Richenda completed the grueling climb up the narrow, winding staircase and unlatched the wooden door at the top of the northeast turret. Half-running out onto the ramparts, she looked expectantly north over the golden plain just beyond the gates of Coroth. The road leading north was lined with small farms and peasant's houses that became sparser the farther the road ventured from Corwyn's capital. If she were lucky, she should be able to see . . . ah, there. She squinted into the bright midmorning sunlight and pushed a lock of wayward flame-gold hair out of her face.
Alaric must have taken his cap off, she mused, as she watched her husband's small ducal party trot down the road. His golden hair shone like a beacon near the front of the column of six men-at-arms Alaric had taken with him. That would be Derry riding at his side, his curly brown hair matching the mane of his horse perfectly.
Richenda glanced east over the blue-green of the sea. Already there was one--no, two--ships out on the water. Coroth's port would be busy today with trade ships going to and from the Hort of Orsal and the free port at Concaradine.
A sudden breeze blew her hair out of her face and whipped her skirts around her ankles as she returned her gaze to Alaric's party. Even though Kelric had recently been weaned from his mother's milk, Richenda had elected to stay in Coroth instead of going with Alaric to inspect Jennan Vale. She sent him a silent farewell on the wings of her Deryni powers and felt her cheeks warm at his ghostly answering caress.
The turret door behind her creaked open, and as she whirled, a small pink-clad comet shot out of the doorway and attached itself to Richenda's skirts, shouting "Mummy!"
She picked Briony up and set her on the bottom of the nearest battlement, looping her arms about her daughter's waist to keep her from falling. "Can you see those people--there?" she asked, pointing to Alaric's party. "Daddy is out there, and Lord Derry."
"Where they going?" Briony asked, sticking a finger in her mouth shyly.
Richenda laughed. "To Jennan Vale, honey, but they'll be back soon."
The children's nurse emerged from the turret door, breathing heavily and carrying Richenda's son, who chose that moment to wake up--quietly, for once. Kelric blinked sleepily at her with Alaric's grey eyes, sticking his thumb in his mouth and sucking contentedly. Dame Elvira smoothed back his rumpled gold hair as she caught her breath.
"My lady, that is a monstrous long flight of stairs!" she gasped. "But Briony had to find you," she added by way of explanation.
"Mummy," Briony piped up, "do I get to ride my new pony today?"
"You certainly do, darling. Daddy said Beauty was all ready."
"Oh, goody!" Briony cried, jumping off the battlement and running back through the open turret door.
"Good luck prying her off that pony," Richenda laughed, turning toward Dame Elvira.
"Oh, m'lady, surely you have anticipated the root of my problems today!" Elvira said, and hastened to follow Briony.
Richenda turned her gaze back to the road, but Alaric's party was out of sight, lost in the increasing traffic bustling to and from Coroth. She was about to move back to the weathered turret when something foreign brushed her shields briefly. She tried to lock on the strange mind touch, to follow it to its source, but it was gone, the fleeting mind contact giving her no clue to what it was.
Ordinarily, she would have just shrugged it off, but something made her search the plain ceaselessly, aware of the imminent danger from the foreign touch. She slitted her eyes to scan the surrounding area with her Deryni Sight futilely for anything obtrusive. But there was nothing, no hint of the mysterious, ephemeral mindtouch she had felt moments before.
She scanned the horizon, the blue-grey mountains, the dusty north road. Nothing looked out of place . . . Wait!
"Felk," she called to the green and black-liveried guard patrolling the rampart walk behind her.
He paused and saluted. "Yes, my lady?"
She beckoned him closer with one hand while she pointed toward the northeastern horizon. "That smudge--out there--that usually isn't there, is it?"
Felk squinted off into the distance, then fumbled at his belt and brought out a shiny bronze spyglass. Extending it carefully he peered northeast through it. "Well, my lady, I wouldn't know for certain," he replied in a muffled voice after a moment, "but I think it may be an approaching army. I cannot think why one'd be coming from that direction."
