Terms Of His Honor
Castle Derry - November 823
Derry was a swamp favored by cold rain, impenetrable fog, and surly people. Albion frowned as the massive, banded gates swung open for them. Even this castle did not seem welcoming or prosperous.
No doubt their party was no more welcome to the lord than to his subjects. Very well. Albion could grant a defeated and conquered people their resentment, so long as it did not spill over into outright rebellion.
He dismounted as stable hands ran to take the horses. A servant in a thick woolen cloak bowed before him and motioned him into the keep. Clearly even the natives did not chose to stand in this storm.
The servant left them in what must be the main hall. Tables were laid for supper, though the high table lacked even the most basic linens, silver or candlesticks. In fact, the lord's table seemed to have been unoccupied for some time. Not a single bench or chair remained behind it. No man would be so foolish as to move that heavy furniture from the dais if he were planning to use it again soon.
Another servant appeared with a tray of warm bread, butter and cheese. His companion carried a large carafe of steaming cider and several cups.
"At least the hospitality here has not suffered." Albion's boyhood friend, Sir Josce St. Cyr, helped himself to a cup of cider. "This will keep the toes warm tonight, whatever may happen."
"And keep us from our business. I'd think better of the master if he made himself known." Albion sniffed the cider. It was good, the quality of the cider itself making up for a lack of spices.
"For a man about to meet his bride you look remarkably relaxed." Albion kept his voice lowered.
*Don't whisper on my account,* Josce shot back, adding a mental chuckle to soften the bite of the retort. *Just because I don't have your skill doesn't mean I can't hear you perfectly well. Besides, my lack of abilities may just get me a warm bedmate and a fine living. What more can a man ask.*
*I admit, Festil's plan is unique. Imagine choosing the worst stud stock to breed mares to.* Albion set his cup down. *Let's get on with this.*
He stopped the first servant, who seemed to be in charge if the quality of his tunic and size of his girth could be any indication. "Where is your master? I would speak with him now."
"That won't be possible, m'lord." The man bowed nervously.
"What do you mean 'won't be possible'?" Albion drew himself up to his full height and let a bit of his aura flare around his head. If that did not get some obedience out of these reluctant servants he'd use stronger measures.
"I have a message for your lord and I mean to deliver it to him," he continued in his most careful tones. "If that means you must awaken him, do so."
"Would that I could, m'lord. But you see --"
"I fear it would take more magic than even the Deryni posess to accomplish that."
Albion turned as the servant bowed and slipped away. A slight figure swathed in black wool from hood to heels approached him. Her steady step and the tilt of her head told him he was looking at the lady of the manor.
Graceful hands pushed back the hood. Torchlight dusted damp brown curls with highlights of flame. It took Albion a long moment to realize he was out of breath. He had forgotten to breathe.
"If you would speak to my father, my lord, he is lying in our chapel until tomorrow. I will show you the way, if you like." Her voice settled like soft music on his ear. Albion thought she would be a fine counterpart to his lute if she sang at all.
Josce elbowed him in the ribs. Albion forced himself to remember his business. He gave the lady a short neck bow and fished the king's writ from his pouch.
"His Royal Highness sends his regrets on the loss of your father, my lady. He bids you look to him for your protection now as you are left without support in this world. He would see to your welfare."
The lady's soft brown eyes flashed with silver sparks at his speech. Clearly she did not wish Festil's protection, for her lips disappeared between clenched teeth. Passion flushed the cold from her cheeks with bright color, but she held her tongue.
Intelligent as well as beautiful. Albion allowed himself to smile. She would see the wisdom of compliance. Her estates would do well if the people followed their lady's lead in common sense.
But oh! how he would love to kiss the lingering defiance from her sweet face.
Albion quashed that thought aborning. Best conclude this business quickly so he could remember he was supposed to guard the lady's honor, not compromise it. "As you must realize, my lady, His Highness would see you settled as soon as possible. My orders are to bring you directly to his court at Rhemuth. We will leave on the morrow."
She shook her head in firm denial before he finished speaking. From the way her shoulders tensed Albion sensed he was about to face serious resistance.
"My lord, you must understand that is not possible at this time." Her cracking voice told him she fought against tears, even if her words were measured perfectly. "My father is not yet buried. I must see to his effects and assure myself the estates will run smoothly in my absence. I cannot simply leave, not for any reason."
Before Albion could answer, Josce stepped in front of him. The courteous bow he gave the lady set Albion's teeth on edge.
