They galloped into Ballymar two days later,
sun high overhead. Scarcely two minutes went by before Dhugal came
rushing into the courtyard of his keep clad in practice leathers, a
blade dangling from his left hand. Alyce wasn't quite sure what she'd
been expecting Duncan's son to look like, but he wasn't quite what she
"Father!" the young Duke of Cassan cried, remembering the practice sword in his hand and tossing it to the man who was leading Alyce's palfrey into the stable. The young Cassani guard caught it nimbly, flashing a grin at his overlord. Dhugal hurriedly crossed the stone-paved yard to embrace his father, sweat-soaked gear and all.
Duncan's smile was almost as bright as the noon sun which glinted off of Dhugal's coppery hair, and Alyce remembered what Alaric had told her. It had truly been a miracle that Duncan could have a son.
"How have you been, Dhugal?" Duncan was saying, hands bracing his son's shoulders and holding him at arm's length.
Dhugal laughed nervously. "Well, I'm learning how to be a duke overnight, but I'm fine." Over Duncan's shoulder, he suddenly noticed Alyce, and smiled cordially. "And who is our lovely guest?"
Alyce regally extended her hand, and Dhugal kissed it in chivalric, gentlemanly fashion. His sun-amber eyes sparkled at her, and his lips stayed in contact with her skin a trifle longer then was really prudent. Alyce gently pulled her hand away, sensing his immediate attraction to her and controlling her reflex blush. She'd only come out of living in a convent a scant year ago, after all.
Duncan cleared his throat, although the exchange had only taken a few seconds. "This is Lady Alana de Wood," he introduced her. We'll talk later, he flashed to son and cousin. Alyce could tell that Dhugal didn't realize she was Deryni. "Alana, the Duke of Cassan--"
"--And Earl of Kierney and Transha, Sir Dhugal MacArdry McLain," Alyciane finished for him, as the so-titled bowed deeply. She curtseyed, hiding a little smile at their little court games. "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, Your Grace."
"Believe me, my Lady, the pleasure is mine," Dhugal returned, white grin flashing. Duncan cleared his throat again, pointedly, and the young duke glanced guiltily at his father.
"We've brought some other people with us," Duncan said, indicating William, Cecily, and Katy, who were carefully dismounting from their horses. "They really have no other place to go . . . do you think you could find a place for them?"
Dhugal caught the deeper meaning to the family's circumstances, and gestured his guests in different directions. "Of course. Let me send them with Flannan, and we'll all be on our way. Can I offer you a bath and some food . . ."
In front of Alyciane, Duncan hastened his stride to catch his old friend before Ballymar's bishop disappeared into the sacristy. "Hugh!"
Bishop Hugh de Berry turned, face lighting up. "Duncan, old friend! What in the Lord's name are you doing here?"
The two bishops embraced. "I came up to see Dhugal, see how he was running Cassan." A shrug and a toss of Duncan's head indicated Dhugal, who had caught up with them and stood next to Alyce.
"Ah, yes. I remember the young duke mentioning your visit." Hugh took his stole off, touching it reverently to his lips before doubling it over his arm. "Were you at Mass? I didn't see you during Communion."
"Sadly, we just arrived about half an hour ago; Dhugal told us you'd be finishing High Mass, so I came right over." The group moved over to the edge of the corridor in which they'd stopped to allow a pair of hurried clerics to pass.
Hugh had turned to Dhugal with a mock-admonishing look. "Of course, I don't recall seeing His Grace at Mass either."
The young duke looked uncomfortable. "Forgive me, Excellency; I was waiting for Father so we could attend Terce or Compline together." He shifted feet, scratching at his tousled red hair. "I did want to invite you to dine with us tonight, however."
Hugh smiled, shrugging under heavy vestments. "The offer is most gracious, young my lord, and I wish I could accept. However, I'm departing for Uiskin this afternoon for a week's visit. Perhaps when I return?"
"I'll keep it mind. Father no doubt wants to have a long talk with you." Duncan nodded, smiling, at his son's accurate reading of him.
