Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 6 - Part 1
dream came again that night, as it had not in months. Albion tossed in
his sleep. Some part of him knew he was dreaming, yet he could no more
halt the scene before his eyes than he could force himself awake.
Early morning sunlight caught the flash of gold and gemstones on the clothing of those around him. He smelled the damp air, already warm with the heat of late May. His knees trembled.
A roll of drums warned him what was coming. As the great city gates opened he wanted to look toward them, but the cramping fear in his belly held him back. Instead he turned his attention to what lay to the right of him. It was inert. It was safer to look at.
*Dear God in Heaven! Saint Michael, Guardian and protector of the innocent, don't let this happen! Make it go away!*
He'd prayed the same prayer when he was seven years old. And in his dream the drumbeats told him it would go unanswered, just as it had then.
Albion spent the next week more in the saddle than out of it, searching every corner of Derry for signs of further raiding. When he had exhausted the land Isolde held, he ranged farther along the narrow roads and trails used mostly by shepherds and goose girls.
The signs were easy enough to find. Slaughtered cattle, the remains of merchants' wagons, and the occasional burned croft marked the raiders' trail. Beyond the lingering fear and pain of their victims there was little to read and all the remains were at least a day old.
"Whoever leads them, he knows the land well." Albion paused near noon on the tenth day of the search and surveyed the road ahead. The main track led to a wide, open and well traveled road he knew thoroughly. The main road connected all too quickly to Dhassa and then to Rhemuth. That city he did not want to even consider.
Beside him, Young Hugh raised himself in his stirrups to ease his stiff muscles. The boy rode well, but clearly was not used to spending days on end in the saddle.
"The only ones I can think of who knew these hills so thoroughly were Lady Isolde's brothers, Sire. They rode into every corner, hunting and hawking." Hugh gave Albion a serious look. "You don't think it might be a ghost we're seeking now? I mean, it's possible," he added hastily. "Isn't it?"
"Not a chance, lad. Not a chance. This outlaw's human enough. He has scouts that know their job, and possibly local assistance." Albion shook his head. Hugh might be a clever young man, but he was still uneducated and superstitious as were most of the crofters. Fortunately the boy did not look fearful of the rebel leader any longer.
"So we stay on their trail," Albion added with a firm nod for emphasis. "Eventually we will tag them up, lad. Wait and see."
"Aye, m'lord. If we don't wear the seats out of our breeches first."
"You can always walk." Albion chuckled as Hugh hastened to retract his complaints.
The boy was good to have about, bright and brave and not afraid of toil. He would make a fine knight someday. That should please Isolde.
A draft of chill breeze carried the scent of lavender with it. Instantly Isolde's image came to his mind, every gentle feature as clear as the last time he'd seen her. He closed his eyes and tried to force her face to the back of his mind, then tried with as little success to remember what the woman he was supposed to marry looked like. At the moment he could hardly remember her name.
No doubt he only needed a few days away from the castle and its' stubborn and exquisite lady to clear his head. Perhaps another night on the road would lessen his attraction to a female he knew to be beyond his reach.
Well, the weather would be fine tonight. He allowed himself a smile as he checked the sky. There were a few clouds, but they were no concern to him. He could send away any rain that thought to intrude.
"We will take the Dhassa road," he called back to the pair of men-at-arms following them. "With luck we should come around and return to Derry inside a week."
The grumbling reply he got warned him his companions had had more than enough of chasing phantoms.
They saw nothing for nearly an hour. Then Young Hugh shaded his eyes with one hand and pointed down the road, which was now a broad track with well cleared sides. "M'lord, I think there's something ahead. I see movement in those trees."
"Stay here." There was definitely something there. As Albion probed the area Hugh pointed at he found three men moving through a cluster of cooling corpses not more than a couple of hours old.
None of those on their feet were Deryni, his scan confirmed. Unfortunately every one of the dead men had been. Albion drew his power close about him and pulled his sword from its' sheath beside his saddle. A good fight would be just what he needed. It would clear his head.
He dismounted and stepped into the trees, careful to avoid any fallen twigs that might give his presence away.
"Don't be so cautious, Deryni. You walk so loud I could find you in the dark."
Albion froze. Connal McQuillion stood amid the dead men. Now that he could see them clearly Albion realized with a thrill of dread that all the corpses bore King Festil's livery. This was no random attack.
He took careful measure of the men with Connal. Both looked sturdy and moved like woodsmen, sure of their environment. And they were checking the bodies, no doubt stripping their prey.
"So I finally catch you in the act." Albion let his satisfaction fill his voice as he settled into fighting stance. "Isolde will be devastated. I'll do you the courtesy of not bringing you in alive."
"Thank you for the consideration, but you've got the wrong man again. We found them this way, and not long before you did." Connal held his own sword out for Albion to see. "Not a sign of blood. I've done no killing this day."
But Albion did not need to see the proof before his eyes. He had been sensing Connal's words and actions for truth from the moment the outlaw spoke. There was no hint of deception or evasion. Whatever else he might be guilty of, Connal McQuillion had naught to do with the dead men in this glade.
