The King rose to be invested with the symbols of his office. Priests fastened the crimson jeweled robe of State around his shoulders, touched his heels with golden spurs. As chain mail clanked against naked steel beyond the heavy doors of the cathedral, Archbishop Corrigan took the Ring of Fire from Duncan, murmured a blessing over it, held it aloft for an instant, slipped it on the King's left forefinger.
Then he motioned Jared forward with the Sword of State.
That wasn't as it should be.
It was the moment they had been waiting for, for even with the Ring of Fire on the royal hand, there could be no magic until the Haldane had been sealed by the Sign of the Defender. The Duke of Cassan unsheathed the great sword and gave it into Corrigan's hands, watched anxiously as the Archbishop prayed that the sword be ever used to dispense justice.
Finally, Corrigan presented the sword to to the King. And Nigel, with an anxious glance at Jared, touched his lips to the weapon and handed it over to Duncan. As the sword, exchanged hands, the King briefly touched the Gryphon seal Duncan held in trust for his cousin, then froze in dismay.
That wasn't as it should be.
For there had been no sensation of power when he touched the seal, no surge of promise fulfilled, no sealing of the force foretold by Brion's ritual verse. His anguished eyes sought Duncan's frantically, and the Deryni priest too felt a sick queasiness rise in his throat.
Somewhere, they had failed! Was Morgan's Gryphon was not the Sign of the Defender? Or did it have no power out of the hands of the Duke of Corwyn?
There were loud footsteps outside the cathedral now, and the people grew hushed with fearful expectation. As Corrigan, unaware of what was going on, continued with the investiture, held out the jeweled sceptre of Gwynedd to Nigel, the cathedral doors swung open with a muffled crash, and a gust of icy wind whistled down the nave.
As Duncan turned his head slightly toward the rear of the church, there was no doubt in his mind what he would see. Nor was he disappointed.
He looked - and saw Charissa, Duchess of Tolan, Lady of the Silver Mists, the Shadowed One - silhouetted against the open doorway, veiled in pale grey and blue, shrouded in living mist which twined around her in a sinister aura.
Nigel didn't even move as the doors crashed back on their hinges, though he yearned to turn his head and look. For even as the sound shattered the silence, he realized that to satisfy his curiosity prematurely might only make him lose his nerve. He had only once seen Charissa, long ago and at great distance, and he wasn't sure how he would react.
Kneeling with one's back to the enemy was not generally recommended, either - he knew that too. He was probably taking a terrible chance by remaining in that position while his enemy advanced, and under other circumstances he would never have even considered such a strategic blunder. But since he was helpless anyway, it should make little difference. There was a point where theory had to yield to practicality, and frankly he wasn't sure just what he'd do when he did turn around.
He had to have time to think. If he had to bluff - and that seemed inevitable at this point - he would
also have to have some clear purpose in mind beyond mere survival. He didn't think he would freeze up when he faced her - but there was no sense tempting fate. Uncle Richard had taught him that years ago.
He heard footsteps echoing down the nave and knew that his adversary approached, that she was not alone. He hazarded a glance to his left and saw that Duncan was signalling the Archbishop to proceed with the ceremony.
Nigel nodded to himself in approval. Duncan was right. The farther along in the ceremony they got, the better were Nigel's legal claims to the throne, and the better were his chances of discovering a way out of his quandary.
Archbishop Corrigan took the jeweled crown of Gwynedd from its velvet pillow and raised it above Nigel's head. The footsteps were much closer now, and Nigel saw Corrigan's eyes flick over his head to the aisle beyond, saw him wet his lips nervously as he started the invocation for coronation. To the right, Meraude's face went pale as the footsteps came to an ominous halt at the transept.
"Bless, we beseech Thee, O Lord -" Corrigan began.
"Stop!" commanded a low, female voice.
Corrigan froze, the crown poised over Nigel's head, then quickly lowered the crown and looked at Nigel apologetically. His glance flicked over the Haldane's head again, and then he stepped back. There was the clatter of steel on the sanctuary steps, then silence. Carefully, Nigel rose from his knees to face the intruders.
The significance of the mailed gauntlet on the steps before him was unmistakable, as were the armed men lined up in the aisle behind the woman. Looking down the aisle, Nigel could see at least three dozen warriors, some in the black flowing robes of Charissa's Moorish emirs, the others in more conventional mail and battle attire. Two of the Moors flanked their mistress to either side, arms folded impassively across their chests, their faces dark and grim under the black velvet jubbas.
But it was the woman herself to whom Nigel's attention returned again and again. For all that he'd heard descriptions they fell short of the reality. Charissa was beautiful!
It was obvious that Charissa had anticipated this reaction and capitalized on it, quite evident that she had planned her appearance accordingly, for maximum effect.
A gown of blued-grey silk flowed from a high, jewelled collar around the ivory neck, and the whole was covered against the cold by a cloak of deep grey velvet and fox. The long, pale hair was coiled and braided in a high coronet at the top of her head, a small sapphire coronet encircling it. And the entire shining mass was lightly covered with a gossamer veil of blue which spilled down her back and softened the determined expression on her face.
That expression was what finally brought Nigel to his senses, made him reevaluate his first impression. For the coiled hair resembled nothing more than a heavy, golden crown, shrouded slightly in gossamer blue softness-symbolic in her mind, no doubt, of the other crown she hoped to wear before the day was over.