"As do I," Hugh replied, toying idly with his stole. "But you haven't yet introduced me to your lovely companion."
Duncan cleared his throat, blue eyes darting to Alyce apologetically. "Hugh, may I present Lady Alana de Wood. She is traveling with us to visit relatives who are away from court."
Well done! Alyce sent to Duncan. You didn't even have to lie, except for the part about my name being Alana. Obviously Dhugal sensed her amusement; he gave her a strange look as she knelt in front of Ballymar's bishop to kiss his ring reverently.
Hugh modestly raised Alyce up, squeezing her hand softly. "Thank you, my child. I'm pleased to meet you."
"As I, Your Grace," Alyce murmured in reply, curtseying deeply.
"When must you leave for Uiskin?" Duncan asked, nodding absently to a passing monk.
"Your Grace!" a voice called from down the corridor. A diminutive priest in a black working cassock scurried toward them. "You are still vested. Do you--"
"It's quite all right, Peter," Hugh interrupted him, smiling. "I just stopped to talk with an old friend. Duncan, my chaplain and secretary, Father Peter Klose. Bishop Duncan McLain, Lady Alana de Wood, and you know Duke Dhugal."
"We are honored, Excellency," Klose murmured, kissing Duncan's ring, then bowing to Alyce. "My lady."
Hugh hefted his stole as his chaplain rose. "Well, shall we go? I suppose you can help me unvest."
Duncan clasped his friend's hand. "It was good to see you, Hugh. When you return from Uiskin?"
"You're on for that meeting," the bishop of Ballymar replied. "When I return."
"Are you enjoying the wine, my lady?"
Alyce winced slightly. "Please," she said, "call me Alana. And yes," she added, passing the fine pewter goblet under her nose, "it's a lovely vintage."
"Fianna '98, is it not?" Dhugal was trying to impress her.
"It's '07, actually," Hugh replied. "I may be a bishop, but I'm afraid I can't quite afford the '98."
Duncan smiled appreciatively. "Thank God there are still non-corrupt churchmen in this world."
At Dhugal's confused look, Hugh continued Duncan's thought. "Archbishop Corrigan always had the finest wines."
"Those were probably nothing compared to what flowed freely down Loris' gullet." The two bishops exchanged a knowing look, and Dhugal laughed nervously.
"Well, Kelson took care of that worry for us."
Hugh set his goblet down. "How is our young king?"
Duncan grimaced. "Contemplating his next move. The Torenthi haven't exactly been friendly neighbors lately."
"Ah, yes. The attack on Coroth. I suppose we should enjoy peace while we can, and thank God for what we have."
"Amen," they all murmured to that.
"Your visit in Cassan has been pleasurable, I trust, Lady Alana?" Hugh asked cordially. She caught Dhugal's look at the bishop before he recovered. He still wasn't used to the Alana/Alyce facet of her identity.
Alyce sipped her wine carefully before her reply. "I so enjoy it here. It's been a long time since I last visited. Bishop Duncan and Sir Dhugal have been wonderful hosts." Alyce preferred "Sir" over "Duke" when giving Dhugal a title. "Duke Dhugal" was a trifle awkward to say. "The weather is a bit more harsh than it is in Rhemuth," she continued.
"These northerly climes can be a trifle unforgiving," Hugh replied, smiling gently. "I shan't be surprised if we get snow any day now."
Dhugal was nodding in agreement. "I'm not even used to it yet. But I'm not quite used to being a duke, either. Father gave me a lot of responsibility."
"Welcome to the world, son," Duncan laughed.
Hugh set his goblet down. "How go things in Rhemuth, my friend?" he asked Duncan.
"Oh, you know Ordinary Time. Nothing special there. I'm been giving a lot of counsel to King Kelson--aside from being his confessor, that is." He leaned back, speculative, settling into clergy talk. "I suspect Cardiel will need me back soon, to assist him in preparations for Advent and the feast of Christ the King."
"We are just beginning with that here," Hugh nodded. "Advent is, of course, a busy time." A knock sounded at the door during his pause, as if on cue. "Come in."
