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Pretender's Gambit- Chapter Two

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Pretender’s Gambit - Chapter Two
The Third of September in the Year of Our Lord 983
Valley of Old Argoed, Eastern Rhendall Mountains

Five hundred elite horse and armored riders from the combined forces of Lendour and Carthane made good time curving north and then west up the Rhendall foothills in the dark. They came upon the smouldering shell of the Argoed Keep just as the sky was turning violet. Almost instantly a skirmish ensued at the base of the charred walls. The Gwyneddans demolished the invaders who chose to make their encampment outside the remaining tower.  The skirmish was over almost as soon as it had begun.  While everyone else was attentive to evicting the dead enemy and then settling down for a quick respite, Washburn noticed Rhylen Ainslie pause before the only unbroken door of the keep; this particular door led into the main tower. The young man passed his hands over the door latch, presumably to unlock it, and not with a key. Then young Ainslie disappeared within. He reappeared a few moments later with at least some satisfaction showing upon his face, even though not long after he resumed his frown over the destruction of the remainder of the keep. This had been his home.

“We will rebuild!” the young man announced defiantly. “The tower is intact. All is not completely lost. My father and I, and even my younger brothers will see the keep rebuilt. After this damnable affair is done and the Pretender is thwarted, the Ainslies will make this our home once more, this to you I swear!”

Prince Cluim clapped the heir to the barony on the shoulder. “I will help you see it done.”

“As will I,” Washburn added. “Mount up. We ride to victory!” the Knight Captain called then to his men.  The warriors all called out in agreement as they prepared to continue on their quest.

From the keep they turned south, moving more warily than before. Unlike the road earlier, this time their scouting parties encountered a number of Torenthi sentinels along the trail. Against three such groups the scouts made swift victory, well before any word could be sent back to Imre. Thus in a little over an hour, as the sun was lightening the eastern horizon, Prince Cluim’s campaign breasted the ridge that gave them a partial view of the old Argoed silver mine and its valley below.  Well hidden in a copse of the overgrown forest, they could watch the enemy without themselves being seen.                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

“If I were you,” Washburn was saying to the son of Lord Ainslie, “I would have all this visually-obscuring, sound-absorbing, but not so horse-resistant, annoying brush cleared far back from the trail. For honestly, the last thing you would want is for someone to hide 500 mounted riders with the full intent of ambush, when your gaze is turned in the opposite direction.” He raised his eyebrows and smiled a dangerous smile. The young lordling, not yet a knight, was not sure what to make of the daunting knight who was attempting a jest.

“Ignore him,” Prince Cluim said as he kicked his mount forward. “He gets this odd sense of humor right before a fight.”

“You think me odd?” the black-clad Deryni knight protested with a smirk.

“Hmm, eccentric more like,” the prince said with amusement. “Washburn, you can make any awful quip that you like. So long as you stay close and protect my back the way no other man can, I can endure anything you say.” The prince clapped his friend’s shoulder with an accepting nod.

“That seems to be the job I was ordered to do, and mind you I do it  with pleasure, Your Highness. But truly, you find my humor… awful?” How it was that such a man in formidable armor of chainmail, shoulder plate and helm with a broadsword on his hip, a long sword across his back, an extra long dagger sticking up from his boots and a short bow with many arrows on his saddle could manage a look so profoundly hurt, the prince could not imagine. The look only lasted for a moment before the knight in black on his black warhorse flashed a wide grin. “I have your back, Your Highness. You can count on that.”

“For that, I am wholeheartedly grateful.”

“Four guards coming up the trail!” announced a scout as he raced back to the main group. Back to the business at hand, Washburn waved his four best men to circle through the trees to cut off the enemy when they ran. Wash pulled forth his bow and set an arrow. The men looking on thought he was mad when he pulled the arrow back so soon. For certainly the targets were too far away through the trees, and there was no way even a strong man could hold the arrow long enough for the enemy to ride into range.

