Terms Of His Honor
Kierney - November 823
Incense hung heavy in the still, damp air. Candles sent waves of light and heat into the dark chapel. Outside, rain battered the shutters that protected the glazed windows.
Isolde's shoulders shook. The rain would wash the world clean, or so her father said. Rain cleansed sadness and left fresh hope in its' wake.
She raised her eyes. Below the draped altar, surrounded by fine white, lay her dear father. The gleaming hauberk and oiled leathers he wore shone from careful attention. In his hands lay a sword as keen and sound as it had been when he carried it last.
But his fragile body gave lie to the warlike attire. A wound sustained in the late king's service nearly two years before had slowly wasted her father's strength until, at the last, he could not rise from bed. Death had been better for him than life, however long it might have been.
Isolde brushed away her own tears. There was no reason for sorrow. Her father was happy now, no doubt, and free of a body that had become for him a prison.
Some sense warned her she was not alone. Isolde scanned the chapel as she stood. There, in the shadows near a small side altar, stood a shape that did not belong.
The cloaked shape moved into the light. She smiled, glad for the company and the support of an old friend. "Connal! I'm so glad you made the trip."
Connal MacQuillion pushed back his hood. New lines creased his face. He seemed to have aged twenty years in the few months since she'd seen him last.
Still, his smile held warmth as he embraced her. "How could I stay away now, Dove? I am sorry about your father, you know."
"I know. But he's better off this way." She drew a breath for strength and stepped back. "I don't think he even knew the Haldane is dead. He surely had not heard about your father. Or, if he had, he did not remember it."
"Yes. Kinder for him, and for Da." Connal's smile twisted into a bitter mockery of happiness. "For the rest of us, we must go on with what is."
"And what is, Connal?"
He fixed his gaze on the crucifix, as if the answer lay somewhere near the ceiling. "We cannot surrender, Isolde. Rebellion grows by the day."
"And you joined them?" When he nodded, she felt her heart sink. "Oh, Connal, don't you see the harm that does? You won't be restored to your lands through futile resistance."
"And I won't get my family home back by sitting on my hands either." His hands clenched to fists as he turned to her. "Could you sit back and wait for the usurper to enslave you?"
"You know I could not. I can not. But the Festil is too strong now and I would not see more lives lost to hopeless war."
"And maybe it is not hopeless. But even if it is I have to try."
Isolde turned from him. His intensity frightened her.
Connal laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Come now, lass. You are a woman, so you can't be expected to feel the way I do."
"Why did you come here, Connal? Not to see Father's funeral, surely. You could not have known he died."
"No, I was here to ask him for help, actually." He shrugged. "I hope you will still assist us."
"There are men in the mountains. Every day more join us." Every fiber of his body quivered with excitement as he spoke. Isolde knew he was serious.
"We could overthrow the usurper in a year, Dove. All we need is time, and the supplies to keep from starving while we gather our strength."
"So you come to me for food?"
He nodded. "For food, and for weapons, and for men if you will lend them. Think, Isolde! We can do this."
She shook her head. Every sense she had warned her this was folly. "You aren't in Corwyn now, Connal. Not everything will fall to your will in this world."
"Then you would turn your back on us?"
She sighed. The gesture seemed futile against the crashing wave of his purpose.
"You know I will not abandon you. I never could, not even when we were children and you teased me so mercilessly."
The smile she loved tugged at his lips. "Then you will make me pay for childhood errors now?"
"No. You may have food, and warm clothing. Weapons too. You know where the armory lies."
"But you will not lend men?"
"No." Before he could protest, Isolde trapped his lips with a slim finger. "I will not order men to their deaths in a hopeless cause. But if you can convince any to follow you I will not stop them going."
"Fair enough." He nodded as he resettled his cloak on his shoulders. "You won't regret this, you know. And when it's over I'll come back for you."
And then he was gone without so much as a backward glance. Only the swish of his dark cloak followed him from the chapel.
Isolde sighed again and shook herself. Alone again, standing watch beside her father's body, she felt the press of responsibility like a lead yoke on her shoulders. Should she stand against the Festil usurper, risking not only her own welfare but the lives of every man, woman and child in Kierney? Was her pride worth such a price?
Or would it be better to accept the hand fate had dealt them all and suffer the oppressor in silence? Was life as a virtual slave better than death?
"What would you say now, Father?"
Only silence answered her.
As she walked toward the altar her gaze fell upon a leather sack carefully propped against the kneeling bench of a small side altar. A soft laugh tickled her lips. She had become so absorbed in her sorrow she had forgotten the Clairsach, after hauling it to the chapel that morning intending to play for her father one last time.
She settled herself against the altar rail with the small harp in her arms. Candle light caught the copper strings in shining splendor as she tested the tone with one fingertip. Clear notes sang from her slightest touch.
Isolde let the music overwhelm her as she found the chords of familiar pieces. A poignant ballad of love lost, then the stirring pace of a battle epic her father had loved all his life. Next a random chord exercise her mother had taught her when she was learning the placement of fingers on strings.
Music cleansed sorrow, doubt, regret, fear and exhaustion from her. She could play on forever.
"My lady? Isolde!" Father Thomas's voice jarred her back to reality.
Isolde looked up to see the portly priest standing, arms folded, shaking his head not five feet from her. The candles guttered in their sockets. They had not been half burned when she began to play, she realized. It must be nearly night.
"I wondered if I would have to strike a chime to get your attention." Father Thomas was smiling as he held out his hands for her harp. "I would not disturb you now, my lady, but we've visitors come."
"Who can it possibly be?" Isolde handed him the instrument and rose on shaky legs. Her feet had long since fallen asleep, apparently. She clung to the altar rail for support until circulation returned.
"They bear the King's banner, my lady. That cannot be good."
She tucked the clairsach back in its bag before she spoke again. "I suppose you wrote to inform the Festil that my father was dying?"
"I did, my lady. It was my duty," Father Thomas protested when she glared at him. "By my oath to serve your father I could do no less."
"I suppose not. Would it never occur to you to lie just a little?"
The priest looked affronted. "My lady, I could never ---"
"No, you could not. That is what makes you a good priest and such an abysmal conspirator."
"You plan to receive them with all due courtesy?" Father Thomas's expression begged her to avoid confrontation. "Shall I inform the kitchens?"
"Yes." Isolde sighed again. "I meant to give them their due, but I suppose I must start by being civil."