The door opened, and Father Klose carefully peered around the doorjamb at the occupants of the room before moving to his bishop. The chaplain bent to speak softly with Hugh. After a moment, he turned to his guests apologetically. "Please excuse me for a moment. It seems we have a situation."
Duncan nodded, understanding. "It's quite all right," he told his fellow bishop, eyes sweeping Alyce and Dhugal, who responded with the appropriate affirmative noises. "We'll be able to entertain ourselves for awhile."
Hugh managed an embarrassed smile. "I'll be right back," he said, his following his chaplain out the door.
"Well, it's just us--again," Dhugal commented, his amber eyes twinkling at Alyce.
"Bishop Hugh is a very busy man," his father chided him gently.
Dhugal drained his goblet and cradled it idly between his hands. "I was only joking, Father. I don't think I ever told you, my Lady," he turned to Alyce, "you are looking especially beautiful tonight."
Alyciane blushed prettily, looking modestly down at her slippered feet. "I . . . thank you, my Lord." She knew Dhugal had taken a liking to her almost as soon as she had arrived; she wasn't quite sure how to take that. Dhugal was, after all, her cousin's son.
She looked away with relief when she heard the door open, glancing over to see five soldiers in Cassani livery file in. Duncan glanced at his son, who shrugged. Neither seemed to know what this was all abut.
Duncan turned to the guards, standing as the last one closed the door softly behind him. "Yes?" the bishop asked authoritatively.
The five guards, left hands rested lightly on sword hilts, snapped to attention and saluted smartly. Then, shifting stance suddenly, they drew their swords in unison and advanced, menacing, on the occupants of the room!
As Alyciane gasped, Dhugal leapt into action, drawing his sword, and the man nearest him moved for a confrontation. Cassan's young duke parried, thrusted, blocked, grappled, spun away . . . Watching with horrified fascination, Alyce still looked away while Dhugal was in mid-lunge and heard a sickening crunch. When she timidly looked back, Dhugal was pulling his sword out of his fallen attacker and wiping the blood on the dead man's cloak.
Sickened, she shifted her terrified gaze to Duncan, who was wildly reaching for a sword he wasn't wearing as another man approached him, sword point circling. "Father!" Dhugal cried, noticing Duncan's plight. He tossed his sword hilt-first across the room to the bishop and drew a jeweled border dirk from his right boot. Duncan nimbly caught the blade and whirled to defend himself.
Alyce watched them, horrified, her previous cares forgotten as her blue eyes were mesmerized by the candlelight flashing off of the clashing blades. Duncan fought much more skillfully than one would expect from a clergyman. He quickly dispatched the man with a pained expression, crossing the air above the fallen body quickly with the bloody point of his blade. Caught up in watching him and Dhugal, who was holding his own with his painfully inadequate dirk, Alyce did not notice the other assassin coming for her until she felt the cool line of his blade held against her throat.
She stiffened, skin cringing away from the steel and the merasha she sensed was there--though, luckily, there was not enough contact for her to absorb the drug through her skin. A small, startled shriek escaped her, alerting Duncan and Dhugal to her plight. The bishop was able to maintain his composure, staying focused on the swordsman advancing on him, but Dhugal cast a terrified glance at Alyce and was nearly sliced by his assailant. He darted out of reach momentarily.
"Nobody move, or she dies," the man breathed hoarsely, breath hot on Alyce's ear. The pressure of his sword at her throat increased, backing up his threat.
Duncan and Dhugal both froze in the act of moving for her, dropping to wary positions as their attackers continued to approach. Alyce's eyes went from them to the two dead men on the floor and back in a split second. Wondering what to do, she began to push her mind across seeming leagues of intervening space to her cousin and was startled to find that he was also actively seeking a link. She seized on the contact.
I have a plan, Duncan's voice said in her mind, don't panic. I realize there's no physical contact, but can you overpower your man? In a flash Duncan imparted his instructions across the bond of their minds, and she sensed Dhugal was also in the link.
Be careful! she shot back. They have merasha on their blades!
