Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 4 - Part 2
Castle Derry - November 823
Albion returned to his chamber, still thinking of Isolde. Her haunted brown eyes gazed back at him from every corner of his mind. Even her scent lingered in his senses, soft lavender and soap and an alluring essence that could only be unique to the woman.
He must be going mad.
Josce lay on one side, tossing fitfully. He had not warded the room, but then Albion had not expected he would. Casting wards took more talent and skill than Josce usually had, unless he was feeling particularly powerful and concentrating hard. Even then they rarely set effectively.
Albion set the wards himself, quickly undressed and slipped into bed beside his friend. He did his best to relax and find a comfortable spot. Every time he began to doze off, however, a sharp needle of pain lanced through some sensitive part of his body.
"So how is our prize?"
Josce's voice startled Albion. "I thought you were asleep."
"You never bothered to check. I've not been able to sleep at all, not for more than a few minutes at a time." Josce rolled to face him. "So I ask you again. What do you think of the lady?"
"Isolde. Her name is Isolde."
Josce shrugged. "All right, so what do you think of Isolde?"
Albion shrugged. How could he tell his best friend that the lady Josce was supposed to marry had him tied up in knots? "She's much as I expected," he answered at last, choosing each word carefully. "Duty will bring her to the altar with little trouble. On the bright side for you, she seems well mannered, if a bit reserved"
"Of course she's reserved, considering how many of her family she's lost since we came to Gwynedd." Josce smiled up at the canopy. "And to think I've got the duty of consoling her in her sorrow. Poor little thing.
"Ouch!" Josce actually jumped from the bed, rubbing his backside with one hand and glaring ruefully at the mattress. "I am beginning to wonder if that old crone was right about ghosts."
"Did you check the bed before you flopped down?"
"Of course I did. Look for yourself. There's been no meddling."
Albion extended his powers and searched the mattress. Indeed, there was no sign of any disturbance. No magic lurked to harm them. Nor could he detect any metal that might stab them in their sleep.
But something was definitely making him uncomfortable. He rolled out of bed, wincing as whatever it was attacked his thighs and hands without mercy. "Let's do this the hard way. Pull back the sheet."
"Pull back the sheet? But it's fresh made. Why..."
Josce whistled as he drew a long, spiny nettle leaf from the mattress. "Well, would you look at this?"
Albion threw off the sheet. As he'd feared the mattress was full of the sharp, irritating plants.
"Poor little thing!" He let the anger he felt release itself as he slammed the sheet back on the mattress.
Josce actually chuckled. "To think we were feeling sorry for her."
"Well, she will pay for this night's sleep. I promise you that!" Albion rolled himself in a blanket and lay down next to the fire. So much for the discreet, compliant maid he had thought they would escort. He had a feeling he'd have his hands full now.
Isolde had no idea when she began to doze. Sometime before midnight the strain of her father's last days coupled with the enormous workload she shouldered running an estate the size of Derry and her own emotional turmoil. She laid her head on the curved arm of her clairsach and slept.
Her dreams came in snatches. The faces of her brothers, laughing at some bit of devilment, teasing her for her unruly hair and small size. Her father's wound that sapped his strength and spirit until at last he no longer knew what was happening to the king he so loyally served. Connal's plea that she come with him, and her own desire to flee her legacy and seek peace somewhere, somehow . . .
And through it all Albion's face intruded, serious blue eyes shining above his strong, full lips. She did not want him there, but there he was still.
Icy wet hands shook her awake. Isolde blinked, startled. She was sitting in the dark chapel, with three men in cloaks standing before her dripping mud on he hem of her mourning gown. How long had she slept? She did not know.
"M'lady?" The brawny blacksmith, Watt, gave her a short bow.
"Sorry to wake ye, but there's been another attack."
No! Isolde straightened and laid her harp aside. Exhaustion pulled at every muscle as she stood, shielding her eyes until they grew used to the flickering light from the racks of prayer candles. She squared her shoulders and forced her spine to straighten. "How bad this time?"
Watt grimaced. "Bad, m'lady. They hit two o' the outlying crofts an' burnt the village at Stanford. Fired the bridge, too. Some cattle taken, an' the bastards butchered what they couldn't steal, may God damn them to Hell." He pursed his lips, glanced at the bier, then focused his eyes on his muddy boots. "Sorry, m'lady. No disrespect to yer da, that."
"I'm sure he would understand, Watt." Isolde pushed her way between the men and retrieved her cloak. "Have you alerted the garrison?"