"Sir Josce St. Cyr, in service to His Royal Highness Festil of Gwynedd. At your service, dear lady," he added as he lifted one of her slim hands to his lips. "I am quite certain our Lord King will not mind a bit if we delay long enough for you to see to your affairs here. A week or two should cause no difficulty, and --"
"Unfortunately, the king's business cannot wait even for so important a matter as this is." Albion gave Josce a glare that usually sent even confident courtiers into spasms. *Remember who is in command here,* he sent to his friend's mind.
*Have half a heart, Albion,* Josce replied in the same fashion. *A day or two won't make a difference. Besides, you're supposed to give me a chance to court the lady.*
*And you can do your courting on your own time, in Rhemuth.* Albion thrust the missive toward her more firmly than he intended.
The parchment roll slapped her outstretched hand smartly. One of her neat oval fingernails broke as it hit. He thought he saw candlelight glisten on a tear hovering at the edge of her eyelashes.
Still she broke the king's seal and read his intent as if it were no more than a shopping list. When she re-rolled the parchment the set of her lips told Albion she would not be hurried for any man, even his king.
"I am certain your seneschal can handle everything for you while you are away," he told her. Even he thought he sounded like an idiot, but he should ease her feelings somewhat. "We will wait until your father is properly buried. You did say you intended to inter him on the morrow, did you not?"
"Of course we will. There is little point in prolonging this, as there are none of his contemporaries available to attend his funeral.
"I will instruct the staff to see to your accommodations and prepare my things for travel. You are welcome to take supper in the hall, of course, but I will keep vigil with my father until it is time to lay him to rest." She lifted her hood. Clearly the interview was over.
"By your leave, my lords," she asked in a voice tight with unshed tears as she departed the hall far too quickly.
Josce slammed his empty cider cup on the table. "Damn me, but she is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life. She's mine, Albion. Mine!" His smile reeked of self assurance. "She just doesn't know it yet."
"Would it not be helpful to know your future bride's name before you post the banns?" Albion finished his cider and waved one of his squires over. "Tell whoever is in charge of this place we will dine in our chambers this night so as not to disturb the household overmuch."
"What matter her name? It's not the name that's important. Did you notice those eyes? A man could drown in them and never regret it. And what a magnificent pair of --"
"Don't even say it!" Albion silenced Josce even if he knew his friend was right. It seemed everything about the lady was designed to entrance a man. And she seemed to have two of all her best features. Eyes, lips, cheeks, hands . . .
"Let us see what sort of comfort this keep can offer for a night out of the rain."
Isolde shook her head as her portly cook planted beefy hands on his hips. "You will serve them, Jack."
"I'll be givin' 'em the slops from the hog bucket. That's all!" Jack's - shook with his outrage. "After what their kind did to Master Brandonn, that they can come here an' demand ye see to their needs before yer lord father's laid down beside yer dear mother! Just say the word, Mistress, an' they'll be wishin' their guts was hung from lances afore I'm done wi' 'em."
"You will not poison them, Jack. Just think what would happen should the usurper learn his knights fared ill here. I do not like it one bit better than you do," she added as Jack drew breath to argue. "But it's best for all concerned if we take things as we can. After all, we don't actually know any of them struck a blow against Brandonn, do we? They have done us no harm thus far."
"They got ye wet when there were no need for it. That's harm enough." Jack continued muttering as he turned back to his stew pots.
As Isolde turned, Jack's wife, Gretta, dipped the best curtsy a woman of her size and age could be expected to. "Beggin' yer pardon, Mistress. Where would ye have me put them foreign bastards?"
Behind Isolde, Jack growled loudly enough for most of the kitchen to hear, "In hell!"
"Put the two leaders in Brandonn's room, Gretta. Find space for the rest where you can. But not in Father's chamber," she added firmly. "That room can remain as it is for the time being."
"Of course, Mistress."
A ghost of an idea flitted through Isolde's mind so quickly she did not stop to consider the wisdom of it. "Gretta," she commanded as if the plan had been long in the making, "be certain the maids lay fresh herbs in the mattresses. They are a bit stale, you know, after being so long neglected."
"An' what would ye have them foreigners smell like?" Gretta's scowl reminded Isolde of a bull mastiff with something caught in its teeth.
"Oh, lavender, I suppose. And stinging nettle."
Gretta's smile was positively evil. "An' when the soft-arsed bastards complain I'll tell 'em it's Master Brandonn's ghost who don't like to be disturbed. It's brilliant, m'lady! Something Master Brandonn would hae thought o'."
Tears for her dead brother stung Isolde's eyes. "If everything here is under control I will return to the chapel. Father should not be left with only the candles for company this night."
Isolde returned to the chapel, picked up her clairsach, and settled down near her father's bier. With one nail broken the tunes were harder to coax from the strings. Still, the music was as soothing as it always had been.
