Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 7 - Part 2
covered the mare's sides. Her shapely head lifted a little as Isolde
stroked her neck the way she liked. Her whicker cracked with exhaustion.
"Rupert." Isolde's voice cracked with the sobs she refused to release. "Cut her throat first. I don't want her to feel it when you open her belly."
"Of course, Lady."
It was a silly and insulting thing to say. Of course Rupert would put Alasandra out of her misery before gutting her. Isolde gave her dear friend one more pat. It was time.
"What's going on here?" Albion's voice from the doorway made both the stable boys jump. One nearly dropped his torch on the straw covered floor.
Rupert wasted a moment to glare at the hapless stable boy. Then he offered a stiff bow as Isolde rose. "We're deliverin' a new foal, m'lord."
"Sounds more like butchery to me." Josce frowned at the long knife in Rupert's hand. "What are you doing with that thing, Stable Master? Cutting the cord?"
Rupert's already ruddy face flamed. "The mare's old, m'lord, an' the he foal's turned wrong. Kinder t' put her out o' her misery an' save the little 'un."
Albion glanced at Isolde as she stepped from Alasandra's stall. The look in his warm blue eyes sent a thrill of hope through her. Somehow he could make this right.
As quickly as the idea entered her head she realized it was nonsense. Even Deryni could not have such power.
Albion turned his attention on Rupert. "Before you do anything that can't be undone, let us try our luck first. Josce and I have had some experience with horses. We may be able to save her." Rupert looked stunned. He turned immediately to Isolde. "M'lady? . . ."
"Let them try, Rupert. What harm can it cause?" Her heart was pounding as if it would burst through her chest.
Albion stepped into the stall first and knelt hear Alasandra's head. The mare startled at the stranger, but when he laid a hand on her cheek she immediately calmed. He nodded then, and Josce took his place near the mare's rump.
Josce pulled off his tunic and tossed it to Isolde. "You might want to look away, my lady. This isn't going to be pretty."
"What are you planning to do?"
Josce's answer nearly sent her to her knees. "I'm going to reach up inside her and pull the foal out. I've done this before."
"Not on my mares you haven't!" She could not believe what he was suggesting. She had heard of such things, of course, but they never ended well for mare or foal, and frequently brought harm to the human as well.
"Trust us, Isolde." Albion's words contained an edge of impatience. "Just trust us."
Isolde fell silent, but she could not look away. Her head refused to turn, and her eyes ignored her command to close. She watched in horrified fascination as Josce thrust his arm inside Alasandra nearly to the shoulder His face contorted with the strain of his labors while Albion concentrated intently on the mare's head.
Alasandra lay quiet while they worked on her. For a moment Isolde feared she had died, save for the slow rise and fall of her breathing. Then, after an impossibly long time, Josce pulled back. In his hand he held two wet and tiny forelegs.
Alasandra whickered then and shook her head. Albion scrambled away and Josce crabbed backward out of the stall. The mare heaved herself to her feet, nearly striking Albion as he climbed over the wall of the stall.
The new foal came in a rush of water. There was less blood than Isolde expected, less even than a normal birthing should bring. She gazed in wonder as the tiny, soaking wet creature blinked it's eyes and struggled to stand.
Beside her, Albion chuckled. "Why are foals all legs?"
"So they can run like the wind, m'lords." Rupert stepped into the stall with a length of thick toweling. "Ye, John, fetch our new mother a bucket of mash an' some fresh water. Taffy, ye get this wet straw out o' here an' lay a fresh bed."
The foal found its feet and its first meal as Isolde watched in wonder. Then she turned to Josce who was wiping himself dry on another towel. No words could express her gratitude, so she hugged him soundly. "Thank you, my lord. I never thought that would, or could work."
Josce's chuckle rumbled against her ear. "It's always worked for me, my lady. I've done this all of twice now."
He grinned. "My father also breeds horses, but he has little time for a birth that does not progress as it should. Not until one of our tenants feared to lose his only jenny did I have a chance to try any method other than the normal. It worked then."
He dabbed at her damp cheeks with a clean corner of the towel. "I am glad I could assist you now."
"And how did you know to come out here?" Given the time of night, they should have long been abed. Isolde half hoped he would say it was coincidence. She was grateful, of course, but hated the thought they were spying on her.
Josce shrugged. "When you did not come to supper, Albion asked where you were. Young Hugh told him you had gone to chapel. When he saw you dash across the yard he grew concerned." So he was spying on her. Isolde turned to Albion, who looked not the least ashamed of his behavior.
Still, had he not come to the stable Alasandra would now be lying dead in her stall instead of licking her new foal clean. Gratitude chased resentment from her heart. Isolde gave Albion the same thorough hug she'd given Josce.