"I did, Lady Isolde." The oldest of the men stepped forward. Even though she knew the man was easily seventy he carried himself like the proud soldier he had always been. "It was I who brought word of the attack. The raiders took my grandson."
"Took?" Isolde felt her heart turn over. Old Hugh had no other family left. Young Hugh was barely fifteen, but could wield a sword better than most of the professional soldiers in her father's guard.
"Aye, Lady. Knocked him unconscious with the flat of a blade and threw him on a horse, they did. I was hard pressed myself and could do nothing to help him."
"Then at least he's alive. Courage, Hugh." She laid a hand on the old man's arm, thinking to comfort him. The muscles beneath his soft woolen tunic were corded tight with strength men half his age would envy. "Young Hugh's no easy target, and his captors obviously want him alive. We'll get him back."
"Not with the bridge out." Watt shook his head. "It'll cost us twenty miles to find a ford."
"Then swim the river. It should not be so high as to be impassable." Isolde gave her father's body a quick glance. He would understand, she told herself. The living had to come first. "Are any injured?"
"Aye, m'lady. The survivors should be quick behind Hugh, if they be commin'."
Isolde saw the straggling line of wretches enter the courtyard as she left the chapel. Women and children, mostly. All were wet, ragged and exhausted. Some bore burns or the marks of whips used to drive them away from their homes.
She hurriedly ordered her captain of the guard to follow the raiders at any cost. Fortunately her father's men were well trained and ready to leave before she spoke to them. They rode through the gates like avenging angels, twenty men armed to the teeth.
Isolde motioned the refugees into the hall. At last, amid all the destruction, she had something she could do. As she mentally listed their needs, she felt energy returning with her purpose.
The clatter woke Albion and Josce from their sleep. Horses bearing men covered in chain mail made a great racket even at the best of times. Night magnified the noise.
Josce glanced out the window. "Something's happening. I'd say half the castle guard's just rode out."
"Best we find out why we can't get a decent night's sleep." Albion pulled on his breeks and tunic.
The main hall was alive with light and activity. Children huddled near the hearth chewing on apples roasted in the flames. Women bustled about, making pallets with blankets and pillows anywhere space could be found.
Albion found Isolde instantly. She stood in the center of the chaos, calmly wrapping a bandage around a crofters chest. The man's grimace told Albion he probably had some ribs broken.
With Josce at his heels Albion strode through the crowd to join her. He spared the rest not a glance. "What's happened?"
She barely acknowledged him. "It's none of your business." Then, before he could find a response, she handed him a roll of linen strips. "Here, make yourself useful."
"I am the King's representative. Therefore, anything touching this estate is my business!" Albion tossed the roll of bandages on the table. "Lady, you will pay attention and tell me what has happened."
"We were raided, my lord. And not for the first time!" She tied off the crofters chest bandage with a fury he did not need to extend his senses to feel. "And thank you for you concern! If you will not help here, kindly do not get in the way."
"So you will do naught to stop this other than find blankets for homeless children? Why was the king not informed of these raids?" Albion caught Isolde as she turned from the crofter to another patient. "Lady, there are others to bind wounds. You will answer me!"
Her eyes blazed with silver fire as she shook him away. "I am their lady, my lord interloper! It is my duty and my trust to see to their hurts. As to the other, why should I bother to tell the very administration that caused all the trouble in the first place? Now out of my way!"
He blocked her path again. 'You go too far now, my lady spitfire," he warned, his voice sinking to a low growl. "Dare you not accuse my king of troubles that likely lay at the feet of your own kind. Most probably these outlaws once served the Haldane."
Isolde shouldered her way past him, gathered her basket and went to a youth who sat holding his arm at an odd angle. "And why should they attack their own? You are monstrous to say so."
"And what reason would a loyal man have to raid for wealth? Festil rewards his supporters lavishly."
"Aye, with stolen wealth. Thieves follow thieves, my lord, as dogs follow dogs. Now find something useful to do or get yourself out of here."
"That I will!" Anger clouding his vision with a red fog, Albion shouted for his men and headed up the stairs three at a time to recover his sword.
Josce followed as fast as his feet would carry him. "What are you planning?"
"What do you think?" Albion slipped the chain mail hauberk over his head and belted on his sword as he spoke. "I'm going after them."
"Now?" Josce shook his head, but reached for his own gear. "They're long gone, you know. What's put the bee in your bonnet?"
"What do you think?"
"Oh ho!" Josce sent a mental laugh that made Albion's teeth clench. "The lady touched a sore spot when she dared suggest it might be our own people behind this, did she?"
"Are you coming, or are you going to sit here with the farmers?" Albion slammed the door as he left.