I thought as much, he replied, withdrawing all but a thin contact.
Alyce's eyes were locked on the slowly circling points of the attackers' swords, as they moved to take Duncan and Dhugal. The blades came closer, and closer. . . .
Her mind surged across the barrier of air, entering the man's mind with a command to sleep that could not be ignored. Her skill was rewarded by the man slumping over her, his sword moving away from her throat as his hand went slack. His head came down as he went limp, chin hitting Alyce's shoulder before she could move out of the way. She slid out of her chair, letting her would-be killer fall to the ground behind her, sword clattering at her feet.
She stood somewhat shakily, rubbing her shoulder, and looked around the room. The other two assassins were sprawled out on the floor, Duncan moving to gingerly disarm the one nearest him. They both turned to Dhugal as he let out a weak gasp. His hand was on his left shoulder, and dark blood was leaking out from between his fingers.
"Dhugal!" Duncan cried automatically, moving for him.
Alyce moved for the young duke, too, but for a different purpose. "Duncan! Merasha!"
She needed to say no more. The look on Dhugal's' face told of the drug disrupting his mind. Duncan stopped in his tracks for a moment, a look of consternation on his face. Alyciane, feeling remarkably clear-headed under the circumstances, went past him to Dhugal. Kneeling near him, she tore a strip of cloth from the hem of her skirt, wadding it up and handing it to him. "Here. This should stem the bleeding," she told him. "I'm sorry I can't help you--we'll have to get a human doctor."
Dhugal nodded his thanks and understanding, eyes closed tightly against the pain, and pressed the cloth to his wound.
Duncan had squatted next to the man lying near his son, keeping his hands carefully away from the man's blade. He set thumb and forefinger of one hand over the man's temples, brow furrowing in concentration momentarily. He looked up. "There. I've deepened his sleep, and we should be able to move him to a more secure location."
Straightening, Alyce would have moved away, but swayed unsteadily on her feet. Duncan braced her with a hand on her arm, blue eyes concerned. "Will you be all right, Alyce?"
Alyce nodded weakly, trying to obtain a little more focus. "Yes, I just--this is a little overwhelming." Her heart was still pounding as she remembered the feel of the blade on her skin, and her fingers ran over her throat uncomfortably. She took a deep breath. "I'm fine."
He released her dubiously, moving to deepen the sleep of the other men they had put out. Alyce let him take care of that, kneeling beside Dhugal again.
The young duke's breathing was heavy, and he didn't look to be in very good shape. The turmoil in his mind was even worse, and Alyce tried to help him with the merasha disturbance as best she could.
"Focus on something outside your mind," she told him, leaning in close to give his eyes something to focus on. Her fingertips lightly brushed the back of the hand that held the cloth over his wound, avoiding the blood soaking through. "Does that hurt?"
Amber eyes watering, he nodded.
"Make use of that. Concentrate on the pain. Let it dominate the turmoil in your mind."
The door opened, and Hugh gasped before he even made it inside. "My God!"
Duncan straightened, mustering a weak smile for his friend. "I'm sorry; we seem to have made quite a mess in here."
"Well, the short version is, these five men--" Duncan gestured at them-- "came in quite unexpectedly and attacked us. I can only guess they were either seriously disturbed, or sent by Torenth." His expression betrayed the depth of his belief in the former option.
"Torenth? Merciful Lord." Hugh's eyes fell on Dhugal and Alyce who were sitting on the floor across the chamber. "Your Grace!"
"Could you fetch a doctor?" Alyce asked. "I'm afraid neither Duncan nor myself have been able to do much for him, what with the merasha."
Obviously Hugh's association with Duncan and his son had taught him about the Deryni drug, and his mouth made a silent "O." Stepping out of the still-open door, he called down the corridor for help.
"We'll need a place to lock these men up as well," Duncan said. "I'm afraid that two of them are dead, and Last Rites will need to be performed, but the rest are merely in a reinforced sleep. I'll question them later."
