Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 5 - Part 3
Isolde forced herself not to
scream. Why was everyone being so stubborn? Couldn't they see she was
doing her best to salvage the situation?
"I'm not asking you to keep him forever, Connal," she said, adding emphasis where she sensed Connal weakening. 'Only until the outlanders leave, and things come back to normal. There's no other way."
Connal ran a calloused hand through his shaggy hair. Curls snagged on the deep cracks his rough life had left in his skin. "Dove, think! We're living without a roof over our heads and winter coming on. Would you sentence a boy to such a life when he could be warm, dry and well fed?"
"Or dragged away to learn thieving from the best teachers to be found anywhere. That or lie dead and unshriven in the mud somewhere when he could grow old and live quiet."
Connal nodded slowly. She knew he had come 'round to her decision, and felt a sense of triumph. At least she had won one battle today.
Behind her, Hugh coughed softly. "My lady, I don't grudge my grandson his chance in this. He's got an opportunity many would give their right arms to have and be glad of the chance."
She smiled as Young Hugh hugged his grandfather. "I know, Hugh, but you must see this is not the way. If it's the trade of a soldier you wish him to learn you are far better a teacher than some upstart outlander who has no notion of our ways. Besides, I would not leave you without family to see to you in your age."
"I am not a doddering old man yet, my lady!" Hugh drew himself up to his full height and gave her such a look of offended pride she almost laughed.
"I realize that. Still, I have thought this over well."
The chamber door crashed open. "Not well enough!"
Isolde jumped inside her skin. Sir Albion filled the doorway, fury plain on his face. Behind him, Sir Josce looked shocked.
Connal immediately grasped his dagger. Beside Isolde, Hugh laid his hand upon the hilt of his sword. Neither drew his blade, but she sensed both men braced for violence.
Young Hugh looked from Sir Albion to Isolde, plainly confused where his loyalties should lie.
She laid a hand on his shoulder. His hesitation hurt more than anything else in the past few days. "Hugh, go with your grandfather."
He glanced at her. Then, to her dismay, he looked to the Deryni knight. Only when Sir Albion nodded did Young Hugh step out of the path of danger.
Isolde faced Albion with all the courage she possessed. Beneath her simple wool tunic her knees were shaking so hard she feared she would crumple to the ground. "Is there some reason you feel compelled to barge your way into a lady's bed chamber?"
He laughed. "My lady, it seems you keep much company already in your rooms. What are two more to you?"
She balled her hands into fists to keep back the urge to slap the arrogant grin from his face. "You feel you have reason to insult me, my lord, after I have extended you my hospitality?"
"I do, when I find you engaged in treason. And that, my lady, is what you are doing here."
He swaggered into the room and stopped only when his feet nearly trod upon her bare toes. "Have you taken leave of your senses to flirt with a traitor in your own chambers beneath my very nose? Or do you so greatly desire to see your own death?"
Connal's dagger whispered as it left its sheath. "If I were you, Outlander, I'd not threaten the lady. I'll have your guts for it if it's the last thing I do."
"Peace, Connal! I - - -"
Albion cut off her words. "McQuillion, you are a dead man regardless. You would better care for your own hide."
Isolde stepped back from Albion the better to glare up at him. "I gave Connal my word no harm would come to him here. I will not allow you to lay hands on him, my lord, not if God himself should command it!"
Sir Albion favored her with a bitter laugh. "Lady, are you ignorant? With your father's death every portion of his holdings, including your own person, became property of His Majesty, Festil. Your word means less than nothing.
"Besides, I wonder at your care of your people if you so readily protect the outlaw who has been raiding your livestock and leaving your crofters homeless."
Isolde sank her teeth into her lips as she sought a stinging retort.
Connal was quicker. "You lie!"
Albion's eyes narrowed. Around his head his aura flared a brilliant crimson nimbus.
Behind him, Josce spoke at last. "You deny you led that raid last night? What proof have you?"