On both accounts they were wrong. The Deryni knight held the arrow just long enough to spy the faintest of movement below them. Aiming to the sky, he let his arrow fly, his eyes unfocusing as the lethal weapon flew well clear over the heads of the trees. In a silent descent, the war-tip of the arrow sunk deep into the lead enemy’s shoulder. In that same moment, without hesitation, another arrow was nocked to the string and the string was pulled back taut, then released. The second enemy fell from his horse faster than the first man did. Only then did the two other Torenthi realize the attack. As they turned to run, four Lendour knights leapt from the brush and quickly battled the remaining two men to the ground.

Fortunately, so far, Imre had not wasted Deryni blood on such insubstantial guard posts on this north side of the mine. He had fortified his south bank, knowing that was where Gwynedd’s army would come. Even now, Wash could sense that his brother’s party were in a skirmish with the last remaining enemy on the south ridge. As the sun began to show its face in the east, the sounds of marching men silenced the normal sounds of nature. The spearhead of the army of  Gwynedd was working its way up the valley. They only awaited the signal from Lord Javyl’s team that the last portion of the southern slope was theirs and they could move forward freely. After a long moment the signal came-- a single arrow shot high in the sky, an oiled cloth tied to it burst into flames as the arrow arced westward toward the mine.

While the enemies’ eyes were to the south and the east, now was the time for Prince Cluim to take the north slope. Still under the cover of the thinning trees, the mounted brigade descended the steepness of the hill, coming to the spot where the Lendour knights held the headstalls of the four riderless horses. Sir Dillon, Sir Thomas, Sir Paulson and Sir Larret were counted among Lendour’s best, their skills unrivaled save by Washburn alone in the last tournament games, a mark of pride that Washburn had boasted about just months ago.  These men rejoined the riders, all moving in comparable silence to the noise being made on the valley floor below. 

Through a break in the brush, Cluim’s brigade could finally see the width of the barren valley floor; nothing there was green due to the leachings of the old mine. Instead the colors that countered the bleak grey dirt were the black on gold pennons and tabards of Imre’s men. The forces of the Festilic Pretender to Gwynedd’s crown were well ordered in five deep lines across the higher ground, with more men stacked well behind that. Washburn guessed there may well have been 6000 men in the enemy's encampment, which seemed to correspond to what had been said about the Torenthi invasion of Marbury coming down from the passes out of the Rheljan Mountains some three weeks before. Behind the front line of Torenthi pikemen and shield carriers, a large corps of archers held bows ready but not yet drawn, awaiting the arrival of the men of Eastmarch and Claibourne to come into range. 

“Nygel should have chosen to siege,” whispered the Haldane prince, mostly to himself.

Washburn heard him. “That choice is behind us. We need to make this work and not get ourselves killed before we can rejoin the men of Eastmarch. Looks like we will have to fight our way through the north flank there.” He pointed below. “I doubt our arrows can fall on those archers before we are seen.”

“Perhaps….” Cluim scanned the valley as the light was finally letting its features be seen. “See that knoll? I think that will do well.”

Wash followed the prince's gaze. Maybe, just maybe, they could take that hill north of the mine gates and not attract the attention of the whole Torenthi army.  “It will be close,” Washburn whispered, while pointing to his first group of fifteen riders to join him. They stuck to the brush on the north side of the river as best they could.  They were surprised to find the hill as little manned as they did, taking it without trouble. Apparently every Torenthi wanted a piece of Gwynedd, and they did not want to be left out of the main fight. Even as the Gwyneddan army filed into the valley from the east, the riders of Cluim’s brigade slipped down from the north ridge, belatedly seen by the enemy. Some rushed the north hill, but they were too few and quickly outnumbered. Imre’s main army apparently never looked north to learn what that little fuss had been about.  The men backed the Haldane Prince in their stand upon the hill, bows with nocked arrows ready in hand.  Just when the sky beyond was shadowed by the thousand arrows aimed towards the army of Gwynedd entering the valley floor, five hundred other arrows were falling from the sky onto the backs of the unshielded Torenthi archers. Far more Torenthi fell than did the men of Eastmarch. Prince Cluim signaled for another volley to be launched before bows were slipped back onto saddles and swords and shields were made at the ready.

