Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 5 - Part 2
Isolde shoved impatiently at
the strands of hair clinging to her sweaty cheeks. The clatter of hooves
in the yard told her the men were back. She should go and see how they
fared, but her exhausted muscles resisted her prompting.
Worse than exhaustion was the fear that sapped her strength and clouded her mind. She worried, for some reason, that the dark, arrogant interloper in her quiet world would not return from his night's adventure in one piece. Why she should fear for Sir Albion she had no idea, save only that she did. Until she saw him safe her nerves would not settle.
At last the refugees from the burned farms and village were abed. All the wounded had been tended, the hungry fed, the frightened children calmed. She wished with all her heart she could sink into a hot bath, then slip between the furs on her bed and stay there the rest of the day. Unfortunately she still had a duty that would not wait.
One door at the far end of the hall opened. Men entered quietly, without the shouting and clatter soldiers were wont to use. The returning soldiers filed to benches and sat, looking toward the kitchens with hungry eyes.
Isolde caught Gretta's attention and motioned toward the kitchens. Gretta nodded and pushed through the heavy door. No doubt Jack had bread and cheese enough to stem their hunger until he could bring out something more substantial.
Then she recognized Albion's tall form and graceful movement. Her heart leapt into her throat as he removed his helmet and handed it to a slim redheaded lad that could only be Young Hugh.
She lifted her skirts and ran toward them as fast as the crowded hall would allow. As she approached, Albion laid a hand on Hugh's shoulder and spoke in a soft yet commanding voice. "First go let your grandsire know you are safe. Then tend to my armor before you sleep."
Young Hugh dashed off to obey as if God himself had given the command.
Isolde caught Albion before he could turn away. "What news?"
The look he gave her might have been carved in stone. "We caught them."
"And how many injured? Were any killed?"
He shook his head. "A few, but most of the raiders escaped into the woods. They seem to know this country well."
"I meant of my own people." She shot the best glare she could summon at him. "What care I for the fate of outlaws? How many wounded have we to tend, and how many more dead to bury?"
Before Albion could answer, Sir Josce spoke from behind him. "Fortunately our losses were light. Three wounded in all, two of your men and one of our own. Two more of your guardsmen killed, I fear."
"I am sorry. I will get my things and see to the wounded immediately." She hesitated, then gave Josce a smile. 'Thank you, by the way, for returning Hugh. It will mean much to his grandfather."
"You did not ask after our foes." Albion's low tones warned her he would not be put off in this. Worse, Isolde knew she did want to hear his answer.
"And who were they?"
His words fell like ice. "They were humans, and well trained. I suspect your friend, Conall, had something to do with them."
"No!" Isolde turned on him, all weariness washed from her muscles by pure fury. "Conall could not do something this brutal. You know him not at all or you would not say such things."
"I know war can do things to a man he would rather not admit once it is done, lady. Your beloved Conall may not be the paragon knight you see him to be."
"Conall McQuillion may not be perfect, but he could not attack innocent people. He would not! That kind of animal ferocity I leave to you Deryni and your tyrant king!"
Albion's hands clenched into fists. "Lady, you will pay for such words with your life if you do not take care --"
Isolde knew she had gone too far, but she could not stop. She was far too tired for sense. "Or you will what? Take my family from me? Reduce me to chattel? Thank you, my lord, but that has already been done." She tossed her head in what she hoped was a gesture of defiance. "Now, if you will excuse me, my lord, I have wounded men to tend and a father to bury."
As she turned to leave, Young Hugh dashed back to them, his face flushed from excitement. "I have seen my grandsire, m'lord. I can tend your armor now."
Isolde gaped as Albion nodded and gave Hugh a smile that seemed to light the room. "Well enough, lad. But remember your first thought should be courtesy to the ladies present. Give your lady your respect, then get you gone."
Hugh spared her the barest nod and dashed from the hall.
"Just a moment! Hugh!" Isolde barely had the chance to speak before the boy was gone, taking Albion's helm with him. She turned her frustration and confusion on Albion. "What was that all about?"
His smile warned her she was not going to like his answer. "I saw the boy's skill last night, and felt he needed a chance to better himself. So I took him into my service."
"You what?" Isolde shook her head. This was too much! "How dare you do such a thing without consulting me? Hugh is vassal in the service of this earldom, my lord. He is not free to come and go as he pleases."
"And as this earldom now rests in the hands of the king, my lady, until you wed I am acting in His Highness's stead." Albion laid a hand on her shoulder. His warm touch seemed to sear through the wool gown and shift and blaze across her skin like wildfire. "Trust me, my lady. The lad will do well in my service."