Alyce was amazed at how calmly Hugh took all of that in. He had to know that the Deryni powers of at least two of his guests had had a part in overcoming the attackers, but he was obviously one of those oh-so-rare humans who were not blindly afraid.
Father Klose came running with his cassock hitched up to his knees. He made it one step inside the door before stopping cold. "Merciful Father," he murmured breathlessly, wide eyes taking in the gruesome scene.
Alyciane smoothed back a stray lock of her golden hair, looking up at Hugh's chaplain. "Is there a doctor coming? I really can't do much for him."
Klose's hand flew to his mouth, not quite covering his gasp as he noticed a pale Dhugal on the floor. "Your Grace! I shall fetch the doctor right away," rushed on the flustered priest, and he whirled to leave.
"We'll need some of my personal household guard, as well, Peter," Bishop Hugh added.
"Right away, Excellency."
Alyce met her cousin in his room in Ballymar Keep much later that night. It had been a long evening, and there was still much to be done.
"How's Dhugal doing?" she asked Duncan quietly after the guard outside the door had let her in.
He grimaced. "Sleeping off the merasha. It's the best thing for him right now, although come morning . . ." the bishop trailed off, shrugging meaningfully. "Shall we begin?"
Alyce nodded her acquiescence, and Duncan motioned her to one side of the room. As he opened the door to speak briefly with the guard Hugh had insisted be posted at their doors, she moved to the two chairs that had been set facing one another. Slightly smiling her approval at the Ward Cubes already laid out on a nearby table, she seated herself in one of the chairs and waited for her cousin to return.
Duncan headed wordlessly for the waiting Cubes, and Alyce watched him work the Wards Major, using her focus on his familiar ritual to center herself. He quickly named the cubes, Prime through Octave, pausing only to shift mental polarity between the white and black cubes. The interlaced energies intensified as he stacked and named the quarter towers, Primus through Quartus. Still monitoring and observing the ages-old spell, Alyce helped Duncan to set the towers at the cardinal points about their chairs. Duncan took up a candle from the table and handed it to her as he stood inside the outlined circle to raise the Wards: "Primus, Secundus, Tertius, et Quartus, fiat lux!"
A softly glowing, silvery dome stretched above their heads as reward for Duncan's efforts, and he allowed himself a weary smile as he sat facing her, passing a hand over his forehead in the familiar gesture of a fatigue-banishing spell. Alyce cast him a disapproving look. "Don't bother," he forestalled her reprimand, hands closing around hers. "I know you could've set the Wards, but you're just as tired as I am."
"Let's get started, then. Focus on the candle?"
At his nod, Alyce fastened her attention on the candle in their hands, nudging a flame into life with her mind. Her vision tunneled as her trance level plummeted, until her eyelids finally sagged shut and she released control to her cousin. Duncan gathered up what she gave him and cast his mind south, searching, calling. Staying on the edges of his call, she boosted his call to her half-brother.
Duncan? came back Alaric's groggy mind-voice. What in the name of Jesu--
Here-- Duncan hurriedly sent the compressed images of the night's events to Alaric. There isn't time to discuss it. We'll leave here at first light. Tell Kelson and try to reach us again tomorrow after Compline.
The fading intensity of their mind-call convinced Alaric that there was no time to waste, and he sent an impression of agreement and understanding as they pulled back. Coming back to herself in Ballymar, Alyce blinked several times to ground herself, then looked across to Duncan, whose color had paled even more.
Directing him an intense look that allowed no argument as she snuffed the candle and set it aside, she stood to dismantle his Wards. The familiar ritual took almost everything she had left, but she knew that the bishop slumped tiredly in his chair beside here didn't have even that much. After she had stowed the black and white cubes in their case and turned to him, he rose slowly.
"I'll walk you back to your room."
"You'll do no such thing," she replied with another stern glance. "You'll go to bed and get some rest. We have a long journey ahead of us."
She cast a silent reinforcement of her command over the vestiges of the bond still between them, and Duncan bowed his head. "I know better than to argue with you."
"Good. Now, I'll see you in the morning."
Story also located at the Author's website - The Gwynedd Pages
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