The battle in the valley of Argoed on both east and north flanks was engaged!

Gwynedd’s opening move proved its worth. Eastmarch and Claibourne held their own in the beginnings of the day. Cassan entered the fray with a fury of men-at-arms and added their weight to the field. It was going to take a lot longer than the host had claimed, but Gwynedd was whittling away at the Pretender’s forces and balancing the field.

The onslaught progressed during the morning hours. The Gwyneddans making small, incremental headway toward the mine gates where the Pretender in gold armor could be seen to sit upon his white stallion. Beside him pranced a great red R’Kassi warhorse, its rider the Commander of the invading force who was seen to keep vigilant attention after the early failure of the Torenthi strategies to hold the south pass. By the pennon flying over his head, the commander proved to be Prince Marek-Imre, the son and heir to the Pretender of Gwynedd’s throne. Through clouds of sand and dust raised by thousands of feet of both men and horse battling to own this barren spot of land, the sun did not tire in its trek to gain the highest place in the sky. Its penetrating rays glared across the backs of armored men, slowing the actions of both sides in its basking heat. A rotation of warriors from the Duchies of Haldane and Carthmoor let weary fighters stave off their exhaustion and gave them time to bind their wounds. As too did the enemy, bringing in new soldiers that had been held far back in the Torenthi encampment. A fresh ferocity enveloped the battlefield, and soon the outcome became less certain. In a tactic meant to vitalize the Gwyneddan host, the royal banner unfurled in the midst of the field. The Gold Lion of Haldane on a field of scarlet gave potent reclaiming to the land the Pretender had despoiled. Washburn did not see it at first, his back was to his prince while he wreaked destruction upon the enemy who dared to come near.  Prince Cluim saw it and cursed aloud.

“Hell and damnation!” he yelled over the clash of swords. “Does my brother think we have already won, that he risks himself so!” The Prince was aghast at the sight, slaughtering the enemy before him in his rage. He had not raised his own banner during the morning, not wanting anyone to know he was in the field, but now he felt a bristling of both pride and fear at the sight of the golden lion.

A positive reaction rippled through the men of the West. Howls of pride echoed over the valley as all of the forces of Gwynedd became aware that their King had joined them in battle. In a momentum of confidence the battle surged forward, up the hill, toward the entrances to the mine and the gates where the Pretender and his heir sat on their mounts just beyond.

“He has the right of it,” the Lendour captain approved. “His presence has inspired the men.” For indeed, even as prince and captain fought on from the north flank, the Gwyneddan troops slaughtered the Pretender’s soldiers who were suddenly retreating into the two mine shafts at the west end of the valley.

 For a few glorious moments, Gwynedd felt the rush of victory.

Too soon that rush fragmented. Wash felt the warning deep in his soul long before the danger was discernible. “No!” he howled. His prince turned to him, not understanding the alarm. Wash spurred his warhorse hard into a leap over the enemy before him. In his wake, Cluim followed, hesitant as to why they were rushing to the king's battle standard. While fighting their way across the valley, he looked up to see a thousand or more foot soldiers pouring out from the mine shafts, like insects abandoning a hive. Many had axes and swords held at the ready, yet many more held short crossbows that let loose a rain of thin steel bolts that burrowed like needles deep through protective leather and pierced through the riveted rings of quality chainmail. Rows of Haldane soldiers crumbled to the ground in agony. Even still, many of the wounded managed to brace a shield wall against the second volley of crossbow bolts, but to quickly that defense was breached by Torenthi with heavy swinging axes and thrusting swords.  The death of Gwynedd’s good front men exposed the king's men further back in the field to a renewed storm of relentless bolts.

