Chapter SixteenWho will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.
1 Timothy 2:4
They carried the body of the dead King from the river on a litter of his own mantle. Donal ordered awestruck Cassani to also bring forth the bodies of Imre and Festil… no trace could be found of Marek after that last moment.
Vespian d’Aphienne stepped forwards to assist with the bodies and Donal was glad to permit that, delegating Malcolm to take charge of them. “How goes the battle?” he asked Vasco, seeing the east bank was cleared of the Torenthi soldiers.
“Danoc and Claibourne swing their line through the Torenthi attack and smashed through them. With the way they’ve been pushed back, I can’t tell you more than that, but no one’s retreating towards us yet.”
Donal nodded. “I’ll need another horse.”
Vasco whistled and Sean-Seamus trotted forwards on his pony, leading another warhorse. “I thought you might say that.”
“Then you thought wisely.” Donal swung himself up into the saddle. “Sir Allen! Bring your men forward after us – the Pretender’s dead, now all that’s left is to drive the Torenthi from Gwynedd!”
A cheer, only slightly muted by Urien’s death, went up from the men as Donal’s horse started trotting in the direction of Danoc’s banner. Vasco closed up the distance and leant over to remind him “Remember, you’re not really the prince,” before Sean-Seamus caught up.
Donal spoke carefully, wary of being overheard. “I know, Vasco. That’s why I left Malcolm back in the camp where it’s safe.”
The ground was littered by the dead and those too wounded to move – Torenthi and Gwynedder alike. It’d take hours to sort out dead from injured and Donal had to harden his heart as they rode past. He couldn’t afford to stop and aid the wounded of either side – it was his duty now, as Cinhil’s stand-in, to try to conclude the battle so that others could see to the men lying in the field.
No, trying isn’t enough. I have to succeed.
More cheers arose from Danoc’s men as they rode up, Haldane banner flying. They didn’t know yet that their King had fallen.
“I seem to keep leaving the army in your hands, Gillis. It’s fortunate they’re able hands.”
The Earl bowed his head. “I’m honoured by your praise, my prince.”
Donal dismounted and lowered his voice, drawing the Earl aside. “I don’t want to alarm your men, but I’m now your king.”
“The Festil’s work?” choked Gillis Gillespie, face red with choler but he turned away from his men to hide his fury.
“Malcolm and I have avenged our father. We haven’t seen Marek’s younger son yet but he’s the last man of their line.”
“Aye.” Danoc half turned and pointed south towards the army’s right flank. “Speaking of Deryni, it seems the Duke of Corwyn finally remembered his oaths to your father.”
Donal shaded his eyes and saw the black banner with its green gryphon alongside Carthane’s banner. “He’s joined us at last then.”
“He did. Lord Stiofan brought a thousand horse to the field and with Earl Godwyn’s help he broke the back of the Torenthi horse when they tried to take us in the flank.”
Lowering his hand Donal nodded. “I won’t say I’m as likely to trust him as I am Duke Keene but better he’s under our banner than fighting against it.” Most of the Torenthi were backing up around the northern side of their old camp but a smaller fragment – mostly mounted – was swinging around the south. “Do we know who’s in charge there?”
“Not any more. I haven’t seen the banners of Marluk or their church since Godwyn and Stiofan broke the enemy cavalry. The only banners of note left are those two…”
“Kulnán… and Sostra to the south.” Donal shook his head, remembering the arrogant Count of Sostra, Kyprian’s herald after the first day of fighting here at the Killingford. Would he be so arrogant now? “Send forward heralds.”
“What should he say?”
“Tell them if they surrender I’ll spare their lives.”
“You have ruined me!” Kyprian seized the table he was using as a desk and heaved it upwards, toppling the papers and ink pots across the tent. “You failure! How dare you stand before me with that arrogant face?”
Torval of Sostra’s eyes blazed with fury. “Since the Count of Kulnán surrendered to terms offered by Cinhil Haldane – who you claimed to have slain last night – perhaps it is not I who is a failure!”
The king’s face paled in shock. “You enfronterous…. No, you treasonous dog! I see it now! Guards!”
