Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 6 - Part 3
are better provisioned for the winter this year than we were last,
Mistress." Father Thomas stoppered the bottle of ink and gave
Isolde a smile that would have suited the fat orange tabby cat now
asleep in the sun beside him. "Thanks to a good harvest and your
"Not to mention those yearlings you suggested I sell in Meara."
The fat priest chuckled. "I would never think to credit my own small successes, my lady."
"Not when I do it for you." Isolde bit her lip to keep from laughing herself. Father Thomas gave her such an exaggerated look of remorse she knew he was teasing her.
"After we've paid the usurper's taxes and levies we will have enough to pass the winter comfortably. Not much more, unfortunately." Isolde wiped her ink stained hands on a convenient rag. "I don't suppose you thought to underestimate our worth to His Royal Highness? No," she added before Father Thomas could open his mouth. "You would never lie."
"Of course not, my lady. Neither should you."
She sighed. "I'll remember it at my next confession, Father."
"As will I."
Isolde turned to look out the window. Below in the yard Sir Josce was hard at work with the men-at-arms and squires. Ever since the raiders' attack nearly a week past he had taken charge of her garrison. He was good at it, she had to admit. The men seemed considerably sharper.
And all the while Sir Albion made himself absent. Isolde suppressed the ache she knew she should not feel at that thought. It was almost as if he were avoiding her.
And perhaps he was. A reckless desire to discover the truth struck her. There was someone who could tell her more about the fascinating Deryni knight in her own training yard. What better time to satisfy her curiosity?
"Are we finished, Father?"
"Of course, my lady. By the way . . ." Father Thomas hesitated and licked his lips as he searched for the words he was seeking. "Some of the parishioners have asked if you plan to dance at the Samhain fire this year?"
Isolde wanted to laugh. The two opposing sides of the good Father's nature were waging a battle that could have defeated the Sainted King Bearand Haldane. She knew instantly that as much as his pious priestly side should oppose the festival, which had roots deep in pagan worship, the rest of him loved the good food, music, stories and games.
"If you are asking if there will be a Samhain this year, Father, the answer is yes. We did not mark last year's harvest, but this year we have much to be thankful for."
Father Thomas's round cheeks swelled with his smile. "I shall tell all who ask, Lady Isolde. No doubt the news will be gladly received." Isolde took her leave of the priest and made her way outside, stopping only briefly in her chamber for a wrap. The chill air nipped her nose and cheeks, and she was glad of her sheepskin boots as she crossed the yard.
Josce tossed his sword to a squire as soon as he spied her. "That's enough for today, lads. Off with you now."
Isolde gave him her sweetest smile as he approached. "You are doing well with the men, Sir Josce. I've noticed an improvement in the short time you have been with us."
"I am glad to be of service to you, Lady Isolde." Josce brushed his lips over the back of the hand she offered. "And I am flattered that you would take an interest in my efforts."
"Not at all. Everything that concerns this castle concerns me." Isolde offered her arm. Now was the time to get him somewhere more quiet, somewhere she could ask her questions without fear of interruption. "Would you walk with me? Our garden is not at its' best this time of year, but still I would show it to you."
"As you will, my lady."
They said no more until they reached the gardens. The trees held skeletal branches to the grey sky over beds covered in a thick layer of leaves and fresh manure. Here and there perennial herbs held their own stubbornly against the chill. The neat flagstone path led them to a small bench beneath a cluster of apple trees.
Here Isolde stopped. Now that the time had come, she searched for the words she needed to satisfy her curiosity. How awkward this was, asking a man about his friend? Why had she not come up with a better plan from the beginning?
Josce chose to break the silence. He plucked a stem from a still fragrant bed of lavender and twirled it between his fingers. "Your gardens look well tended, my lady, and well laid. My mother keeps one much as this is, though of course many of the plants are different."
"And where is your home, my lord?"
A dreamy look softened his eyes. "We have an estate near Beldour. The climate is far warmer than here, and drier. Mother enjoys her fig trees and grape arbors."
The opportunity was perfect. Isolde opened her mouth, but Josce continued before she got a word out.
"I am glad you give me this chance for a quiet word, Lady Isolde. You know of His Highness's desire that you marry. I realize we have known each other only a few days." He spoke in a rush, as if he feared he would lose courage to say what he wanted should she interrupt him.
"This may seem sudden to you, coming so close upon the heels of your father's passing. Still you must realize whatever you feel for Connal McQuillion can never be now. He is outlawed and you are the chattel of our king. His Highness would approve our marriage, and I will make you a good husband. I swear it."
"Sir Josce, I do not know what to say." Isolde fought not to laugh. This proposal was so far removed from what she had been thinking she was taken completely aback. Still, the earnest look upon Josce's face stilled her laughter. "I am flattered by your proposal."
"Still you hesitate." He caught both her hands and held them up as if they were lifelines to a drowning sailor. "Do you love McQuillion so much you would give up everything to live with him as an outlaw?"
"Love Connal? Of course not." That suggestion did make her laugh aloud. "Connal is my very dear friend, rather like another brother. I could no more marry him than I could one of my own blood kin."
"Then say you will at least consider my proposal. My lady, you could do far worse than accept me as a husband. I would tend these lands as carefully as you, and treat you as you deserve to be treated. Not all men are so careful nor so considerate."
He was in earnest. Isolde licked her lips as she sought the right words to make him see this was impossible. "Sir Josce, we hardly know each other. And needless to say we did not start off well at all. I think it would be best if --"
"My parents met at the altar, my lady, and have done well together. Gwynedd cannot be so different in that."
"And I realize this sounds petty, but my father swore I would marry for love and no other reason." She gazed into his eyes, seeking his understanding. "I will stand by that if naught else."
"Do you never believe love can be learned after marriage?"
She shook her head. "I fear not. The gulf between friendship and passion is as vast and broad as the Anvil of the Lord, and I think naught can cross it. I will not settle for less than I might have with patience."
"And how do you know passion is not between us?" His smile twinkled with mischief. "Have you such wide experience, then, that you can make that judgment without so much as a kiss?"
Isolde shook her head.
"Then let's find out." Josce bent his head and kissed her before she had a chance to react.
The touch was gentle, warm. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close. Isolde realized the gestures were, point for point, measure for measure, the same as Albion's had been.
But there the likeness stopped. Josce's kiss did not make the world tilt topside-down, nor did he light flame beneath her skin. It was pleasant enough, but he might as well have been Father Thomas for all the feeling this kiss stirred.
Then came the oddest sensation inside her skull. She felt as if something were pressing against her mind, trying to get in. Isolde frowned and pulled back, breaking the kiss.
Josce was looking at her as if she had grown another nose. He brushed a loose strand of hair from her cheek, but the touch contained no hint of romance. "My lady, are you --"
"Well, I see you have not been wasting your time!" Sir Albion strode down the path, wearing the look of a thundercloud. His damp clothing and wind burned cheeks spoke of hard riding. Every gesture screamed impatience as he tossed his gloves to Young Hugh, who trotted behind him. "Shall I give you the news now or return later?"
"You will forgive me, Lady Isolde?" Josce bent over her hand again, but this time his lips stopped short of her skin. Then he joined Albion and Isolde, knowing she was not wanted here, retreated to the warmth of the hall.