The Queen of Meara
"Eastmarch has not changed,"
Kelson commented, looking down on the land he had not seen since he last
battled Torenth, six summers ago after his coronation. It provided the
only land access between Torenth and Gwynedd that was passable by an
army, through a river valley that cut a path in the Rhelljan mountain
"So this is where you killed Wencit," Dhugal stated, referring to Liam's uncle, who had sat on Torenth's throne until he tried to add Gwynedd to his kingdom.
"Aye," Kelson muttered, remembering the distant torment of a fourteen-year-old boy forced for the first time by his crown to execute those who would threaten Gwynedd. "Now we just have to find his sister Morag's brother by marriage and outfox him. Enough pleasant reminiscing of halcyon days. Let us return to my tent and study the maps again. I want to be sure of my ground when Mahael shows his ugly face."
Back in Rhemuth, Mairona, Richenda, and Ailín had gathered in Kelson's private chapel, and Richenda had raised the Wards Major. All three heads were now bowed over the altar with clasped hands, Mairona's golden curls mixing with Richenda's strawberry tresses and Ailín's chestnut locks as they bent their heads together and prayed for guidance and success in this night's working.
"Sancto Raphaelo," Mairona intoned, beginning the litany with the archangels.
"Ora pro nobis," the other two returned. Pray for us.
"In danger I called on the Lord," Mairona recited from Psalms. "The Lord answered me and set me free. The Lord is with me; I am not afraid; what can mortals do against me? The Lord is with me as my helper; I shall look in triumph on my foes."
"In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti." They crossed themselves. "Amen."
With a sigh, Mairona took the Liam's golden ring from the alter and turned to her companions. "Are you ready?" she asked.
"Aye," Richenda returned with confidence, but Ailín didn't look so certain.
"I think so," the girl answered. Mairona smiled at her in reassurance.
"Ailín, I know this may seem frightening to you. God has given all three of us a very special set of gifts, and we must use them to help the king He has anointed to sit on Gwynedd's throne. You do not have to be skilled for me tonight, for I only need your strength and trust."
"I will do anything to help the king and Dhugal," Ailín returned. Mairona grinned, knowing that it was the thought of helping Dhugal that mattered here, and that was what gave Ailín her small courage.
"I know," Mairona returned, settling on the carpeted floor in front of her ward cubes. She cast the pillars, as she had in Kelson's quarters, surrounding the three of them in a shimmering, protective dome. Richenda sat behind her, and Mairona lay back to rest her head in Richenda's lap, giving the duchess necessary physical contact to monitor her body while her mind was elsewhere. Ailín sat next to them, one hand grasping Mairona's and the other resting on Richenda's shoulder. "Now we begin," Mairona whispered, closing her eyes and settling into working rapport with Richenda. The two gently joined Ailín to the link, patiently waiting for her to smooth her nerves and settle into their connection. Her strength did not yet compare to Richenda or Mairona, but fluttered like a nervous sparrow. No matter, she would only be called on if necessary, and control could be forced on her to keep her from panicking at an inopportune moment.
Mairona was falling, sinking, her consciousness seeming to descend through the chapel floor. Once awareness of her physical body faded to the background, she focused on the ring cupped in her hands and found the distasteful trace of the hateful man who had gifted it to Liam. Seizing on that imprint, she winged her consciousness outward, flying beyond Rhemuth to close on her prey.
She had been practicing her scrying abilities on Kelson since his departure, knowing that when she turned her gifts on Mahael she would have to do better than when she spied on Rolf. Her touch had become smooth, so light that Kelson sometimes couldn't detect her presence, even when he expected her. With a recently-won confidence in her expertise, she soared over the Rhelljan mountains, settling on a military encampment to find her quarry in the commanding tent, his cropped, pointed black beard making him look like an infidel demon. Quieting her hatred for Mahael, she cautiously eased in to observe.
He was meeting with his own generals, and they were pointing and moving markers over a map of the Eastmarch-Torenth border as they planned troop movements and battle placements. They appeared to be east of Cardosa from the markers, and planning their march through the river valley into Gwynedd. It looked very much like her captains strategizing in Druimfada, and she watched and listened carefully to learn of their plans.
Their army was vastly greater in numbers than Kelson's, but half of it would be left in Torenth, arrayed around the river's entrance to the mountains to lie in wait. Mahael would lead the other half, more closely matched to Kelson's troops, in an attempt to play a cat-and-mouse game that would draw Kelson from Meara, exhaust his men in a race across Rhemuth Plain, and through the river valley into a trap. It was unfortunate for Mahael that Kelson was nowhere near Meara, and was setting his own trap on Gwynedd's side of the mountains. Mahael was also had plans to use illusion to dishearten the Gwyneddi soldiers, who were not accustomed to Deryni talents, and to use fire to separate the various units from each other. At least that was a game Kelson, Morgan, and Dhugal could play in turn, though the effect may not be as great on the Deryni-hardened Torenthi army.
"What of Lajos?" one of the generals asked. "The Haldane holds him hostage to guarantee that we do not invade his borders. What if our king is killed for our actions?" Mairona took note of the sea serpent device he wore, knowing this dissension could be useful.
"Then I take the crown as next in line and we seek justice from the murderer that claimed our king," Mahael replied, nonplussed. The general's face remained expressionless, but Mairona could sense a struggle within that Mahael either didn't see or dismissed outright. Mairona arrowed in on the general, a man who was Deryni and might hear her thoughts.