Connal's laugh came bitter. Isolde felt her hope die. Indeed, how could he prove what he had not done? She knew he was innocent of this, but how would strangers know him so well? And, being outlanders, would they care?
Connal smiled a smile that left her heart trembling with fear. He was up to something, she knew it.
"You're Deryni, aren't you?" he asked with the assurance of a man secure in his own future. "If I had led that raid and ridden back here this soon, my horse would be exhausted. I went no farther than the woods west of the keep this day. Ask my horse if you do not believe me." His grin widened. "You can do that, can't you?"
Albion sighed and nodded slowly. "Go with him, Josce. Check the damned horse. If he's lying, kill him."
"And when you find he is not?" Isolde held her breath, not daring to hope the Deryni invader would show any mercy.
Albion's intense blue eyes darkened to almost black as he looked at her. She fought to hold back her fear. Never would she give him the satisfaction of seeing how desperate she was.
His lips twitched a bit at the corners. The fine liens at the corners of his eyes deepened slightly. "If McQuillion is telling the truth in this I will spare his life yet again. I swear this on my honor," he added before either Isolde or Connal could express their doubt.
"And Isolde?" Connal stepped in front of her before she could stop him. "What guarantee do I have that she will be safe?"
"Connal!" Why must he make it so difficult to save his life? She shoved at his shoulders, but could not move him an inch.
"I'm waiting, Outlander."
Sir Albion gave him a slow nod. "You've more guts than brains, McQuillion. I'd not harm a hair on her head, not for so much as a bit of maidenly defiance."
Connal's shoulders tightened under Isolde's hands. "So you say, but you Deryni can torture without leaving so much as a bruise. I will not leave her here without some assurance of her safety."
Albion's eyes narrowed. His lips tightened into a firm line that warned of imminent danger.
Isolde shoved at Connal's back again. This time he shifted a bit, and she seized the chance to step around him. "Make sense, Connal," she begged as tears she could not stop slipped down her cheeks. "If he wants to enslave my mind neither of us can halt him. He will not harm my body; he still needs that. Do what you can. Save yourself!"
"The lady speaks good sense, McQuillion." Albion's voice and posture reminded Isolde of a crouching wolf bout to spring. "I offer you a chance only once. Do not press me further."
Connal nodded, but every muscle tightened as he moved. "I give you good warning, Deryni. If she is so much as frightened, I come for you."
"Fair enough. I will be waiting."
As Connal and Josce left, shutting the door behind them, Isolde braced herself for whatever was coming. She had no illusions she would survive this encounter unscathed. In fact, she thought as the full impact of her loss settled upon her, she had failed at every attempt. she could not protect Young Hugh from the Deryni who would, no doubt, use him without regard to the boy's welfare. Neither could she stop some invader from taking her father's estate and doing whatever he willed with the land and people she loved so well. She had lost everything.
She swallowed a great, wrenching sob and straightened. Possibly her spine would snap as she had held it so stiff for so long. That thought almost made her laugh. Though doubtful, it would be an easier fate than now lay before her..
Albion approached, and she forced herself to look at him. He moved with the grace of a practiced swordsman. No doubt he knew just how attractive he was, and used this to his best advantage to put her off her guard.
She would not be fooled.
He caught her chin in one calloused palm. With his other hand he brushed the tears from her cheeks, his touch so gentle it might have been the brush of a cat's whiskers.
"It is no shame to cry, little warrior."
Isolde blinked. His voice was so soft, so warm she hardly believed he was speaking. When she focused on him she saw a look of gentle compassion she would no have believed possible for a Deryni.
The fingers brushing her cheek paused. Somehow the touch seemed intimate, too intimate. Then without warning he embraced her against his broad chest.
"Just cry, Lady. You will feel better."
Isolde hated him at that moment, for she lost control and drenched his tunic with her sobs.
"I've lost everything, haven't I?" she asked as she caught her breath some minutes later. Strangely though the emotional outburst left her exhausted she felt less desperate, more in control than she had in weeks.
Albion shook hi head. He did not release her and for that she was grateful. Right now she needed his strength, his support, his warmth and companionship even if he was the enemy.