Albion wrapped his arms around her. At once she felt right, safe, protected. Never in her memory had she experienced this.
Albion kissed the top of her head. The gesture almost made her laugh, for he had to bend rather awkwardly to do it.
"You have lost too much, too recently," he whispered against the tangled mess of her hair. "I could not allow you to lose your mare as well, not if I knew a way to save her."
Isolde said nothing, but only pressed closer to Albion, savoring his strength. Gradually the silence of their companions grew loud to both of them and she pulled away, embarrassed. He held her for the briefest instant, reluctant to let her go.
Trying to salvage what was left of her dignity Isolde brushed at the loosened strands of her hair and straightened her shoulders. "If you will excuse me, my lords, the hour grows so late it must nearly be early. I will take myself to bed. My lord," she turned to Josce, "I will have hot water sent to your chambers for your comfort."
Josce gave her a grateful nod. "My thanks."
As he watched the gentle sway of Isolde's hips leaving, Josce ran a hot debate with his own mind. It was more than clear to him now why she had never given his proposal consideration. Her heart truly lay elsewhere, with Albion.
God help him! He wanted his best friend's woman. For clearly Albion returned her feelings with all his soul.
But this could never be. Festil would not allow it. Albion was promised to a political marriage, and there was no setting that aside.
So what should he do?
Approach the problem directly, Josce decided as they returned to their chamber. Broach the subject before more harm could be done to either hearts or lives.
He used the time he spent washing to lay his plan for the conversation. When at last he laid aside the towel Albion handed him a cup of spiced cider. The warm drink bolstered his courage. Albion raised his own cup. "To success, however small."
"Aye. We won one of our battles this day." Josce drew a steadying breath. "Albion, I discovered something about Isolde today. She has shields."
"I know." Albion settled himself on the bed, looking rather tired. "I found them myself just before I left to hunt those raiders."
Albion knew? Josce's heart turned somersaults. Then he must have been as close and intimate with Isolde as Josce had been this afternoon. Had she stirred when he kissed her? The thought was a stake through Josce's heart.
He gathered himself close. "Did you notice anything particular about her shields? The patterning?"
Albion chuckled. "Hell no. I was that shocked that she had them at all. Then she forced me out like a bolt of lightning."
"She did not throw me off." That thought cheered Josce somewhat. "I just went around the outsides, though. And I know I've felt that pattern before, somewhere."
"But where could she have gotten them, I wonder?" Albion set his empty cup aside. "You don't suppose one of her parents was Deryni, do you?"
"A half breed with shields that threw you out? I doubt it. But we know for certain the late Earl of Derry was as human as they come."
Albion frowned. "Perhaps her mother went elsewhere. After all, it's not unheard-of."
Josce glared down at Albion. "What do you feel for her, anyway, if you can so much as think that about her?"
Albion straightened. His shields flared crimson as his eyes narrowed. "What I feel is my own business. Don't forget it. And I meant only to solve the mystery. It's no fault of hers if her mother found a lover to sire her."
Josce stepped back, ashamed of himself. "Forgive me, my friend. I meant no offense. I spoke without thinking."
"You didn't, but you're forgiven. And you're right. If she's a bastard she loses her claim to Derry. Better for you if we keep this to ourselves."
"If Festil gets word she might be Deryni, I'll likely lose her anyway." This conversation was not at all what he had intended to say. Josce decided to take the opportunity given him and change direction. "That is, if I have her to begin with."
"What do you mean?" Albion's voice held a thread of tension. His shields were closed so tightly Josce could get no sense of his feelings with a gentle probe.
"Albion, do you love her?"
The silence stretched an endless number of heartbeats. Finally Albion answered, but each word was chosen so carefully Josce could trust none of them.
"What I may or may not feel matters little. I am to wed Sophia of Howicce, by royal command." "That's not much help, for I fear that Isolde loves you."
Albion shoved himself from the bed. "Then that is her misfortune, and mine as well. It should not concern you in your wooing."
"But it does, for I must gain the lady's consent. You know the Church will not marry us if she is not at least resigned to the match." Josce stepped in front of him when Albion made to leave. "Alb, how can you do this?"
"Shut off your feelings and hers as well? Dear, sweet Christ! If she gave me half the look she gave you just now I would sweep her into my arms and never let her loose until we were both too old to care."
"Count yourself fortunate, my friend. You have the king's blessing to marry the woman you love." Albion shoved Josce aside and slammed the door as he left.
Josce stared at the closed door for a long time. At last he threw his final words into the deaf silence. "It's no damn good, Albion. She doesn't love me."