a halt with the closure of the circle, Marek released the joined grips on his hands. “I have sworn to cleanse your Episcopate of those who persecute the Deryni,” he replied. “I see no reason not to condemn them to the cleansing of fire as they have our brethren over the centuries.”
“I always hoped that it wouldn’t come to this,” Urien murmured. “But now that it has, I cannot offer you mercy, Marek son of Imre. You bring nothing but blood and death to Gwynedd and while I live you will never rule my Kingdom.”
“Conveniently those are the exact terms I had in mind, Haldane. I don’t know how Kyprian failed to deal with your son last night but I’m almost glad of it. It’ll be so much more satisfying to deal with him myself.”
In answer Donal raised his hands. “Answer then, my mortal challenge. I call you forth, Marek of Tolan, with such aid as you have brought. Once the circle’s orb is fashioned, yours or mine must all embrace cold death, before the living victors pass from out this charmed place.”
Imre arched one eyebrow and nodded in reluctant respect. “You’re better versed than we believed,” he admitted. “By Earth and Water, Fire and Air, I conjure powers to flee this Ring. The circle ends when six are three and three are free.”
Around them now, surrounding the six men and their mounts, a wine-dark dome separated them from the rest of the battlefield.
Rare as duels like this are, somehow I’d never envisaged fighting one mounted, Donal thought. I can’t say I like the notion – there’s no room to manoeuvre and there’s no telling how they’ll react. And by tradition it’s the challenged who strikes first, but who’s the challenged here and who the challenger?
No such uncertainty seemed to hinder the young prince Festil, who conjured a stenrect crawler to leap upon his counterpart within the circle, the equally young Malcolm.
Startled, the Haldane struck back first with his sword, the steel lopping one of the brittle legs off the orange and blue creature without notable effect.
Urien uttered a counterspell to banish the conjuring before its deadly maw could close on his new heir. “Magic against magic, son. And steel against steel.”
“Indeed.” Marek drew his sword – a long hilted scimitar he held in both hands. “Let’s see your steel then, old man.”
Donal would have gone to Urien’s side but Imre moved his own fingers in a spell of his own. “Drathon tall, Power come. Conquer all, Senses numb,” he chanted and dark mists began to form the shape of a dragon around him.
Cinhil’s stallion reared in terror and Donal had to cling on fiercely as he shouted: “Drathon kill, Power fade, Senses still, Conquer shade!” to banish the mists. Thank God for the wards, he thought as he felt the energies being unleashed as the other two Festils moved into the same deadly dance of probing spell and counterspell with the Haldanes. Sooner or later I’ll have to let go of the illusion I’m Cinhil and I don’t like to imagine consequences if the army saw that clearer.
Jaron grasped Piran’s arm in dismay. “What’s going on!?” he demanded, pointing at the purple dome downstream that had engulfed his kinsmen and the Torenthi lords.
“Deryni magic.” The knight shook his head. “There’s nothing we can do but trust in your father and in God to protect him, as he’s done before.” He looked at the young prince’s pale face. “I saw your brother’s aide outside that circle before it closed, along with that MacArdry that keeps following him around. Go ask them what happened.”
“But my place is at your side!”
Piran looked at the Torenthi, who’d recoiled from the ford at the sight of the dome. “I think I can spare you for a few moments. The way Danoc and Claibourne are pressing them, I doubt the Torenthi will renew the attack.”
“But what if they win in there!? What if my father and brothers are dead!?”
There was a short crack as Piran backhanded Jaron across the face. “Keep your wits together, Prince Jaron. If that happens you’re the King. And God grant it isn’t necessary, but I suggest you have some archers waiting against the need. If they drop that dome and King Urien is dead you’ll have a Pretender to pass judgement on.”
Jaron took a deep breath and touched his face. “Thank you, Sir Piran. If it comes to that I’ll remember your words.” He turned and ran towards the archers upstream of the dome.
Sir Allen shook his head. “If he is the King, you’d better hope he forgets you almost broke his nose there.”
