Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 4 - Part 1
Castle Derry - November 823
Soft notes reached through the darkness to beckon Albion's soul. The small chapel was dark save for a few candles near the altar and the glowing Presence. By this scant light he picked out the lady sitting beside her father, the harp in her hands.
Her slender fingers made the glistening strings quiver with a magic more subtle than anything he had heard in his life. Her skill shone with each note, every delicate melody she brought forth. Love and longing lingered in the air.
Albion knew he should go. She clearly meant no treachery to his king or himself, she was only doing the duty of a good daughter to her father. He should not intrude.
But her presence beckoned him. The rise and fall of her firm young breasts beneath her dark mourning gown, the rustle of her hair where she had loosened it and let it trail down her back, the graceful gesture of her slender hands all pulled him toward her with more power than any Deryni magic could exert.
He swore even her scent reached him, clean and delicate, and dusted with lavender.
Saint Michael! Why was he standing here like a moonling, watching her from the shadows? He'd never lacked for female attention in his life, and even now he was soon to marry a beautiful and titled heiress. Few men had such easy duty in service to their king.
As Albion turned to leave a shadow against the far wall moved. He froze and scanned the chapel to discover the intruder, all the while chastising himself. He should have checked the chapel immediately instead of gawking at the lady.
A man in a dark, travel stained cloak approached the lady. Albion's scan told him the man was young, heavily armed, but meant no harm to his charge. The man's mind was full of concern for her, or so Albion's cursory inspection told him.
As quietly as he could, Albion slipped into the chapel. He extended his mind just enough to hear their conversation.
"I have the supplies you offered," the stranger said as he settled himself beside her. "And I saw the Torenthi ride in. What are they here for?"
The lady laid her harp aside. "Not looking for you, if you are worried about that."
"Of course I'm not. I've been three steps ahead of those bitches' sons for months now."
"But your luck is certain to run out soon, Connal. I wish --"
"Don't even say it." The man called Connal laid a forefinger over her lips.
That gesture, far too intimate, set flame to Albion's blood. He clenched his fists until his nails bit his palms painfully. How dare this ragged wanderer lay hands on her? And why, oh God, why did she not pull away?
No doubt because she knew this man, his mind answered. Few of the noblemen who had once held land under the Haldane king still kept their estates. No doubt this fellow had visited her here, perhaps even courted her.
Then the man's identity became clear. Connal McQuillion, eldest son of the former Duke of Corwyn. The young nobleman escaped them in Rhemuth after the Haldane fell, and now bore the same death sentence Festil had bestowed on his father and all his family.
Without a thought Albion strode down the chapel, his hand on his sword.
The lady saw him first. Her gasp alerted Connal, who wheeled to place himself between her and Albion. Connal's sword whispered as it left its sheath.
"Stand where you are!"
"Put down that blade, Connal McQuillion. I am arresting you in the name of the King!" Albion drew his own sword and let his Deryni aura flare around him. The bright golden light marked the presence of a powerful shield that would protect him as surely as chain mail. "Come along quietly and no harm need come to any other."
"Like I would trust your promises that the sky was blue," Connal laughed. "I saw what your kind do. Bastard!"
"Connal, don't make him angrier." The lady stepped from behind her friend. Tears choked her voice. "My lord," she implored Albion, "this is a house of God. Surely you must recognize that."
"I asked him to come quietly."
"No!" To Albion's surprise, she stepped between them, placing herself to block his blade while giving Connal room to maneuver. "My lord, if you have any human feeling in your heart, do not arrest him. I have no other friend nor kin to stand beside me tomorrow when my father is buried. I beg you, show mercy."
"There is no mercy in his kind, Dove." Connal spat the words as he tried to shove her aside. Clearly he did not want her injured.
And just as clearly she cared for him. Enough, it seemed, to risk her own life in his defense. "You place your loyalties unwisely, Lady," Albion warned her, torn all the he while between respect for her courage and fury that she dared cross him.
She lifted her chin. "I give my loyalty where it is best deserved, Sir Albion. Connal has stood by me when there were few others to turn to. I would not abandon him now, not if God himself were to decree I should."
Light from the flickering candles glistened on the tears on her eyelashes. Albion shook his head to clear it. Duty fought a fierce battle in his heart, with compassion its stubborn opponent.
He lowered the sword that suddenly felt as heavy as if it were made of lead. "Lady, you should not trust your luck so far. Another man might not be so easily led by your sorrow." He drew a breath and continued before he could change his mind. "Your friend may leave unharmed, if he goes now. More I cannot allow you."
She nodded. Her shoulders sagged, her exhaustion so deep Albion fancied he could feel it himself.
Connal shook his head firmly. "And who do you think will stand with her on the morrow, outlander? Would you make a maiden bury her father without so much as a friendly arm to lean against?"
"Connal, don't." The lady turned before Albion could stop her. "It is not as if there were anything you could do. You must leave. He is being generous with you. Do not anger him further."
He stroked her cheek. The gesture was one for a lover, and Albion's blood flamed to watch the other man touch her. Still, when Connal spoke his words were measured as if he had thought his decision over at length.
"Come away with me, Isolde. You don't have to stay here."
She shook her head. "My duty --"
"You have done more than you duty in the past two years. You cared for your father and saw to these lands. The usurper has taken it all from you." Connal's fingers moved through the loose tendrils of chestnut hair drifting against her cheek.
"There's nothing more you can do for them. I would take you to wife."
Her laughter held a bitter edge. "All the years you might have given me such an offer, Connal, and you never did. Now, when you see it is impossible for so many reasons, you make the attempt."
"There was never such a need. Much has changed."