"You have won most of your battles, little one," he answered. One hand stroked her back, found each tight muscle and released the tension held there. Isolde focused her attention on how good it felt.
"You have managed an estate that would give many men pause," he continued. "You tend your crofters with care that shows you see them as people, not as livestock. So many would not think of the welfare of a boy and an old man, yet you risk treason for them."
"And I failed."
"You did not. You merely reacted to a threat that did not exist. Look at me, Isolde," he asked when she did not respond.
From his tone she had the feeling she could refuse him this. Oddly, that assurance made her want to comply, just to see what he would say. She looked up, focused on his incredible blue eyes. They glowed with a warmth that enfolded her soul as his arms held her body, safe and close.
"Isolde, whatever you think of Deryni, know this. I mean Hugh no harm. I will do all I can to see him raised as far as his skill will earn him."
"If you care so much what happens to him why did you take him from his home?"
Albion nodded. Silver sparks flashed in the depths of his eyes. "You really don't trust me, do you? Fair enough. Young Hugh saw the bandit leader and claims he is a monster. From the boy's perspective he thinks we are responsible."
"You? I'm certain he knows you had naught to do with the raids."
"Not us personally, of course. Hugh thinks the monster is of Torenthi origin." Albion loosened his hold on her as he spoke.
With a bit of distance Isolde found it easier to look up at him.
"Do you understand me now?" Albion seemed to be holding his breath, waiting for her answer.
He relaxed a bit. "If Hugh told his tale to people already convinced we are the epitome of evil the sporadic rebellion might flare into something Festil could not treat gently. Nothing and no one would stand in his way." His hands tightened against her as he spoke. "You cannot imagine the horror that would be unleashed then. I had to stop the trouble before it started."
Isolde knew he was telling the truth. She felt like a fool. How could she not have seen the caring in his actions? He might have solved his problem by killing Hugh, but instead he had found a way to keep the boy's story contained and still give him a life better than he might have had otherwise.
"I thank you, my lord, for your care of him," she began, feeling like an awkward maid at her first confession. "Many would not have taken thought for a stranger."
His smile softened. "I had a good teacher in you, my lady."
"So what do I do now? How can I save my people from abuse at an invader's hands?" Why was she asking him?
Because she knew he shared her concern for common people. Albion would never mock her efforts nor would he tell her to tend to her stitching.
One hand slid to the small of her back as he drew her close again. "Take care. Do not oppose more than you must. Never anger the king, and you will find you have more power than you think now."
"I just wish - - -" Isolde let the words die on her lips. What she wished for at this moment she dared never ask. Her gaze focused not on his all too seeing eyes, but on the warm lips a scant foot from her own. She had never yet been kissed, never desired to be. Now she wished he would.
Albion bent over her. One hand caught her chin and positioned her face as his mouth descended over hers. He brushed her skin with a feather touch. Then he claimed her with passion and possession.
Flame and ice shot through her veins in equal measures as Isolde closed her eyes and gave herself up to the madness. His scent, clean and male, filled her nostrils. It seemed she could not catch her breath, and did not want to now. She stretched on her toes and wrapped her arms around his neck to pull him closer.
Something brushed her senses on another level. A finger of sensation touched her mind.
Then blinding, searing pain shot through her skull. She cried out and shoved at him, frantic to escape.
Albion released her immediately. She straightened and glanced at him, then wished she hadn't . The expression on his face told her she might as well be a three headed calf.
"What are you?" His voice shook with shock. Clearly he had not expected what had just happened any more than she.
Isolde fought to maintain some shred of dignity. "I, my lord? I am no more than you see. And I think we have both made an error that must be rectified immediately."
Albion's fingers clenched into fists at his sides. When he spoke at last, his lips barely moved. "No doubt you are right, lady. We are both over tired and not thinking as we should." He gave her a short, stiff bow. "I bid you good sleep."
Albion left her standing alone, staring at the brazier, shaking with emotions she had no power to control.