“I don’t want him to forget it – although I hope he’ll forgive it whatever the outcome. We can’t afford a panic now, when we’re about to win the battle.”
“The battle, yes.” The older looked over at the dome. “But depending what happens in there, we may have lost the war.”
Cinhil’s valiant horse was dead, throat torn apart by a conjured gryphon. Donal hoped it wasn’t an omen for Corwyn’s loyalties. He leapt free and lightning forked from his hands. Imre was ready for counterstrike but Donal hadn’t been aiming for him. The bolts seared into the flesh of Festil’s mount and the young prince cried out as the steed screamed and perished.
Imre paused a heartbeat to assure himself that his grandson wasn’t trapped beneath the horse and when he raised his hands and voice in a new spell it was a darker invocation than those which had come before.
“Spawn of Dagon, Bael’s Darling, Heed My call, which bids thee here. Child of Thunder, hear my order. Come, I charge thee to appear. Smite this usurper’s spawn, Shroud him in a cloak of flames. Help to wrest the usurped power which my son justly claims!”
There was a rumbling of thunder within the dome and even the two rival kings - fire-edged and ghostly as their swords crashed against each other, elemental energies of fire and wind contending for dominance – broke off their duel in the face of the power being brought forth.
Dense black vapour formed into a scaly hide wrapped around the shape of a man, long claws and fiery red eyes marking it as malevolent even before it opened its maw to shriek with hatred at not Donal but Malcolm as the prince halted his charge, a steel blade in one hand mirrored by one of fire in his left, towards the still reeling youngest Festil.
Donal grimaced. Of course – Imre might not grasp that he wasn’t actually facing a royal prince but what he’d raised up had and it was taking him literally. His respite might be for naught though – unless he could think of some counterspell for what the Old Pretender had conjured forth.
Such a spell escaped him, but where Anscom’s teachings and even those he’d received in Torenth failed, the Haldane legacy came to their rescue.
“Lord of Light, in shining splendour!” proclaimed Urien in a booming voice. “Aid me now, if Thou dost hear the supplication of Thy servant, battling for his people here. Lend me the strength to smite this Demon. Send it to the depths of Hell. Cleanse this circle of the Evil, which Imre doth compel!”
The king pointed his finger at the ground beneath the advancing monster and brilliant crimson and gold light erupted from the river waters, forming a circle from which the creation seemed unable to escape even as its substance flared and fumed under that awesome light until at last nothing but a few blue vapors remained.
Donal gasped at the spell. Was that Urien’s work… or God’s hand directly? Was I closer than I knew…?
There was a meaty thump and a cry of pain – Marek of Festil had been less distracted by the effects of Urien’s counterspell and now his sword ran red with Haldane blood.
“No!” Malcolm cried out as Urien fell from his horse, Gwynedd’s sword falling from his half-severed arm. With desperate energy he flung himself from his horse and seized hold of Marek’s son, discarding his weapons. Festil managed a shriek of dismay before Malcolm heaved him back against the deadly energies of the wards.
Donal abandoned subtlety and thrust his will at the wet stones beneath the hooves of Imre’s steed. River stones, shattered as the water they’d absorbed burst to steam and the shards tore upwards and through the horse’s guts.
Perhaps distracted by the failure of his last spell – for surely no one had as shrewd a notion as he of the powers raised for and against it – Imre didn’t get free in time and as the horse fell sideways he too crashed with stunning force against the riverbed.
Sword raised high in both hands, Donal put one foot upon the dead horse’s shoulder to look down at the fallen prince.
Imre’s eyes met his. “Saint Camber!” he gasped and then closed his eyes in resignation as Donal brought the blade down with both hands, the tip of the sword driving through the mail links of the coif and into the throat and spine below.
‘Saint Camber’? Why would one of the ousted Festils invoke he of all saints? The mastermind of the Haldane Restoration was no saint in the Torenthi Church.
He turned to see Malcolm lash out at the dismounted Marek with a whip of crimson flames. It accomplished nothing though, for the Pretender raised a curtain of water from the river and doused the flames before they could reach him.