He was trying to pacify her. Isolde shook off his touch. "What will you teach him, my lord conqueror? Murder? Theft? Rape? Will such lessons serve him better than the love and wisdom of his grandfather? I think not.
"And have you no thought at all for an old man who has no other family?" she continued before he had the chance to answer. "Or are you entirely careless of his heartbreak? After all, you have divided so many families what is one more?"
She drew herself up with all the dignity she could manage and gave the handsome Deryni knight her most regal glare. "If you will excuse me, my lord, I am sure you can see to your own needs."
The funeral mass was brief, and the internment in the rough cut crypt more than grim. Albion and Josce stood beside Isolde as she laid her father in the carved niche at the back of a small chamber.
They had no piper, as their only skilled player had followed Brandonn in the Haldane's service and died with him that horrible day in Rhemuth. Instead Isolde tried to fill the lack with her harp.
Unfortunately her broken nail combined with an over stressed string at the most inopportune moment. Just as Father Thomas blessed her father's body for the last time her lowest string snapped. The raucous sound echoed horribly.
At last Father Thomas left with the servants and crofters trailing after him. Chill damp settled through her gown as Isolde stood, staring at the shrouded form. Beneath the wrapping she could almost make out the shape of his arms embracing his sword, the crooked line of his jaw where it had been broken in battle against reivers when she was a small child. So many little marks life left on him, so many memories covered by a shroud.
She could put off her need for rest no longer. only as she turned did she realize Albion and Josce still stood behind her.
"I thank you for standing beside me, my lords," she said, realizing even as she did how very tired her voice sounded. "If you will forgive me I must attend to this string and then I will seek my rest. You shall not see me again, I think, until tomorrow unless there is great need."
"Of course, Lady Isolde." Sir Josce offered his arm. 'I would be honored to assist you up the stairs. You look fit to drop on your feet as it is."
"Thank you, my lord, but I can manage." Isolde was tempted to take his arm, for it would feel good to use another's strength. But she knew there was one duty still to see to before she sought her rest and it would be sooner done without Deryni accompaniment.
Sir Albion held out his hands. "Lady, if you will allow me I will change your string while you rest. Though I have had little experience with the harp, I am accounted a fair hand with a lute. The pegs look similar."
Gratitude washed through Isolde at his offer, though she knew he would never accept it if he knew how she planned to use the respite he offered. She usually knew well enough if someone were trying to deceive her, and he seemed genuinely eager to help. "I do thank you, Sir, and I would be glad of your aid. There are spare strings in the case. If you would be so kind as to put a rough tuning on it I will finish when next I pick it up."
Albion took the clairsach in one hand and bent gracefully to retrieve the leather satchel it rode in. His long fingers caressed the wood as he gave the instrument a quick examination. "This is beautiful, my lady, and you draw its' heart with your skill. I shall look forward to hearing you again."
Isolde nodded her thanks and left the crypt. She headed directly to her chamber. Gretta was there already, with the bedding turned back and a clean shift laid out for her to sleep in. "Get ye between the sheets, M'lady," the housekeeper ordered as soon as the door was shut. 'Ye'll not stir from here for the rest o' the night, no matter what them foreign devils demand!"
I thank you, Gretta. You always are too good to me." Isolde felt many of the cares of the past days slide to the floor with her mourning gown. "There is one thing yet I need for you to do."
"Ye've only to ask me, Mistress."
Isolde smiled, knowing she would find no fight from Gretta. "Send someone to the forest to find Connal. Ask him to come here around Compline. He will know the way well enough. Then bring Hugh and Young Hugh here about the same time. I'm not about to let that foreigner take Young Hugh, not if I can stop him."
Darkness settled over Derry like a velvet shroud. Albion sat beside a brazier, a broken harp string in his hands. He spared Josce a glance. "Did you set wards?"
"I did. Do you trust me that far?"
"Aye, as I've not much fear any will impede us this night. We must contact the king and let him know what goes on here."
Josce turned to the squire who stood waiting at the other side of the fire. "I thought as much when you called Ivo in. Do you think we'll need to draw on him to reach Festil?"
"I doubt it, but I want to be certain. Our news is important enough to warrant extra support." Albion motioned Ivo closer and laid the harp string aside. "Let's get this done."
Ivo laid himself before the flaming coals. He was experienced enough to know what was expected as Albion and Josce positioned themselves on either side of him and focused their attention on the flickering flames.
