Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 7 - Part 1
did not reach the hall before she was intercepted by her stable master.
From the straw in Rupert's beard and the stained leather apron still
tied around his stout middle, he had given no thought to clean himself
up before he sought his lady. This was so unlike the gentle, competent
man that her nerves immediately screamed trouble.
The stable master tugged his forelock as he caught his breath. "Forgive me, Mistress. You asked me to tell you when your father's . . . your mare came to foal."
"Take breath, Rupert." Isolde tried to sound calm, but her heart began to beat a battle pace. Of all the mares in the stables, Alasandra was special. Her father had given her the gentle R'Kassi when she was seven, though he had retained legal ownership.
And now, Alasandra was old. As much as Isolde hated to admit it, this pregnancy had been dangerous for her. In truth, the breeding was accidental. A valuable stud had jumped three fences, left the four mares he had been brought to freshen and impregnated her precious Alasandra.
"Does she seem well?" Isolde held her breath for the answer.
"Well enough, Mistress." Rupert nodded and gave her a smile that reassured her somewhat. "It's always touchy with an older dam, but she's thrown colts easily before and she's right on time. Near to the day, by my reckoning."
"Then I will not disturb you. Please let me know as soon as the foal is born."
The words were the hardest Isolde ever spoke. With every ounce of will she possessed she gave Rupert a confident smile and walked into the hall as if she had only come from the milking shed with a bucket of cream.
She immediately sought Gretta, who was at the far end of the hall. The housekeeper seemed intent on stuffing Young Hugh with as many almond tarts as he could hold, while the boy's grandfather fairly shook from suppressed laughter.
". . . don't know what that Outlander were thinkin' of," Gretta was muttering as she handed the lad another tart. "Usin' his own folk in some dark foreign nonsense is one thing, but coruptin' decent, God-fearing boys is the other side o' enough."
"Doesn't look like any harm was done," the older Hugh muttered as he helped himself to a tart. "The boy's in one piece with his head working as it should."
"And how would you know that?" Gretta snapped. 'Yours has not worked in all the years I've known you. And that's more than either of us like to admit."
Isolde tapped Gretta's shoulder. The banter immediately died and Young Hugh nearly choked as he shot to his feet with his mouth full.
"No need to gag yourself, Hugh." Isolde poured a cup of cider from the pitcher at the far end of the table and handed it to him. "I only wanted to tell Gretta I will be in the chapel should she have need of me."
"In Chapel, Mistress?" Gretta frowned. "Ye went to Mass this morning."
"Yes, but I fear I may have neglected my duties these past weeks. No need to concern yourself."
Gretta snorted. "Ye neglect yer prayers? An' I'm King o' the Connatti."
Isolde retreated to the chapel and dropped to her knees before a small side altar. The warm draughts from the many candles stirred loose tendrils of hair, reminding her she had forgotten to retrieve her veil. The disrespect bothered her, but she dared not waste the time to correct it.
She clasped her hands until her nails dug into her own flesh. "Holy Mother of God, don't let Alasandra die. I've lost enough. I couldn't stand it. Please don't let her die."
She remained kneeling, repeating the same words over and over, until her voice was hoarse. Just when she thought she would collapse or scream from the tension a footstep scraped the floor behind her. Isolde turned, blinking to relieve her dry eyes.
One of the stableboys gave her a short bow. The way he wrung his hands in his dirty tunic made Isolde's heart shudder and stop.
"M'lady? . . . Ye must come t'the stable." The boy's feet shuffled awkwardly. "Master Rupert says t' bring ye directly."
Isolde wasted barely a moment to take her leave of the Holy Presence before she lifted her skirts and ran from the chapel. Only the starlit sky and a scant few torches lit the yard. The darkness increased her worry until she was sobbing by the time she reached the stable.
Rupert stood by Alasandra's stall. Two stable boys stood nearby, holding lanterns to light the otherwise dark building. The look on the stable master's face told Isolde all she needed to know.
"It's no good, m'lady." Rupert's voice shook with his own emotions as he stepped toward her. "The foal's turned the wrong way. I thought you might want to spend a few minutes with yer mare before we did what we have to."
"No." Isolde shook her head, though she knew it was useless to protest. "Please, you can't."
"Mistress, I must. You know that." Rupert laid one grimy hand on her shoulder and pulled her against his side. "I can't save yer mare. If I act now, the foal may live."
Isolde stifled her sobs and forced herself to stand straighter. She pushed past Rupert and dropped to her knees beside Alasandra in the stall.