Realising his temper had ill-served him, the Count fell to his knees. “I abase myself your majesty! My fear for your safety led me to speak unwisely!”
Arkady stepped forwards as men at arms moved to surround the Count. “He is your nephew, my lord. Cousin to the Festils who have died this day. Permit his grief this one transgression.”
“No, my son.” Kyprian stepped forwards and glared down at Torval. “It is not grief but ambition that rules him – he would see us ousted and his own nephew upon the throne, with himself as the power behind it!”
“It is not so! I served you loyally in the east, I have served you loyally now – did I not refuse to surrender on the Haldane’s terms?”
The king turned his back. “Take him outside and cut his head off. I don’t wish to hear his voice again.”
“Father!” protested Arkady as one of the men forced a leather strap between Torval’s teeth to silence any further protests as they dragged him away.
“I have spoken! It is you and your other brothers who I am protecting, Arkady.”
Don’t you see how brittle we’ve become, Arkady wanted to say. Already more than half the highest houses of Torenth have passed into the hands of successors, some of them children and others back in Torenth. And now you’re alienating even our own close kin.
I will need to do something to solve this, he realised. But this wasn’t the moment. “I’ve sent Marek Junior south-east with a fast party. They should reach Rengarth and have that fortress secured before the Gwynedders can reach it in forth. Now we must look to our own retreat.”
“We have no choice.” Arkady felt the snap of his voice. “We have few cavalry left and with Kulnán’s surrender, not much more than three thousand foot, many of them already wounded once. With Corwyn’s arrival, the Haldanes still have at least six thousand men. We have to withdraw – or would you rather leave Zimri to pick up the pieces with our army slaughtered? There are barely enough men trained to arms left in Torenth to man the border fortresses.”
He saw tears forming in the corner of Kyprian’s face but the King turned away. “How? How did the Haldane survive? How does he rise ascendant? God, tell me why you permit this?”
The prince crossed his arms and eyed his father coolly.
“Very well.” At last the king lowered his chin to his chest. “Very well. Take command, Arkady. Take command and lead the army east. The Cardosa pass?”
“Aye, it’s our straightest route and the supply wagons coming to us will at least let us feed the men.”
“It is the end then, or at least the beginning of it.”
Duke Keene and Duke Jernian sat opposite each other at the table, separated from Donal only by Malcolm and Jaron. Earl Danoc, Earl Godwyn and the Bishops Vespian d‘Aphienne and Faustin MacArt rounded out what amounted to an impromptu royal council.
“It’s interesting that the herald comes from Prince Arkady and not his father,” observed the Duke of Corwyn. “It isn’t Kyprian’s habit to delegate power in that fashion.”
“You would know, wouldn’t you?” asked Keene.
Donal raised his hand in warning. “No quarrelling here, gentlemen.”
“Aye, no quarrelling.” Keene looked angrily at Cinhil. “Shall I tell that to Banan Coris, mourning his brother? To those of my officers who lie dying? Or to my father and brother’s graves?” The northern levies had, again, taken severe losses in the battle with their lords fighting at the fore and paying the price for their gallantry.
“Yes, your grace. Tell them that and tell them also that the House of Haldane shall never forget those who supported them through these days and those to come – and nor shall we forget the exact degree of the support we received.”
Jernian flinched at that addition.
“Duke Jernian, I’ve had many loyal men assure me of your son Stiofan’s ability and fidelity. I’ve decided to entrust him with the pursuit of Marek Festil’s remaining retainers. Obviously such a hard ride would be too much to ask of a man of your years so I will be pleased if you remain in camp here as part of my council.”
“I am honoured and I am sure your sources have also spoken of Stiofan’s diligence.”
“They have. And since he’ll be taking all the Corwyn levies upon that chase, I’ll have Earl Danoc assign a suitable guard to see that you’re protected as your rank befits.”
There was a chuckle from MacArt at the duke’s discomfiture.
Donal gestured to the bishop. “We’ll need to assemble a force that can march after the Kyprian’s remaining army. I’d like you to accompany them, Father Faustin. It might be quite the march so the wounded can be left behind. Much as I’d like to lead the army, with father’s death my place is here, so Earl Gillis will be in command.”