She drifted for a time in dreams drawn from the harp and her memories. Her mother had played the instrument, on long nights beside the fire in the cozy family chambers and during sunlit summer days in the gardens as she watched the birds in the carefully tended fruit trees. Isolde had been all of three when her mother first set her chubby fingers to the strings and taught her the chords.
Ten years earlier her mother had contracted a fever and died, leaving Isolde in charge of both harp and household. Now with her father dead the instrument remained her comfort, her support, her friend as it always had.
And so she played to the ghosts.
The chamber was clean and furnished to better comfort than Albion would have believed for so small a keep. The bed boasted a thick mattress stuffed with goose feathers. Two braziers held coals to warm the room, while a large rack of candles provided ample light.
A desk near the candle rack held several stoppered ink bottles, a small cup with sharpened quills and a small stack of untouched vellum. From the stains on the desk, the normal occupant of this room was a dedicated scholar.
"The Mistress won't like ye bein' in here, an' I don't mind tellin' ye that," the plump housekeeper said as she laid a stack of fresh towels on the washstand. "I don't much like it neither, but it's the best room to be had 'cept for hers, an' ye'll not be settin' foot in there I can promise ye!"
"Heaven forfend!" Josce stepped back to avoid the line of servants hauling water to the large copper bathtub set between the braziers. He reached for one of the ink bottles.
"Don't ye touch nothin', ye ignorant outlander!" The housekeeper shooed Josce from the desk with a wave of her plump hand. "Ye may be not knowin', but this was Master Brandonn's room. We're keepin' it just as it was so as his ghost will know it's got a home to come back to.
"An' don't think he doesn't come visit on occasion," the housekeeper added with a wicked grin as she laid out soap and a heavy scrub brush. "He don't much like ye foreign devils, an' that be the God's own truth."
"And I suppose you feel differently?" Albion tried not to chuckle at the woman's bluster. She reminded him of a mother hen who feels her chick threatened by some interfering outsider.
"I keeps my opinions to myself, Master, an' that's a fact." The woman brushed her hands over her apron. "I suppose I'm to pack up my lady's belongings for this harebrained journey ye are draggin' her off on far too soon to be decent?"
The woman had a talent for phrasing a question so he could not fault her for insolence, yet he could not mistake her true feelings on the matter. Albion decided whoever the fortunate bridegroom might be he would be well served to work his way to this harridan's good side as quickly as possible.
"If you would be so good as to pack her clothes it will smooth things over in the morning," he answered with as straight a face as he could manage.
For an answer, the housekeeper gave him a hearty "Harrumph!" and stalked from the room with one last warning. "Mind yer sleep, Masters. Master Brandonn likes his privacy, so he does."
Josce inspected the ink bottle once the servants were gone. "Dried to a crust," he declared as he replaced it on the desk. "I suppose we should not have expected a warm welcome. Still the bed's soft and the water's hot."
"And I wonder where our hostess can have taken herself off to?" Albion frowned, his mind still drifting treacherously back to the beautiful lady of the keep.
"Most probably she's in the chapel, keeping the watch." Josce shrugged. "Can you blame her? For God's sake, Albion, she's just lost her father. Give her time to grieve."
"She's had more time than most widows and orphans of the old king's supporters. I'm not certain I trust her out of my sight."
"She seemed cordial enough in the hall."
Albion nodded as he shed his tunic. The bath did look inviting. He stretched his mind into the water, but detected no hint of poison. It was safe enough.
"She is clever, I'll give her that. She was not about to endanger her people by arousing our anger. That doesn't mean she welcomes us, or that she is planning no treachery."
Josce laughed. "You see danger in every pretty face, my friend." He wagged his finger at Albion like a disgruntled schoolmaster. "There are innocent women, you know."
"And they are as few as hairs on a hen, my trusting fool."
Albion tested the soap. It was well made, soft and smooth, scented with sandalwood and thyme. The sort of stuff one saved for important guests or loved family members.
"I think I will join her in her vigil," he decided as he soaped and rinsed his hair. "It might be well to keep an eye on her this night. After all, we were sent here in part to look for trouble."
Josce actually laughed aloud. "Do you think that angel is a source of partisan unrest? Albion, can you hear yourself? You've been around the Festil's court for far too long. Come back to the real world."
"And you are far too trusting to be safe in any man's company. If any but myself had heard you your head would now be on a pole above the city gates." Albion shook his head as he reached for a towel. "Rebels are where you find them, my friend. I intend to search thoroughly before we leave this place."
He tried to hide even from himself his own eagerness to spend more time in the lady's company.