Richenda glanced at him worriedly, then looked back out at the horizon. She licked her lips. "You'd better fetch your captain, Felk. And--Lord Hillary, I think, and Lord Hamilton."
She probed cautiously northeast again with her Deryni senses as Felk hurried off.
The golden plain rolled past on either side of Alaric Morgan as he and his escort rode toward Jennan Vale. The day promised to be almost unpleasantly warm, especially on the unbroken plain, where there would be no respite from the sun's rays until they reached lightly wooded Jennan Vale at midday.
Alaric took off his cap and smoothed back his golden hair. Hanging the cap on his intricately tooled saddlehorn, he glanced over at his lieutenant, Sean Lord Derry, who had long since removed his cap against the heat.
"I hope your mother can handle the children today," Alaric said to break the silence, only half-jesting.
"Why?" Derry returned, looking at Corwyn's duke. "She hasn't had any trouble before."
"Yes, but today Briony gets her first riding lessons--on her own pony. She may be difficult to drag away."
"On the other hand, is she gets bucked off, she'll be discouraged by the time her lesson ends."
"Derry! Do you think I wouldn't start her out on a gentle pony? She's my daughter, for God's sake!" Alaric replied, stung.
Derry just chuckled.
Alaric pivoted in his saddle to survey his walled capital city one last time and felt Richenda's Deryni farewell just as he was turning back. He sent an answering caress before the mind-link dissolved, then turned back to Derry.
"I assume the men have taken well to my appointing Richenda regent--finally?" he queried his lieutenant.
"That I know of, there've been no problems. I think Kelric's birth helped to ease everyone's qualms about the inheritance. Actually, the initial reaction wasn't as bad as you had feared."
"So I'd gathered."
For the next few miles, there were no sounds but the dull clop-clop-clop of the horses' hooves, the other traffic on the road, and the occasional sounds of dirt-smudged farmers in rough brown homespun working the field. Alaric was conversational and friendly, maintaining his friendly ducal image, nodding to people as they passed and often saying a few words to them.
Suddenly an obscure sense of foreboding came over him. Something was wrong--terribly wrong.
Alaric!! His name resounded painfully in his mind. The touch was Richenda's, and the fear and pain behind it were incredible. He pulled his horse up short at the images that came through before Richenda's touch faded. A strangely restricted view of an army approaching Coroth--seen through a spyglass, perhaps. Again that fear as enemy archers boiled up out of hiding just before the castle walls, black and white Furstan livery with the leaping hart badge showing under cloaks. Pain as the archers showered the battlements with a hail of arrows. Then . . . nothing.
Alaric groped after his wife's mind, knowing it was too far, but also knowing the he had to try. That she had been able to reach him at this distance unaided was unheard of.
"What is it?" Derry was asking, puzzled. He and the rest of the escort had pulled up when Alaric stopped.
"Richenda!" he gasped. "Something's happened, Derry. We have to go back!" He whirled his horse on its haunches and spurred it toward Coroth.
Derry and the escort scrambled to catch up with their duke, who was already receding in a cloud of dust. Kicking his horse mercilessly, Derry finally pulled alongside him. Alaric had a look of fierce determination on his handsome features as he crouched low over his horse's neck.
The distance to Coroth seemed interminable to Alaric. Every second was one too long away from Richenda. All sorts of things could be happening to her, things he could prevent by his simple presence. His imagination drew horrible pictures: Corwyn's men revolting against Richenda's regency. Edmund Loris, raised from the dead, dragging his wife toward a stake wrapped in chains, piled at the base with dry brush and kindling, an ecclesiastical guard with a torch waiting beyond to light the pyre. A similarly resurrected Lawrence Gorony inflicting all sorts of tortures on a merasha-drugged Richenda and her children. Worst of all was the image, made sharper by Princess Janniver's experience shared between Rothana, Kelson, and himself, of Ithel of Meara overrunning the castle, taking his pleasure of Richenda and other young women. At that Alaric kicked his tiring horse even harder. He knew those men would never again be a threat, but that didn't stop his irrational imagination.
Finally they reached the walls of Coroth. They galloped through the gate, which was teeming with guards. One mounted man among the crowd shouted an order to the soldiers and separated from them, cantering toward Alaric and Derry.