“I’ll take my division and Sir Allen’s, sire.” Gillis Gillespie looked over at Duke Keene. “I mean no insult to you proud northern men, but it seems best to me that the King have men of proven loyalty to guard him.”
Keene glanced slyly at Jernian before nodding. “No offense is taken, Earl Gillis.”
“Godwyn, you can take a day or two to rest your men and then I want a fast column going west again. There’s been skirmishing along the Mearan border according to Bishop Jashan so some reinforcements there should remind them that we’re in no mood to be trifled with.”
“I can have a column ready by the morrow.”
“I know you can, cousin. But the day after is soon enough. You’ll make better progress with rested horses.” Donal looked at Malcolm who nodded slightly. “We’ll need to discuss possible terms to offer Torenth and Meara, if they’re willing to see reason. But before that, Bishop Vespian, may I impose upon you?”
“In what manner, Your… Sire.”
“It seems to me that while we may have occasionally been too busy these past three days to keep God always in mind, he has been good enough not to forget about us. There will be enough prayers for our dead in the weeks to come, but today one of thanksgiving would not go amiss…”
Vasco waited until the door to the bedchamber was closed – Jaron dismissed to join the Earl of Danoc in preparing for the next day’s march - and then looked to Donal. The northern knight didn’t remove the illusion of Cinhil’s face but he removed the circlet he’d worn for the council meeting and dropped to one knee before Malcolm.
“Your crown, sire. With my deepest apologies for the presumption of having worn it.”
Malcolm accepted the circlet but didn’t don it. “I know no presumption was meant, Sir Donal.” He looked to his brother’s pallet. “Is there no hope for him?”
“None. You can see for yourself.”
Malcolm hesitated and then shook his hand. “No. I cannot. I will not.”
Donal nodded and removed his cloak, handing it to Vasco. “It’s time then. If we exchange clothes now then one of us can do… what has to be done.”
“The coup...” Malcolm shook his head. “It would be too suspicious, surely.”
“Nothing so blatant. Your brother’s heart can simply… rest.”
The young king shivered. “No.”
“No?” asked Vasco in quiet alarm.
“I don’t care how we dress it up. We’re talking about killing my brother.”
“His body, yes.”
“And his soul? I know you say his mind is gone, but can you say the same about his soul?”
Donal shook his head. “No, I can’t say that. Whoever did this may have hated him but they weren’t so rash as to try to harm his soul. Such magics are little more than legend in any case. No, the cord between body and soul is frayed but not yet broken. Only in death will they part. Nonetheless, I will remind you, Malcolm: the coup de grace has always been accepted as the final mercy for a man lingering without hope of recovery.”
“But he isn’t in pain, is he? And… perhaps I am too much the product of a seminary. You know the Church has never been pleased by the practise.”
Vasco cleared his throat. “Sire, is it his pain that concerns you… or your own?”
“I don’t know. I’m…” Malcolm sat on the bed, looking as young as he actually was. Save for Jaron he had been the youngest man in the Royal Council. “I’m not ready. First Cinhil like this and then father…”
“Don’t call me that! While Cinhil breathes, the crown is his, not mine!”
The two knights exchanged looks, Donal’s expression beneath Cinhil’s features clearly as baffled as Vasco felt. “What do we do then? Sir Donal can maintain the pretence a little longer but…”
“But sooner or later the Bishops will want to anoint Cinhil as King.” Donal shook his head. “I won’t do that, S… Malcolm. Today was one thing but I’m not the rightful king. Your father’s dead and Cinhil is… incapable.”
“I know, I know but…” Malcolm threw himself on the bed. “Can you not give me time?”
“How long will Cinhil’s body live?” asked Vasco.
“I’m not entirely sure. A few days.”
He sighed. “Alright then. Can you keep the pretence up until he does die?”
“Probably.” Donal scratched his head. “Although the longer it takes, the harder it’ll be to explain why I’m waking up hale after days asleep. And it’ll be much harder to arrange an exchange if we’re on the march – either after Kyprian’s army or back to Valoret.”