She nodded greeting as Nigel's eyes met hers, then glanced meaningfully at the mailed gauntlet on the steps between them. He did not miss the significance of that glance, and suddenly he was coldly angry. He knew he must hold this creature impotent - at least until a way of dealing with her could be found.
"What would you in the House of the Lord?" he demanded quietly, a plan beginning to form. His grey eyes burned with a cold fire reminiscent of the old Brion, and he seemed to feel another mantle upon his shoulders, one of royal dignity.
Charissa raised one eyebrow, then bowed mockingly. "What do I want?" she asked silkily. "Why, your death, of course, Nigel. Surely you had some inkling. Or didn't your brother see fit to warn you of the fact?"
"Your insinuation is as unwelcome here as you are," Nigel replied coldly. "Begone before you tax our patience to the breaking point Armed retinues are not welcome in this House."
Charissa smiled unconcernedly. "Bold words, my noble princeling." She gestured toward the gauntlet. "Unfortunately, you cannot be rid of me that easily. I have challenged your right to rule Gwynedd. Surely you will agree that I cannot now leave until that challenge has been satisfied."
His gaze flashed grimly to the men behind Charissa, then back to the woman. Charissa, he knew, was trying to goad him into the inevitable duel of magic. But he also knew that without his brother's powers, he would fail. Fortunately, there was a way to forestall the battle for a while and still satisfy honor. Meanwhile, perhaps he could gather his wits about him for the decisive confrontation which would eventually follow. He glanced at Charissa's men again, then made his decision.
"Very well. As King of Gwynedd, we accept your challenge. And under the ancient rules of challenge, our Champion shall fight yours at such time and place as shall be determined at a later date. Is that agreeable?" He was tempted to take up the gauntlet himself but pride was a luxury he could not afford. Morgan must be riding from Cardosa by now and besides adding his wit and lore to deciphering the riddle of Haldane magic, the Deryni Duke was a peerless swordsman.
A nicker of anger crossed Charissa's face for just an instant, but she quickly masked it. She glanced at the gauntlet again, then nodded. "Well played, Nigel Haldane. You have postponed our confrontation for perhaps five minutes, since the time and place are here and now. You have no choice in the matter and once it is done, I will call you out again until you stand forward to meet me in person. My Champion stands yonder to defend me."
As she gestured toward the right side of the cathedral, lan stepped from the ranks of the noblemen with a sly grin on his face and glided to Charissa's side. His hand rested lightly on the hilt of his sword as he gazed mildly across the distance between himself and Nigel.
Nigel's felt his face tighten at the betrayal. He'd believed the Earl of Eastmarch to be an ally if not a friend. As he thought about it, he realized that lan's statements had often tended to encourage the loose talk about Morgan over the past three months. His unfinished statements, his sly innuendoes - of course. In fact, he must also have some Deryni power himself.
None of this showed on Nigel's face, however. Only his eyes narrowed slightly as he turned his attention to lan, his voice low and dangerous in the stillness. "You would dare to raise steel against me, lan? And in this House?"
"Aye, and in a thousand like it," lan retorted, steel whispering against steel as he drew his blade and bowed silkily. "And now," he gestured with his sword, "Will your Champion stand forth to do battle? Who will you call on?"
Jared reached for his sword but Nigel held out one hand. The treacherous Ian was more than twenty years younger than the loyal duke, but Nigel felt he had his measure.
Nigel's arm was not long enough to stop another though.
Roisian Alyce Haldane descended the chancel steps and swept up the gauntlet. An instant later and Charissa barely caught her own gage before it smacked her in the face.
"What's this, girl?" Charissa's voice held more mockery but there was an uncertainty in her eyes. This wasn't what she'd expected and she disliked that.
Not yet fourteen, Roisian ignored the mockery, ignored her mother's cry of fear and outrage. She stepped forward, the Eye of Rom - so that was where it was! - in her ear. "My father defeated the Marluk fifteen years ago. I believe I can deal with the Marluk's daughter."
"Get out of the way, princess." Apparently outraged at being upstaged, Ian Howell reached forward to take Roisian's shoulder. Nigel seized the state sword from Duncan, ready to defend his niece. Her own hands moved swiftly however and a tooled leather flask was open.
The Earl probably didn't even see it before Roisian splashed the contents across his lower face. "What... I..." His eyes went wide. "What was in that flask?"
She threw it to the floor, sending the flask skidding across the tiles to end before Charissa. "The same drug she used on my father, from the same flask even. I have accepted your challenge, Charissa, and if I have to remove your champion further then I'm prepared to do so."
Charissa nodded with new respect. "Aside, Ian. You've made enough of a fool of yourself."
The Earl of Eastmarch might have protested more if he'd been able to focus his eyes on any of them. Bran Coris and Jared's son Kevin stepped forward and disarmed him but no one was paying attention to him any more.
Roisian angled herself slightly as she approached Charissa further and came to a halt standing on one of the saint's seals in the floor. "Well?"
"Does the Haldane send a mere girl to contend with me?"
"I'm older than you were, when your father died." Roisian bowed slightly. "Art thou ready to begin, My Lady Charissa?"
Hogun Gwernach's daughter stepped forward to face Brion Haldane's where she stood upon the seal of Saint Camber. "We are ready, My Lady Roisian."
A/N: another sudden inspiration and one that gelled more than one of the other thoughts. No wholesale deaths here. Just a small change: what if Brion and Jehana's only child was a daughter not a daughter?