"Your Grace!" the man gasped, pulling off his helm as he guided his horse beside Alaric's. People scrambled out of the way of their horses as they sped toward the castle. Alaric recognized him as Lord Hillary, the commander of the castle garrison.
"Lord Hillary," he began, shouting over the noise of the crowd. "What happened?"
Hillary scrubbed one hand over his face. "Well, your Grace, we were unable to take any captives . . ." his voice trailed off.
As they cleared the castle gates and pulled up in the courtyard, hooves clattering against the cobblestones, Alaric glanced at Hillary worriedly. He jumped down from his horse. "What--no, wait. Tell me the details later. Where's Richenda?"
"When I left her, she was on the ramparts outside the northeast tower." Before Hillary could open his mouth to say more, Alaric was running for the door leading to the great hall, Derry on his heels. Hillary hastened to catch them.
They dashed through the great hall, disrupting several groups of soldiers milling around beyond the tables already set up for the noon meal. Alaric, oblivious to the knots of people he was breaking through, ran out the wide chestnut doors at the opposite end of the hall and down the corridor. He wrenched open the door to the turret and hurried up the stairway, taking the steps two at a time. Derry was right behind him, but Hillary had to take the stairs a little slower.
The old wooden door at the top of the narrow stairwell hung slightly ajar, and Alaric pushed it open, fearing what he would see on the other side.
Derry, and then Hillary, crowded onto the tiny landing behind Alaric and peered past him as he stood motionless in the doorway. Derry's whispered "My God!" behind his left shoulder spurred him to action, and he darted across the narrow rampart walk to kneel beside his wife.
Richenda lay sprawled on the stone walk, bright red blood slowly seeping from arrow wounds in shoulder and thigh, staining her sky-blue dress and the cobbles underneath her. Making a tiny whimpering noise in the back of his throat, Alaric pushed her flame-gold hair away from her face and noticed more blood where she had bitten her bottom lip. His heart convulsed, and he glanced quickly at Hillary. "What about the children?"
"They're in their chambers with Dame Elvira, unhurt, Your Grace."
Alaric nodded, then quickly turned his attention back to his wife.
A man in the livery of a rampart guard lay on his stomach next to Richenda, still clutching his wooden shield, which had a few arrows stuck in it. Hillary gently turned him over. "Felk!" he exclaimed, recognizing the sentry. He had an arrow through the chest, which Derry examined.
"It's in the lung. He's dead." They all crossed themselves heavily, and Derry took off his grey cloak and draped it over Felk's dead form.
By this time, Alaric had mostly assessed the damage done to his wife and was preparing to go into Healing trance. Derry knelt beside him and took her wrist. The pulse was slow and sluggish.
Alaric shifted to brush the arrow piercing Richenda's thigh with his fingertips. "It missed the artery, but it's got to come out," he explained to Derry, his voice low and thick with worry. "Help me."
Derry wordlessly moved around to face Alaric across Richenda's motionless body. Heaving a big sigh, Alaric pulled off his riding gloves to expose his Gryphon signet glittering on his left hand. He nodded to Derry to pull the arrow out and, glancing at the signet, quickly dropped into a light trance.
Blood began pumping from the wound as Derry carefully pulled out the arrow with a muttered "Damn!" Swiftly Alaric clapped his hands over the wound to staunch the flow of blood and began to call up his Healing powers.
Even to his closed eyes, the damage shone with Healing energy as he felt the ghostly impression of hands upon his, the reassuring Presence he had come to identify as Saint Camber, and muscle, artery, and skin healed. He opened his eyes, still lightly in trance, to see a quickly fading scar and hardly any trace of blood save that on his and Derry's hands and the stain on her torn skirt.
Derry, who had been watching Alaric with worried but rapt attention, moved to the broken off arrow in Richenda's shoulder with a wordless look of sympathy and confidence. Alaric sighed heavily again and licked his lips. "All right," he said nervously.