“Then we are constrained, Sire.” Vasco looked at Malcolm. “If Donal is willing to grant you a few more days before you must take up the crown of Gwynedd, you must accept that this deception cannot last long.”
Malcolm nodded his understanding. “Father’s body must be taken to Rhemuth for burial – in the summer heat we can’t put that off for long – and Bishop d’Aphienne spoke of carrying some of the wounded to Valoret and the religious houses around it rather than leaving them here in the camp. Can you give me until we reach Valoret? Bringing my brother in the form of Sir Donal shouldn’t be too difficult to explain.”
Donal weighed the prospects. “You’re talking about almost a week, Sire. I’m unsure your brother can last that long and if he passes before we resume our roles, I’ll be the one believed to have died. That would be quite difficult to explain.”
“Very well then, you say that I am your king. I command you, Sir Donal, to serve me in this fashion.”
The two knights exchanged uneasy glances.
“Very well, Sire. As you command.”
Roisian had found the Cathedral of Saint Asaph something of a refuge over the past weeks.
Her mother and Annalind preferred to keep their grief to the royal apartments and the royal chapel, while the great lords might seek to draw her into their political wrangling in the Great Hall of the palace – but here in stone cathedral with its famous red-tiled spire she could grieve quietly for her father.
Had Judhael’s body been returned to Laas to lie in state then it would surely have become a focus of mourning within the city, but without this the public grief had been limited and Roisian could sit or kneel in the royal pew without interruption for an hour or two, alone with her thoughts before anyone dared invite – summon, truly – her attention to their particular matters.
For this reason she was discomfited when she realised that only shortly after her arrival, Rhiyrd Kincaid had taken a seat in the pew behind. The Earl’s son and heir bowed his head penitently enough but Roisian felt his eyes upon her as she prayed.
“Your Highness,” he murmured as the cathedral choir began to sing the Vespers hymns.
“Lord Rhiyrd,” she answered, forcing herself to suppress her irritation. Loren Kincaid had been forced to ride back to Kildaren to attend to military matters and in his absence, his son loomed large among the lords of the north.
For a mercy, the young lord remained quiet though the Vespers service but just when she had dared to hope that he might restrain himself to being only a silent presence he leant forwards.
“All know how greatly your grief lies upon you as a burden, my princess. I would only have you know that many Mearan men stand ready to support you in your time of need.”
Roisian for a moment found the hint of possessiveness the most disturbing part of his words and then realised the true implication that lay behind them. Mearan men – as opposed to the men of Torenth – supported her. Or was that to say that the Mearan lords were cooling to the notion of a Furstán prince arriving to be her right arm and the father of future princes of Meara?
“I am comforted greatly by the loyalty of Meara’s lords to their princess,” she replied quietly.
“If there is any service I might do to lighten the burden upon your shoulders, know that you need only ask.”
Roisian nodded. “Perhaps, Lord Rhiyrd, you might be willing to carry some word to the Lord Zygmunt Furstán-Medras. Instruct him that I would be pleased if he would attend upon me after tonight’s dinner. For it is not beyond my grasp that the Deryni have means to commune across great distances and that he may thus have news of how matters stand for his king and for King Marek within Gwynedd.”
“Doth my lady truly require the word of a foreigner to guide her?”
“I am Mearan to my heart,” she replied – now inescapably sharp in her tone. “But I would serve Meara poorly not to remember that other and potent kingdoms lie beyond our borders and stay informed upon their doings.”
For a moment she thought that Rhiryd would press his point further. Instead he seemed startled. “Pray pardon my offense, Your Highness. I remain your faithful servant.”
Aye, and your father’s also. “As your father leads our armies in the north, I know I can rely upon you as my eyes and ears within the court, Lord Rhiryd.”
Perhaps pleased by this compliment, Rhiryd retreated and Roisian clasped her hands in prayer once more.
Feeling sure that others would seek her soon, she prepared to leave the cathedral but as she looked for her ladies-in-waiting, who had withdrawn to a discreet distance, she saw a more welcome face entering the Cathedral.