Cluim cursed the invaders, charging faster, bypassing his captain who was caught in a battle with three horsemen. Cluim’s sword cut a swath allowing a dozen men to follow him, a few of whom, in turn, helped Washburn break free of his attackers. The Lendour captain then managed to chase after his prince, only now at the back of Cluim’s men, unable to protect the younger Haldane as per his brother’s strict orders. As for the oldest Haldane, the north brigaders would be too late to effect rescue; the third volley of bolts burrowed deep into the Gwyneddans’ shields and slipped unhindered through exposed areas of chain mail and horse flesh. Of those closest to the barrage, horses screamed and fell. A little further back, many of the royal guard were seen to slump low in their saddles and even a few of them fell to the hard ground. The king's scarlet pennon emblazoned with the Gold Guardant Rampant Lion dipped low out of sight to be trampled on by the frenzy of many horse’s hooves. It took a moment and it came up tattered, but once more the red silk was hefted high to wave in the center of the battle field declaring the king's position.

The cavalry of Lendour and Carthane charged to that pennon. To their dismay, they knew they came too late. The royal guard was taking the brunt of the attack. Some were unhorsed, some balanced precariously in their stirrups, nearly all wavering from bolts protruding from armor that poorly protected arms, legs, and chest, looking more like the devil’s pincushions than Gwyneddan knights. Those so wounded could not defend against the horde of Torenthi foot soldiers who surged forward in that moment. They hamstrung any horse they could reach and overpowered any man who had fallen to the ground.  In berserker madness of blood-soaked swords and axes, the Torenthi sliced necks and smashed heads, destroying everything in their desire to decapitate Gwynedd's king.

Drummond and the father and son duos of MacAthan and McLain protected that king from the worst of the onslaught, backing off as quickly as they could to get away from the turmoil. Although few at first knew of it, the figure of Nygel slumped lower and lower over his gauntleted hands pressed to his belly, which glistened in blood. Stuart and Corwin managed to balance the king on his steed between them. Laird Duncan fought like a man possessed, defending the royals at his back until he was destroyed by a bolt in the eye and a hammering to the head. Andrew McLain yelled out in anguish, his sword piercing the chest of his father’s final vanquisher.  Lord Drummond was the next to take the enemy’s punishment, his leg smashed by an axe. Still, unbelievably, he retained his seat in the saddle. Lord MacAthan fared little better; battered by sword slashes and riddled in the leg on his shield side with bolts.The two men fought valiantly to keep Nygel from the enemy, but their wounds were slowing their defense. Just as the prince and his small brigade descended upon the enemy horde, Sir Krispin grabbed up his father’s and his King’s reins and pulled both warhorses away from the vicious battle that ensued. Cluim cut down the enemy who would dare to follow his brother. The brigade of warhorses stomped the foot soldiers into the dust, cutting off any attempt they made to reach the king. Still, random bolts filled the air, impossible to stop. Cluim took one deep in the shoulder while covering the royal guard’s retreat.

Washburn’s sword continued its dance with the devils, denying them their desire, yet finding it hard to close the distance between him and the Royals. There was a flash of gold on the knoll to his right. He looked up to see the sun’s rays gleam off the gold armor of the Pretender’s army commander. That commander held his focus on a hastily reordered line of crossbowman who held loaded crossbow bolts aimed at the royals’ retreat. Again Washburn’s nerves pricked in alarm. In a short burst of rapport with his man Dillon at his side, they managed to slam their horses side by side, their chain-mailed arms pressing into each other for closer rapport. Together their minds entwined, building energy. In a massive effort, a shimmering scarlet shield suddenly filled the air before the heads of their mounts. It grew in size and in strength as, unbelievably, a dozen Deryni minds from everywhere around them added their energy to the shielding. The next round of bolts seared to ash in puffs of smoke as each encountered the formidable shield. The shield’s unprecedented energy lasted for a whole minute before meditating Deryni were taking blows impossible to defend, their minds falling away from the rapport in exhaustion and pain.