“You’ve slain my son, Haldane, but he is avenged.” With that, Marek drove his scimitar down and into the mail below Urien’s arm.
Donal seized Malcolm’s arm to stop him from rushing forwards recklessly. With an effort of will he caused the Gwynedd sword of state to slither across the stones to his feet. “Take your father’s sword.”
“Who are you that wears the Haldane’s livery?” Marek stalked forwards, sword held ready and his head haloed in a blaze of violet power. “An imposter of course – replacing the dead Cinhil – but what have they offered you for this?”
Shaking his head, Donal realised that the illusion of Cinhil’s had collapsed at some point. “Nothing that you could offer me.”
Marek laughed scornfully. “Do you think I’d spare you, you with my father’s blood still upon your sword? Nay, but I would know why.”
“Sancti Camberi,” Donal replied thinking of Imre’s last words. “Defensor Hominum.”
“One of those then, a willing traitor to your own kind.” Marek shook his head. “The six have become three as my father said but no three shall walk free now. I will end you, you and the Haldane both.”
“Naïve little prince.” Marek shook off Malcolm’s warning. “This battle was always to the death and if you are less resolved to it than I…” He gestured violently with his sword and then raised it in ironic salute. “If you fear your fate too much and your companion his desserts too small, fall now to I, Marek the King, who dares to put it to the touch, to win or lose it all!”
There was a crackle from the wards and they divided themselves, the red from the blue. The only purple remaining was a deep indigo line that divided the two hues… and one that began to sweep forwards towards Donal and Malcolm, driving the red before it. Urien’s horse burst into flames as it was covered by the blue light, Malcolm’s succumbed to fear and threw itself against the barrier with no less dreadful effect.
Donal and Malcolm both began to cast the spell to match Marek’s move. It was Malcolm who completed it first, taking up the gage: “Both our fathers have fallen to this game, I do not fear your test of flame. They them call he the winner who takes all; thus shall justice be done, though the heavens fall.”
The indigo line halted its advance and was even driven back under Malcolm’s fury though Marek rallied himself and soon the divide between red and blue, Haldane and Festil, writhed back and forth across the dome as each of the two sought to find and exploit some weakness in the other’s mastery.
Bound by Malcolm’s fate but unable to influence the decision Donal quietly resumed Cinhil’s guise. If Marek triumphed it wouldn’t change anything but otherwise it would be necessary to maintain the charade at least briefly.
He saw sweat beading Marek’s brow. A Deryni as young and inexperienced as Malcolm shouldn’t be able to contend with a grown and accomplished sorcerer – Donal himself doubted his readiness and that doubt itself would have been a potentially fatal flaw.
Yet the Haldane gift seemed more than sufficient to level the field, whatever its other limitations, and that fact was cracking away at the Festil’s composure.
Slowly, oh so slowly, the indigo line moved more and more towards the Pretender and the red grew in strength while the blue shrank, with Marek forced back to remain beneath such of the wards as he still controlled.
Discarding his sword, the prince threw his hands forward, summoning one last effort. The line above drew back but around the sides Malcolm pushed forwards, reducing Marek’s control to a sliver from almost the height of the dome to the river behind him.
Even now he was too proud to show fear. Instead a grim resignation crossed his face as Malcolm methodically whittled away at the remaining blue.
At last, with only a few feet of the dome still his own, Marek took one last breath and spread his arms wide. “Do not think this an end to the enmity of our houses,” he called out and then – in an instant – the scarlet light took the last of the dome and took Marek too. Crimson flames burst from his mouth and eyes, searing his livery black before the dome itself shattered into a flickering of sunlight upon the surface of the Falling Water once again stained with blood.
Malcolm dropped to his knees in the water and Donal moved to rest his hands upon the prince’s shoulders. No, upon the king’s shoulders, for though none save Vasco and themselves knew it, that burden fell to Malcolm now.
“Is it over?” whispered the young King of Gwynedd.
“One chapter is,” Donal assured him, knowing that yet another must now commence.Next Chapter