Worshipers moved to give Bishop Briand of Meara space as he walked through the nave but he slowed his progress to offer his blessings to the young and kind words to those there in mourning. There were many widows in Laas of late and many eligible daughters and younger sons who had seen their status rise sharply of late.
“Your Highness.” The rotund bishop, wearing travel-stained riding leathers beneath a warm cloak, only the amethyst ring on his finger and the cross at his throat marking his clerical status, bowed deeply as Roisian approached.
Smiling as she felt she had not almost since he departed, Roisian knelt and kissed his ring. “Are you returned so soon, Father Briand? I had not looked for you to return from Culdi for days yet.”
There was a shadow in the bishop’s eyes despite the fatherly smile upon his lips. “My journey was swift and in truth, Bishop Haldane most gracious in certain matters that you desired addressed. Perhaps you would join me in my chambers here that I may give you a fuller report.”
“I would be pleased to,” she answered, wondering at what it might indicate.
Although no less surprised that Roisian at their master’s sudden return, Briand’s servants proved highly efficient. A table set with a hearty meal and a flagon of wine was set out while the Bishop was whisked away to swiftly replace his riding leathers with a plain cassock under an embroidered cope and a crimson skull-cap.
Briand was wiping his face as he returned. “Your pardon for the small diversion,” he requested. “My staff have high standards and I fear I’d break their hearts if I sat down to eat before royalty still wearing travelling clothes.”
“I think much of Meara knows you better by those leathers than by your chasuble,” Roisian replied gently. “But let us not scandalise your staff.”
The bishop took a seat facing her and began to fill his plate. “As I said outside, Bishop Haldane was most gracious. He’s assured me that in principle he and his brother are happy to offer safe conduct for a party to ride to Cassan and return with your father’s body and sword. While the details of how many should be permitted in such a party would be subject to some terms, there was no mention made of any concessions being made for your father’s return.”
“That seems almost too generous.” Roisian sipped on a glass of the wine to give him a chance to continue and when he did not she added: “But surely there is some other matter then that has arisen.”
“My lady, it appears that messenger pigeons had been prepared to keep the Bishop informed of progress of the battles in the east. Prince Cinhil had carried several with him when he departed to join his father and three days ago, when I left Culdi, Jashan Haldane claims that such a message arrived with most significant – and for Meara, ill-starred – tidings.”
“What could have spurred you so urgently that you’ve ridden from Culdi to Laas in only three days!? You must have ridden your horses half to death.”
“Fortunately I could change horses at every religious house along the way. There are some perquisites of a Bishop’s rank.” Briand filled his own goblet. “There has been a battle upon the plains north-east of Valoret, or so he claims. There is no proof of this as yet, of course, but I am inclined to believe him for surely the truth will reach us soon by other means.”
Roisian shook her head. “Father you say there has been a battle but only imply at the outcome. I take it that it was no triumph for our ally, King Kyprian.”
“Far from it. Bishop Haldane tells me that King Urien fell in battle but scarcely a prince or duke remains to Torenth and that Kyprian flees for his own lands with only a fraction of his former strength.”
“Urien Haldane is dead? No, I agree. It isn’t plausible that the bishop would lie about that. But the Torenthi losses?” Roisian held her goblet in both hands, contemplating the reflection of her face upon the surface of the wine. “Kyprian lives, evidently. But King Marek and his sons? Or Prince Nikola?”
“I have no news of your betrothed – in fairness, any message sent by pigeon must be short by necessity. Marek himself is dead – Jashan claims it was he who killed Urien before being slain himself.”
“Then I must hope, as must Annalind… oh poor Annalind! To have lost one betrothed already and now we must fear for a second.”
“There is one more detail,” Briand added reluctantly. “Jashan claims that with Torenth defeated King Cinhil is sending part of his army west once more. He did not say what orders they carried but to some extent it hardly matters.”
Roisian buried her face in her hands. “Indeed it does not. I think you for bearing me these tidings, Father. If their content is not as might be desired that is no fault of yours as their bearer.” But what shall I do now? Our alliance with Torenthi hangs by a thread that may already have been cut. Can I look to them for aid now?