Albion cast his mind toward Rhemuth, searching for Festil. In short moments his efforts were rewarded. His uncle's presence touched his mind like icy steel.
*Well?* Festil's question warned Albion the king was in no mood for disappointment. *Have you met the wench?*
*Yes, Sire. We buried her father this morning.*
*And when are you returning here? I trust she is getting on well enough with Josce?*
Josce gave the king a mental bow. *Sire, I feel certain she will willingly become my wife. I am well satisfied.*
*And so you should be.* Festil favored them both with a smile. *Bring her back and we will have such a wedding many a lady will be most eager to become my tool.*
*As to the rest, Sire, there may be a delay.* Albion gathered his courage and continued in a rush, before he lost his nerve and angered his uncle. *It seems the partisans are most active here. I thought to remain for a week or two and see what could be discovered.*
*And what have you done so far?* Impatience laced Festil's thoughts.
*We gave chase to some of them last eve, and killed near a third of the party we caught. I want to find their leader and bring him to your justice.*
*Good. See to it, nephew.* Festil gave the impression of a nod, though Albion could not be certain. *Just remember, you are to return to Rhemuth by the beginning of December. Your own bride will be waiting you then.*
*And, Albion,* Festal added before they could close the link, *make certain Josce has his prize well in hand. This I charge you, for much depends upon it.*
Then the link was broken. Albion found himself staring at the flames, feeling like he'd been treated no better than a servant.
He shook himself. What was he to expect? Gratitude for doing no more than his duty to his king? Besides, it was only thanks to his uncle Festil that he even lived to see this day. His uncle had been more than generous.
Ignoring the sleeping Ivo, Albion picked up the broken string. "Now that's done, I've another chore to see to. Do you want to see what's going on with our charge?"
Josce stared at him. From the expression on his friend's face Albion knew he should be grateful Josce wasn't armed. "Where did you get that?"
"From her harp, when I offered to change the string. Where do you think?"
"You tricked her!" Josce's fists bulged, white knuckled. 'You knew she was too tired to resist you, and you played her for a fool. How could you?"
"Easily enough. Besides, I've done her no harm. And providing she means to play us fair she will never know I've looked in." Albion offered the strings to Josce with the best form he could muster. "If you'd rather do it yourself, go right ahead."
Josce stepped back so quickly the backs of his legs struck the desk. The pile of parchment drifted to the floor with a soft swishing whisper.
"Thank you, I've no need to spy on the lady. And if you will do this you are not the man I thought you were, Albion." He pulled open the door, then glanced back. "And I thought you were better than Festil."
Albion stared at the closed door for a long time. guilt and doubt ate at him. How could Josce turn from him so fiercely? And, just possibly, could Josce be right?
He knew there were some things no honorable man did. He also knew loyalty to his king was the most important calling for a knight, whatever his birth. More important, he knew the price a man could pay for any slight doubt the Furstan family might have concerning that loyalty.
Surely nothing would come of this. He knew Isolde had to be exhausted. No doubt she was asleep.
Duty demanded he make certain. He faced the brazier and, with her harp strings across his open palms, tried to see her face in the flickering flames.
Her image came without effort, curling brown hair damp from a washing. Isolde looked pale, yet her lips were set in a determined line he was coming to know well. And she was not in her bed, though indeed she looked as if she had been sleeping most of the day.
Isolde was speaking, her voice low. A man replied. Albion deepened the connection, the better to hear what was so urgent.
" . . . have you thought this through thoroughly?" Albion recognized Conall McQuillion's voice.
"I have not had time to think much of anything over for long," Isolde replied. "But something has to be done to stop this, Conall. I've never asked you for anything before."
"M'lady, you needn't." Young Hugh joined the conversation. "I'm not bothered serving His Grace, really."
"His Grace?" Isolde gave Young Hugh a fierce glare.
"Aye, m'lady. Sir Albion is Duke of Tolan when he's at home." Young Hugh's grin gleamed in the light from a glowing brazier.
"And by all rights, Connal is Duke of Corwyn." She laid a hand on the boy's shoulder. 'You should be thinking of your grandsire, Hugh. He needs you here. That must come first."
Albion wrenched himself back from the trance and rose, dropping the harp string. Obviously the lady had not the sense God gave a goose. She meant to defy him yet, and he had no intention of allowing it. More, Connal McQuillion had pushed his fortune much too far.
He nearly crashed into Josce as he bolted out the door. Josce actually looked surprised to see him. 'What's afoot?"
"Treason, I believe." Albion strode down the corridor, not looking back. Josce followed barely a step behind.