It had been enough to get the king away.

Andrew McLain had come to the offside of Nygel’s white stallion, and between him and Krispin they raced back along the southern path, also leading three other mounted horses by the reins. Lords Stuart and Corwin were both too incapacitated to direct their mounts unaided, yet they still lived. Duncan McLain, to the anguish of his son, did not; the Laird’s body lay draped across his mount’s neck. Cluim stayed on the field until a second bolt took his sword arm. It was then that Wash came in earshot and yelled at the prince to retreat. It was time he saw to the welfare of his brother and to his own wounds. The north brigaders covered his leaving, stalling any hope the Torenthi had that they could destroy the Haldanes and take Gwynedd’s crown from the very head of its King. Wash said a quick prayer that his king and his prince were not nearly as wounded as they appeared to be. He would not know that day, for the battle raged on around him. His and Dillon’s little stunt had drained both men and likely had brought wounds to the other Deryni in the field. Unable to assist, Washburn watched from a distance one such man being cut down. Baron Javyl Ainslie, a Deryni Lord dazed from the energy expenditure to save his king, was cut across the chest by an axe that toppled him to the ground. When Washburn reached him, the good man’s eyes had gone blank. Washburn mourned a fellow Deryni he had just come to know.

Without respite, a vengeful wave of fresh Torenthi pushed through Gwynedd's disheartened ranks. To the surprise of the two Lendour Deryni, it was Fane Fitz-Arthur Quinnell, son of the Duke of Cassan, who rescued them from being hacked to death when few others would come near. “Get yourselves back! You’ve done what you can!”’ Fane yelled at them. Washburn’s stallion reared with hooves kicking out, clearing a space to leap forward and break free of the tumult of battle. Dillon's bay followed close behind, even if Dillon himself had no energy left to command his warhorse to do so. The two men managed to rein back their steeds when they found themselves between the last fighting men and the wasteland of boulders east of the field. The area was strewn with Gwynedd’s wounded lying abandoned, unable to retreat further without assistance. Far ahead, running east below the southern ridge, the Haldane banner was seen to be retreating toward the Dancing Stones. From where he stood, Wash could see the last of his Lendour levies, and those of Carthane had already marched up into the fight. Muir’s banner was at their lead; he must have brought them forth following the full complement of Haldane arms.  Muir was in the midst of the south battle fighting the new enemy that had entered the fray. They had taken the battle close to the mine shafts, making it impossible for men to reload crossbows and thereby at least taking that advantage away. Still it seemed the Gwyneddans were outnumbered, maybe as much as three to one. He scanned the field. He saw the hundreds upon hundreds of bodies scattered in the dirt. This was war; this was what the greed of a Pretender who thought he held rights to a crown that was never his to hold imposed upon the men he would rule over. The sight was sickening, and yet the battle was not done. Until all their lives were forsaken, the lords of Gwynedd would never let the Pretender steal their throne.  Never! Not ever would the Torenthi own Gwynedd again!

In the fierce heat of the mid-afternoon, the Captain with a few of his exhausted men did what they could to order the wounded who could move to heft up their comrades and get themselves back to the Dancing Stones. He helped catch up many riderless mounts and saw them handed off to help the evacuation. He soon found camp followers hidden in the boulders watching and ordered them to carry wounded out of the field. The battle was as yet not lost, but the morale was gone; the men of Gwynedd had lost their heart and with it, it seemed, the strength of their arms. With the fourth fatigue banishing spell of the day, Washburn found his banner man and had him raise his standard high. The red rearing stag on the black banner rippled in the breeze as he reentered the fray, fighting his way toward his brother’s red on white banner. It took time to get there with the sun arching westwardly in the sky, but finally together the two brothers covered each other’s backs, the black and the white standards staying central to the valley for what remained of that day.