"So what brings you here?" Albion let his muscles relax, yet kept his watch carefully on the outlaws.
"Likely the same thing that brought you, Deryni." Connal nudged the corpse in front of him with the toe of his boot. "We were hunting the bastards that did this."
Albion smiled through his disbelief. "You cannot tell me you care to bring those who attack the King's loyal servants to justice? I'll never believe that."
Connal did laugh then, though bitterly. "Do you think I care one way or another if the usurper's men die? Or you for that matter, Deryni? No, these animals have harmed too many innocents for my taste. Someone must see them given justice, if the brute you call a king will not."
"Whether or not you believe it His Highness wants these raids stopped." Albion paused to send a quick thought to his men, beckoning them to him. Then he turned back to Connal. "I have the royal commission to find these raiders and see them stopped by whatever means the laws allow."
"And your laws allow you to do whatever you like. Good thing mine allow me as much freedom." This time McQuillion's smile felt genuine. "Isn't that odd, now?"
"My lord!" One of the outlaws pointed toward the road, where Albion's two retainers and Young Hugh were dismounting.
"No worries. They've come at my orders. And it seems, much as I hate to admit it, that in this we might be better off working together than fighting each other."
Albion cast an anxious look at Connal. If only the man could see the reason in cooperation, both their goals might be accomplished. If they chose to fight the raiders would gain yet more lead time, more advantage they did not need.
Connal nodded and motioned his men back. "I agree in this, Deryni. Against a wolf pack, even the rabbit and the hawk must stand together." He paused and waited for Albion's party to join them before asking, "How far have you tracked these animals?"
Albion considered carefully before he answered. "We traveled north and east for near the past ten days, and saw much of their work. Never did we manage to close with the raiders, though we've ridden our mounts to exhaustion in the effort."
"And I have deployed those who still stand with me in groups throughout the surrounding hills and well into the lowlands." Connal rubbed his hands against his wool tunic. Clearly the weather was taking more of a toll on the outlaw than he wanted to admit. "From the signs we discovered, these brutes can move very fast. They kill horses as quickly as men, and replace them without mercy for beast or man. God! But I am tired of playing at blind-man bluff with these brutes."
"My lord!" one of the outlaws called from where he knelt beside a corpse at the edge of the glade.
Connal and Albion turned as one.
"Sorry, m'lord." The outlaw stood, glancing from one man to the other as he assessed the situation. "But I think you'd best have a look at this one. He's breathing yet."
All those standing in the glade gathered around the soldier. His face was pale, and to Albion's view the man was as dead as his comrades.
Still Connal laid a hand against the side of the soldier's throat. After a moment he nodded. "His heart's beating strong. I believe he took a bad knock on the head, but he's not dead yet."
"Then let's be certain he doesn't die before he can tell us what happened here." Albion glanced toward the road and swore softly. "I don't suppose you have a healer about?"
"No. Wished more than once we did, but there's none could stand our life nor that we'd trust if he offered." Connal also gave his attention to the road. "Do you suppose we could reach Dhassa tonight, if we got a good step under us?"
"Not by the main road." Albion gave his new ally his full attention. "I take it you know a better way?"
"Well, yes as a matter of fact. The tracks are rough, but unless I'm no judge the time the road would take will do this fellow more damage than a few hills and a rough gated horse can."
"Then let's be off. Hugh, fetch your mount. He's the smoothest gated we have and he's carried the least load."
Young Hugh returned quickly with his horse. "What's your plan, Sire?" he asked as the unconscious soldier was tied onto the horse's back. "You don't mean to arrest Lord Connal when we reach Dhassa, do you?"
"Of course not. In the first place, Connal McQuillion is the best ally I could have in this quest. Send a thief to catch a thief, or so it's said." He glanced over to make certain Hugh understood what he was talking about.
When the boy nodded, Albion continued. "And in the second place, lad, if I were planning to deceive my new ally I would not do so in Dhassa. It's a free city, so there's little authority for the king there and I'd get little or no help from the bishop."
"Oh." Hugh's smile spoke volumes. He was relieved he would not have to choose between loyalties.
Albion wondered briefly if the boy would ever settle which side he should give his allegiance to. With all the same, Gwynedd should become one country with no conflicting loyalties soon enough. If the king's plan worked, and if there were no more of these raids.
"So what do you plan, then?" Hugh was not giving up on his questions.
Let the boy come to his own conclusions. "Did you never play a game when you were younger, a game where you leapt over your friends' shoulders to advance?"
"You mean leaping frog?" Young Hugh chewed his lower lip as he thought. Then his face brightened. "Lord Connal said he was tired of playing blind man with these raiders. You're going to get ahead of them by playing leaping frog."
"Now you are thinking, lad." Albion ruffled Hugh's copper curls. "If we can discover something of their movements from this survivor, perhaps we can beat them to their destination and put an end to this."