What of your rightful king? she asked, hoping to plant a small seed. The man's eyes grew wide. Would you betray your king to follow a man who cares not if Lajos lives, so long as he increases his own power? Remember to whom you owe rightful service.
That man could hear her mind's voice, and started to focus in on her presence. Mairona discreetly withdrew, flying back to Rhemuth and the king's chapel to resettle gently in her own body. Now we must tell Kelson what I have learned, she told her assistants before she was winging back to Eastmarch, seeking for the Camber medal that Kelson had sworn to wear until he was safely home again. That medal and the saint's guidance would lead her safely to her husband, so she could report the night's findings.
Two days later, the Gwynedd army was arrayed in formation, armor and arms glistening in the bright spring sun. Kelson wore full parade armor, aiming for show rather than practicality for today's work. Liam, acting as his squire on this campaign, blended discreetly with Kelson's aides and generals on the sidelines, barely noticeable.
"Men of Gwynedd!" Kelson called, and they roared back in pride until he raised his hand. "Mahael of Torenth will be within our sight two or three days hence. We shall give him a warm welcome, aye?" The men yelled again, clashing swords and spears against their shields. Kelson let them continue, shouting their prowess over Torenth, watching their morale soar. As the roar began to subside, Kelson held his hand up for silence again.
"Mahael has many Deryni behind him, so the coming battle may be fought differently than you are accustomed to. Our powers are a gift from God, meant to be used for the benefit of mankind, but like any gift some men choose to turn it to evil purposes. Mahael is one of those men. We wish to demonstrate what you may expect when we meet Torenth. Then, rather than fear these men, you will be certain of your righteousness in vanquishing them."
Kelson was drowned out in another passionate raising of voices and clattering of arms. He let them have a few moments, then indicated that he wished to continue.
"First there is the trick of illusion. Do not fear what you are about to see."
A giant, glowing dragon materialized in the sky above the Eastmarch plain, beating its wings soundlessly as it dove for the king, and the army collectively gasped. That dragon disappeared into the earth, leaving Kelson unharmed on his charger's back.
"Men of Gwynedd, if you see any mythical or fantastic creatures on the battlefield, know they cannot harm you. Stand your ground, defeat Mahael, and years from now you will sit by the fire and recount to you grandchildren how you defeated dragons on Eastmarch plain!"
They roused again, shouting their support and their brotherhood in arms. Morgan watched from the back of his black warhorse, amazed at how much Kelson had grown since the last war against Torenth, and how far he had come in his kingship. Six years ago, he had been a boy-king not much older than Liam, his leadership mostly symbolic as the Gwynedd army met with Torenth. Now he was fully in command, and inspiring his troops to brotherhood with a natural gift for leadership that had blossomed in the last three years. Morgan felt a fierce surge of paternal pride for his king, and was proud also of the role he had played to bring Kelson to his full potential, fulfilling the promise he had made to Kelson's father Brion so long ago.
"Now there is only one Deryni trick that has real danger," Kelson continued as the men quieted. "We may bid fire to rise at any point in our sight." To demonstrate, Kelson motioned Dolfin and Ivo to raise a portion of canvas bound to a long lance. When it hovered high enough for all men to see, Kelson made a showy gesture for the army's benefit and the cloth burst into flame. "Mahael may try to use this trick to separate you, but we can do the same to him. If you encounter fire, stand firm and know that his men cannot cross it any more easily than you. So, remember, men of Gwynedd. Do not concern yourself about the dragon, but be wary of its fire."
After he had finished speaking to his troops, Kelson returned to his command tent to hear new information from his scouts, and review the map again with Morgan and Ewan of Claibourne. Together, they plotted attacks and counter-attacks and counter-counter-attacks, trying to use Mairona's invaluable information to determine exactly how Mahael would emerge from the river valley. Their best option was to trap him as he exited, and make sure he never gained a foothold on the plain.
The flap at the tent's entrance jerked aside, and Kelson looked up at the disturbance. Dhugal darted in, face so red his freckles nearly faded into his skin. "Kel, I think you should see something," he blurted, breathing in exertion.
"What?" Kelson demanded, instantly alert and alarmed. "Mahael cannot be here already?"
"Nay," Dhugal countered, "but I cannot explain. This is something you have to see."
"Morgan, you are with me. Ewan, you may remain," Kelson snapped as he leaped for the tent's door flap.
Tailed by Morgan and Dhugal, Kelson ran through the encampment, which thankfully was milling about in normal military camp activity. At the horse pickets he found his white charger Besieger, and with a groom's help mounted onto the warhorse's bare back. Morgan and Dhugal did likewise, then the border duke led them to the edge of the rise on which the encampment was constructed.
Below them stretched the plain, and the silver ribbon of the river that joined Torenth and Gwynedd. It was alive with activity, wagons loaded with barrels going to the river, other carts with more barrels driving from the river, and most driving back and forth across the plain spilling something on the ground. "What on earth?" Kelson exclaimed. Dhugal couldn't contain his grin any longer.
"The men decided that if fire is the only real danger posed by Deryni talents, they would make sure Mahael and his lackeys have difficulty starting one. They are soaking the plain with water from the river, and will keep doing so until battle is joined."
Kelson threw his head back, laughing heartily. "Khadasa, I hope they do not make a muddy mess for themselves!" he snorted. "What heart these men have. 'Tis times like this that I cannot help but love being the King of Gwynedd!"
Story also located at the Author's website - Brenwell Manor
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