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Wonderful Chapter, Laurna. It's the hot soup I'm eating that is making my eyes water, honestly.

I fear that Nygel is not long for this world.

Some very interesting points to ponder. Wash already knows from the events of Chapter One that the Ainslies are Deryni, but the number of those who assist in shielding the King and his brother are obviously a surprise - hopefully we will find out who they are even if Muir and Wash don't. I also wonder at what point Fane discovered that he had Deryni blood. If it was his mother that revealed it to him that suggests lack of sympathy between father and son or she would never have dared. More untold stories here!

I also wonder where and what the Camberian Council are up to at this point.

You give me a Duncan McLain who isn't a priest, and then look what you do!  Dang it, woman!   ;D

It has been a pleasure to see how this story is coming together.  Your writing gift has really grown since your earliest efforts.  (I know you might not think so, as much as I bleed yellow highlighter all over your first drafts and litter your margins with commentary, but it really has!)  I look forward to seeing where this story leads.

A fine chapter, Laurna, and worth waiting for (hard as it was to do).  And now I have to wait for the next one....  :)

I too fear that Nygel will not survive.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen of Rhemuth castle, I thank you for reading.

--- Quote from: revanne on March 28, 2017, 07:11:28 am ---Wonderful Chapter, Laurna. It's the hot soup I'm eating that is making my eyes water, honestly.

I fear that Nygel is not long for this world.

Some very interesting points to ponder. Wash already knows from the events of Chapter One that the Ainslies are Deryni, but the number of those who assist in shielding the King and his brother are obviously a surprise - hopefully we will find out who they are even if Muir and Wash don't. I also wonder at what point Fane discovered that he had Deryni blood. If it was his mother that revealed it to him that suggests lack of sympathy between father and son or she would never have dared. More untold stories here!

I also wonder where and what the Camberian Council are up to at this point.

--- End quote ---

I do hope your soup was delicious for it to make your eyes water.  :D
Keep pondering my lady, I admit I have to love pondering these points of interest as well. I will tell you that Muir and Wash before the war did not know there were any Deryni in Rhemuth or close to the Royals. The Cynfyns protected a few in hiding, but they were not in with the Camberian Council, nor did they know who they were. I suspect, however, that the council had tried to keep a tight rein on the Cynfyns, especially in the case of Muir's father and uncle during their prospective lordships as Earl; so there is some friction there. At the moment, most members of the Camberian Council are far too preoccupied to worry about meeting up. You have been introduced to five of them and will meet the sixth soon. And I do fear that at least one will not be returning to the council chamber after this. Though, the answer of who they are is yet a ways away in the next story. Sorry

--- Quote from: Evie on March 28, 2017, 09:06:33 am ---You give me a Duncan McLain who isn't a priest, and then look what you do!  Dang it, woman!   ;D

It has been a pleasure to see how this story is coming together.  Your writing gift has really grown since your earliest efforts.  (I know you might not think so, as much as I bleed yellow highlighter all over your first drafts and litter your margins with commentary, but it really has!)  I look forward to seeing where this story leads.

--- End quote ---

I am sorry about Duncan McLain the first, Evie. Some destinies are hard to change when the Creator (KK) has deemed them so.

As for Yellow highlighter? Keep Highlighting, this would not be readable if you did less.  Thank you! 

--- Quote from: Jerusha on March 28, 2017, 11:36:11 am ---A fine chapter, Laurna, and worth waiting for (hard as it was to do).  And now I have to wait for the next one....  :)

I too fear that Nygel will not survive.

--- End quote ---

Good to have you reading, Jerusha.
We shall have to wait two chapters to hear of Nygel's fate. But next week we shall get to be introduced to your name-sake. (hmmm... What if you and she are the same person....  Could you have found a portal that brought you into our time?  ;D)


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