Ancient Valoret, with its Royal Palace and Cathedral of All Saints, glowed with the light of thousands of lamps and candles as Urien Owain Rhys Michael Haldane made his final entry to the city, his coffin borne upon the shoulders of six knights behind his riderless horse – not the steed from the battle itself of course, but the King had had many chargers at his disposal – with Urien’s boots reversed in the stirrups.
The new Duke of Claibourne led the horse. Formal investiture into his offices would be delayed until the formal coronation of the new king in Rhemuth but Donal had assured him in Cinhil’s voice that he would inherit not only his father’s duchy but also the hereditary title of Earl Marshal that was his due as Gwynedd’s senior non-royal Duke.
The State Crown of Gwynedd sat atop the coffin, with Sir Vasco in careful attendance to ensure its security. The crown glittered in the multitude of lights reflecting off its gold and silver oak leaves and crosses.
Scarcely enough knights could be found to provide an honour guard for the new king. Malcolm and Jaron (despite Donal’s wish to send him with the Earl of Danoc’s army, he could hardly have been sent away from his royal father’s funeral) flanked ‘Cinhil’ and behind them the twelve knights of the guard marched four abreast, separating them from the rest of the court – such as had been at Valoret or returned from the Killingford with Urien’s body.
Jernian de Corwyn, Banan Coris, Custus Howell and Theophilus Genlis were among those few – a Duke of uncertain loyalty and three as yet uninvested Earls. It underwrote to the people of Valoret just how hard-won the battle already creeping into folklore was.
Two Bishops greeted them at the doors to the Cathedral – Faustin MacArt who had ridden with them and Gerald de Morgan, auxiliary to the much mourned John of Benevent – and the choir of All Saints could be heard as the ecclesiastical elements of the procession joined the funeral party and they made their way inside.
“I wish he could lie in Rhemuth,” Jaron whispered. “As grandfather does.”
“It’s the height of summer.” Malcolm’s reply was similar in its discreet tone. “He can be reinterred later.”
Donal didn’t trust himself to be able to speak to the other two without being overheard – being the focus of all eyes was a disconcerting experience – so he instead glanced soberly at the Haldane princes until they fell silent.
Eyes continued to follow him through the ceremonies. The old king was dead but the young king lived and the court was already moving into position from which Cinhil’s favour could be courted. It was a black jest that before any of them could imagine it, they would be interring a second king here.
He went through formal steps of the ceremony, remembering his father Davin’s funeral years before. A far less grand and more personal occasion but then Davin MacAthan had been free to be more personal and less grand than King Urien could ever have allowed himself.
That the cup of kingship was not his in truth was one relief Donal felt from the weight of the moment. As the final prayers were made for the final repose of Urien’s soul, Donal prayed instead for forgiveness for his current deception and for failing to protect Cinhil sufficiently. Had I done more…
Taking Urien down into the crypt was a refuge since the close confines necessarily reduced the burial party to the minimum. A sarcophagus lay waiting although no one had truly expected to lay another king to rest there. There were Haldanes aplenty though – Urien’s coffin was carried past the tomb of the great Augarin who had united Gwynedd under their house and the royal vaults that held five Festillic kings were surrounded by the niches in which lay the dozen or so Counts Haldane and their families.
“I’m told that this was once the resting place of your namesake,” murmured Bishop de Morgan to Cinhil. “He was reinterred in Rhemuth sometime later of course. It’s possible other Haldane kings have rested here briefly but none so famously.”
Owain perhaps, thought Donal. He, like Urien, fell in battle during high summer in the north-west. And King Nygel. Perhaps others too, from before the Interregnum. Realising some reply was required he nodded thoughtfully. “Perhaps I will rest here one day. If so, then I will be in honourable company.”
Only one bell rang out as they left the crypt – tolling out a long, slow and mournful count of the late king’s fifty-one years.
Donal barely noticed as he saw a familiar face among the courtiers waiting for him outside.
Walther de Cynfyn had finally caught up with them.Next Chapter