The lady pulled his hand from her cheek and held it firmly between them. "But not the most important thing, Connal. We are friends. A marriage between us would be the greatest wrong we could do each other, for we could not love and friendship cannot outlast such a travesty."
Feeling like an interloper, Albion retreated half way up the chapel. He knew he was close enough to stop the maiden should she decide to leave with Connal, but he wanted to give them some privacy. Obviously the affection between Connal the heiress to Derry could not be allowed to come to fruition, but he did not think her tender heart needed a witness as it was further torn this night.
Her name was Isolde. Albion felt a thrill of possession at the knowledge. She was no longer a creature held under a collective title, "Lady", but a person, singular and unique to him. Isolde. His Isolde.
That thought was both pleasurable and dangerous. He pushed it away and reminded himself she was Josce's.
After a few minutes of whispered words, Connal lifted her hand to his lips. Then he turned on his heel and disappeared into the shadows from which he'd sprung as if he had not been there at all.
Albion waited until Isolde had composed herself. When he joined her at the bier he felt her emotions shaking her like an over tight lute string.
To distract himself from her emotion Albion examined the deceased. From the gaunt look of the man on the bier he knew the illness had been long and excruciating. Death was surely preferable to such suffering.
Isolde wiped at her cheeks with an impatient hand. "My father wanted me to marry Connal, you know," she said at last.
Perhaps conversation would keep her from dissolving into complete hysterics, Albion thought hopefully. He could not stand crying women. He never knew what to do with them.
"Why did you not wed him, then?"
She shook her head. "Mother made Father promise he would never force me to marry a man I did not love. He kept his vow, though I tried him sorely I fear. Then, too, I had little hope of inheritance until my brothers died."
"And young Connal was heir to a dukedom. No doubt his parents sought higher for his bride."
She nodded. "He was to have married the younger daughter of the Duke of Carthmoor. She was kin to our king, and Connal's father was eager for the match."
Pain laced her words. Against his better judgment, Albion probed further, seeking the depth of this wound. "And Connal? How did he feel?"
Isolde gave a short laugh. "He was furious with his father. The girl was barely six years old, and he had no taste for a child bride." She turned to look up at him, and her lips curved into a bitter smile. "If your invasion did nothing else it freed Connal from that odious obligation. After all, his bride is dead."
"Invasion is never pleasant, Lady Isolde. Things must be done we all wish were not necessary. Would you have Gwynedd plagued for centuries with civil war as descendants of the Haldanes fight to regain the throne their ancestors lost?"
"So butchery is excused if it saves more butchery?" Her fury flared for only an instant. When she sighed and softened Albion knew she was near collapse. "At least my father died in his bed, not spitted on some murderer's lance or dangling from your king's gibbet."
"I am sorry for your loss, Isolde. And, though I doubt you will believe it, I regret the deaths of your brothers."
"Do not burden yourself overmuch. Only two died with the Haldane." She ran a slim hand over the polished wood her father lay on. "I hold you blameless, for I could not know who struck the blows that felled Brandonn and Jamie. Of the others, one died of fever and one was thrown from a horse and broke his neck."
Albion rested a hand beside hers. It was the most support he dared offer her, though he longed to take her in his arms. "How long since you were all together?"
"Come Christmas it will be three years. Of course Mother died some ten years past, but her loss is an old scar, while the others are still raw."
Albion searched for the right words to fill the aching silence. He studied Isolde's face in the soft candlelight, seeking some clue to the key that might unlock her heart. After all, his best friend had the king's blessing to wed her. Albion told himself he should study her for Josce's benefit.
In truth, he relished the task. The candles' glow favored the soft blush of he cheek, the warm luster of her skin, and even the sassy tilt of her upturned nose. Her lips curved gently, the lower slightly fuller than most women favored at court.
Standing in the chapel he found himself longing to take that lovely lower lip between his teeth. Aye, and what he'd do after that had no place in a consecrated building.
He shook his head to clear his thoughts. He should by rights be thinking of Sophia, the princess to whom he was betrothed and who he would wed before Christmas. He had met her several times while the negotiations for the betrothal dragged on between her father, the Prince of Howicce, and his uncle Festil.
He knew he had thought her beautiful. If only he could remember what she looked like.
To take control of his reaction to Isolde he searched desperately for a safe idea. "Your mother must have been a lovely woman, for I think you resemble her much."
She smiled, and he felt for the first time that the look was genuine. "She was the most beautiful woman in the world, so far as I know. Father always said she had the light of angels in her eyes."
"And now they are together again, your parents. You must take comfort in that." Albion cursed himself, for he instantly saw the image from her perspective. All her loved ones together, in death, and she alone left.
Her shoulders lifted and her back straightened before she spoke. "Yes, Father is now with his family. And I, for my part, will carry on his legacy as best I can." She returned to her seat and picked up the harp. "You need not stay the night, my lord. I am more than capable of keeping the vigil."
"I would you had company."
Her laugh drove through him like a lance. "You and your kind have removed any companions I might have chosen. I have my music and the saints to comfort me, my lord. And since custom dictates I may decide who will stand watch with me and who will not, I ask you to leave my father in peace for one last night."
Albion left without further comment beyond the most polite of "good nights." Isolde stroked her clairsach with idle fingers, not finding a tune and letting her thoughts wander with the notes.
Unfortunately her mind seemed firmly resolved to focus on the tall, handsome Deryni knight who had just left the chapel. His word of comfort felt genuine, and she could usually tell when someone was lying to her. More strange still, she felt a sense of empathy from him she found from few who knew her family, and none who were strangers until this night.
For all that he was an invader, Sir Albion seemed decent enough. Isolde almost regretted the nettles in his mattress.