This time, the injury only bled sluggishly as the arrow was removed and Alaric covered it with his hands, but his heightened Healing senses perceived the scrape of broken bones. The collarbone had cracked, probably by her fall to the flagstones which had also broken the shaft of the arrow. Again he heard that deep, musical hum and felt the phantom hands upon his, coupled with the overpowering yet comforting Presence. As he employed his skill, careless of the cost to his own energy, the bone knit under his fingertips and everything was made whole again.
Before he withdrew, Alaric checked the appropriate centers for respiration and heart rate. Reaching into what little of Richenda's mind he could outside of her shields, he deepened her sleep, then broke his trance and opened his eyes.
As the faint emerald aura about his head died and he looked past Derry and Hillary toward the open turret door, he suddenly saw a ghostly form he knew was Saint Camber of Culdi. The saint had a sympathetic but approving look on his handsome features. Alaric blinked and the apparition was gone. In its place were two soldiers Hillary had summoned to take away the body of Felk.
Derry got to his feet. "She'll be all right then?" he asked, catching Alaric's arm as he swayed in fatigue. "You'll be all right?"
Alaric turned a pale face to him and nodded absently, already applying the Deryni spell for banishing fatigue. "She shouldn't wake for awhile. Meanwhile," he added, standing up and slapping his riding gloves lightly against his thigh, "we should get her and ourselves cleaned up and prepare to go to Rhemuth. Kelson must be told of this."
By this time, Hillary's soldiers had carried Felk down the stairs and the commander hovered near the door. "Is there aught else Your Grace will require of me?"
Alaric carefully gathered his wife in his arms and looked thoughtfully at him. "Nothing now, I think, but I'd like you to be at my quarters in half an hour so you can give a full report." Hillary bowed shortly and disappeared down the tower steps. "Derry, come with me."
Half an hour later, Alaric sat nervously in his chambers as Lord Hillary related the details of the Torenthi invasion.
"We were forewarned by your lady wife, Your Grace, who was up on the ramparts to watch you leave. One of our surviving rampart sentries said Torenthi archers just boiled out of hiding at the base of the castle walls and loosed hundreds of arrows."
"Perhaps to kill a sentry who'd spotted the attack--to keep him from spreading the alarm," Derry said.
"A very clever tactic," Alaric interjected. "What I would like to know is, how did they get there without being spotted?"
Hillary shrugged, then went on. "Lady Richenda had warned Lord Hamilton and myself about ten minutes before, and I was already preparing to ride and meet them with a contingent of the garrison. We had a brief clash with the Torenthi troop, but they were outnumbered, so they quickly broke and ran for their border. Some of my company are still pursuing."
"What did you do about the archers?" Alaric asked him.
"One of the captains tried to launch a counter-attack on them--Felk's captain, in fact--but they were gone, vanished without a trace."
"It could have been magic," Lord Hamilton spoke for the first time. "The Lady Richenda said that she felt a foreign mind touch and that was what prompted her to look for trouble." The seneschal was clearly uncomfortable.
"I don't think there's a spell that does that," Alaric mused aloud. "I could be wrong. Mahael and Morag probably have more training in their little fingers than I."
"Do you think it was Mahael?" Derry asked.
"There's no doubt in my mind that it was Mahael," Hillary said. "It might not have been him personally, but I'm sure he sent those troops."
"Right. Only he and Morag control the Furstan soldiers, being Liam's regents. I wouldn't put it over Mahael to pull something like this." Alaric sighed and ran his fingers through his golden hair. "Thank God Richenda and I finally built that Transfer Portal last week. I'll have to go to Rhemuth and warn Kelson as soon as possible.
"Derry," he continued, turning to his lieutenant, "I'll need you to cover my absence. I should be gone for about three hours, unless Kelson needs me longer, in which case I'll meet you at the door to my tower room at Tierce to let you know." He got up and started restlessly pacing in front of the fireplace, folding his hands behind him. "All of you should be watching for spies. Someone knew I'd be gone today, and someone told Mahael that."
Hamilton cleared his throat and stood to leave. "What would you like me to do, Your Grace?"
"I need you and Lord Hillary to clean things up. How many men did we lose?"
Hillary stood up. "The archers picked four off the ramparts including Felk, with six wounded, and we lost two in the skirmish with no other major injuries."
"I want those six to lie in state in the chapel. They died honorably, defending their castle." Alaric stopped pacing, brought his hands from where they were clasped behind him, and began fiddling with the signet on his left hand. "Who was killed?" he asked brusquely.
"The archers got MacTelly, ap Merril, de Evans, and Felk," Hillary answered regretfully. "In battle, we lost Justin Soran and Anthony Aldin. All good men, Your Grace," he added.
Alaric nodded absently. "It's always killing, isn't it? Always death?" he said to himself.
"Beg pardon, Your Grace?"
Alaric looked up. "Nothing. I'd better get to Kelson. Derry, I'll bring Richenda with me--she may wake and we'll want her input. Besides--no offense intended, my lords, but I don't want to risk her again. Hillary, stay alert. Even though you repelled the first attack, there may be others."
"There are twenty-five extra men stationed at each gate, with relays, Your Grace."
He managed a faint smile. "Good," he said, clapping his commander on the shoulder. "I'm off, my lords."
A wrench at the energies--just so--a moment of weakness and nausea, and Alaric was stumbling on the threshold of the library Portal in Rhemuth Castle, Richenda in his arms. He set his wife down on the tiled floor for a moment to run another fatigue-banishing spell. He would pay later, he knew, but there were more important things to be done now. Carefully gathering Richenda up again, he strode into the main library and headed for the door.
"Alaric!" He whirled at the sound of his name and saw Nigel, holding an armful of scrolls, walking toward him with a perplexed expression. "What's wrong? Why are you here?"
"Nigel, thank God! Quickly, there's no time to lose. Where's Kelson?"
"In his chambers at this hour, I should think. But--"
"Come on." Alaric pivoted on his heel and strode out the door, down the dimly lit corridor.
Nigel scrambled to catch up with him, scrolls dumped, forgotten, on a table. "I don't understand," he protested.
"I'll tell you with the others so I don't have to repeat myself. Could you go fetch Duncan and Arilan?"
"They should be with Kelson," came the reply, as they burst through the carved oak door to the king's chambers.
Kelson and the two bishops dining with him leapt to their feet as Nigel and Alaric entered. Alaric walked past them into the king's bedchamber and laid Richenda on the State bed.
Nigel matched their bewildered expressions with one of his own as Alaric came back into the common room and waved them back to their seats. He pulled a richly upholstered chair a little closer to the fire and sank into it wearily.
"Alaric! What is this all about?" Gwynedd's young king exclaimed as he sat down again. "What happened to Richenda?"
"There's no easy way to say this, my prince. Mahael attacked Coroth this morning."
Before he could go on, there were a few gasps of surprise and exclamations of indignation. He held up his hand for silence.
"I was headed for Jennan Vale when Richenda Called me. Apparently he planted a spy who told him that I was gone--probably a Deryni one--but he didn't count on Richenda warning me."
"What happened to--" Duncan began to ask, swallowing nervously and glancing toward the bedchamber. "Is she--"
"No, she's not dead, just sleeping. It seems Mahael had archers hidden just outside the castle walls for the first part of his attack."
"To pick off any sentries who'd spotted the approaching force," Bishop Arilan guessed.
"Exactly. Hillary said she'd gone up on the ramparts to watch me leave and spotted the army when she felt a foreign mindtouch--"
"Mahael," Kelson mused, interrupting, "or Morag."
"--So she summoned Lords Hillary and Hamilton to notify them," Alaric continued, casting a half-reproachful look at the king. "The archers rained the battlements with arrows, killing four and wounding Richenda. That was when she warned me, I guess, so Derry and I were riding fast for Coroth. By that time, Hillary was already riding with a defense force to repel the attackers. I think Mahael counted on total disorganization on our part. Since Richenda was newly made regent, he thought she wouldn't know what to do or wouldn't be told what was happening."
"What of the archers?" Nigel spoke up, brushing a lock of black hair out of his eyes.
"Hillary mounted another force to
root them out, but they had vanished."
"Sweet Jesu," breathed Kelson.
"Hmm, as far as I know, you couldn't do that magically without a Portal," Arilan said, confirming Alaric's belief. He went on. "But when you arrived at the castle, you Healed Richenda?" he asked, nervously running his pectoral cross back and forth on its chain with a faint ticking of metal against metal.
"Yes. She's in Healing sleep right now. I brought her so that we could get her opinion if she woke. Her shields were still up when I Healed her, and I couldn't get past to Read her memory of the experience."
They sat in silent reflection for a few moments, each alone with his own thoughts. Then Kelson, who had been contemplating the horrible Torenthi deed, his mind running in terrified circles, straightened in his chair. "I think she's awake, my lords," he said, voice quavering a little. "I heard my bed creak."
Instantly Alaric was on his feet and at the bed, putting his hand on his wife's forehead as she blinked groggily at him and focused on his face.
"Praise Saint Camber for your Healing gifts," she whispered, gazing up at her husband, who took her hand in the one not covering her forehead.
"Praise Him for your loud mental voice," Alaric answered, voice cracking with emotion. "I almost didn't make it in time."
Regaining strength, Richenda retorted, "Too bad I can't Send that far most days!"
Alaric embraced her fiercely, once again realizing how much he could have lost to the Torenthi archers.
Kelson, watching them with the others from the doorway of the chamber, swallowed inaudibly and had to look at his feet to keep himself from interrupting their special moment. Too many things reminded him of a novice from Saint Brigid's, her deep brown eyes set in a lovely face framed with dark hair, floating just beyond reach in his mind's eye.
Duncan looked over to Kelson and touched his arm in sympathy. Kelson looked up at Rhemuth's auxiliary bishop, grey eyes filmy with held-back tears.
Arilan, taking in all this, cast a wary glance at Nigel, who was looking a little uncomfortable, and cleared his throat noisily. He suppressed a chuckle as Alaric looked up with a start and smiled apologetically back at the bishop of Dhassa.
"Sorry to interrupt you two, but we have much to do," Arilan said, leaning against the doorjamb.
Kelson straightened, suppressing his overwrought emotions. "My lady, would you be more comfortable here--" he stepped further into the bedroom-- "or out in the other room?"
"In the other room, I believe, dear. I'll be all right!" she added, half-snapping, to her husband. Alaric jerked back the hand he had extended to assist her, and she got to her feet. "I am healed, after all, am I not?" She smiled tolerantly at him and glanced at Kelson, who looked nervously away. "You men go on out. I would like to speak privately with His Majesty for a minute."
After they had obediently filed out, Richenda closed the door softly and turned expectantly to face him. "Now, would you mind telling me what that was all about?"
Kelson looked perplexed. "My lady, I--"
"You know what I mean. It's Rothana, isn't it?"
"Well, um, my lady, you and Alaric, I mean..." his voice trailed off and he shifted feet uncomfortably, clasping and unclasping his hands and fingering the Ring of Fire. Suddenly a lone tear trickled down his cheek and Richenda strode to him and embraced him in sympathy.
With a strangled sob, Kelson's arms went around her as she coaxed him with word and mind to let all his sorrows out. "I know, I know," she murmured softly as he wept on her shoulder. "Sometimes, it helps to cry. I'm here. I know how much you loved her."
After a minute, Kelson hiccoughed and raised his head. He rubbed his eyes. "I'm sorry, my lady. It's just that she--and Conall--and now she'll have almost nothing to do with me."
Richenda nodded. "I know. Did it help, just now?"
He sniffed. "Yes. Thank you. I-I suppose we should be getting back?"
"Yes, on that note, I'll let you Read my memory of the attack, and then if you don't mind lending me your bed--" she grinned-- "I think I'll take another nap. I'm weaker than I let on."
Kelson tentatively returned her smile. "Go right ahead."
A few minutes later, Gwynedd's young king emerged from his bedchamber to make plans for battle with a heavy heart.
Story also located at the Author's website - The Gywnedd Tales
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