Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 7 - Part 3
arrived cold and clear by some Heaven sent miracle. Isolde rose early
and hummed as she dressed. Gretta clucked her tongue when her mistress
selected a gown of deep scarlet wool nearly the color of blood.
"Don't scold me, Gretta," Isolde pleaded before the housekeeper could say anything. "I've worn mourning for nearly two years, and will wear it again in Rhemuth. Just today I want to be happy, and wear something pretty. It's a celebration."
"I don't think that's yer reason," Gretta muttered loudly enough for Isolde to hear. "I think ye've decided finally to go hunting."
"What do you mean?" Isolde poked through a box of ribbons, looking for a set of glistening cloth of gold. "Leave it loose, Gretta. Just twist them in a bit."
Gretta expertly twisted the ribbons through her hair. "I think ye have decided to set yerself for one o' those Outlanders. It's not that I don't want to see ye married an' happy, Mistress. But could ye not have found yerself a fine human fellow? There's more than a few that would take ye, ye know, an' be glad of the chance."
"Oh, dear Gretta. You read too much into this." Isolde took both the housekeeper's hands and gave them a gentle squeeze. "I only wish to have fun and be young for a bit before I'm old. Is that so wrong?"
"There's none o' us young, m'lady. Not even the bairns, God bless 'em." Gretta patted her cheek. "Get on with ye. I imagine things are startin', early as it is."
And of course Gretta was right. Some of the crofters had lit cooking fires in the wide field between the village and the castle well before sunup. Now a pair of oxen and a fat sow were roasting merrily, filling the air with savory aromas.
Father Thomas wisely kept Mass short. Isolde wondered if he, too, smelled the bread and pies fresh from the ovens, the roasted apples and meats that filled the chapel with temptation. She glanced at Albion, who knelt at the far end of the same row she was in, and found his gaze fixed on her. Her heart fluttered.
She wasn't looking to trap a husband. And she did not, could not love Albion Cammeron. Even if he did make her breath come fast and short, her palms sweat and her world spin wildly out of control. Even if he made her feel safe, and warm, and wonderfully excited.
As soon as the mass ended, Isolde retrieved her clairsach and joined the crowd of crofters and townsfolk heading for the village. Already several tinkers had set up their wagons, displaying goods for sale. A gangly clown on stilts juggled crocks, clowning as laughing onlookers threw a few coins. Isolde felt freedom swell in her breast as she lifted her skirts and started through the crowd. Today, possibly for the last unfettered day in her life, she meant to have fun. She picked a pastry from a tray laid out on one of the long tables set up in the yard and headed for the stables.
Alasandra and her foal were had been moved to a large box stall. The infant blinked at her as Isolde leaned over the side to see him. Drops of milk hovered on his long whiskers.
Isolde fed Alasandra the pastry piece by piece, all the while stroking the mare and foal. Somehow she could not believe they were here, safe and warm in her stable. If not for Albion, they would surely both be dead.
From that thought, Albion's presence filled her mind. Something deep inside her ached for his presence, though she knew he was only a few yards away. The distance separating them opened a gaping hole in her heart.
This was ridiculous! She barely knew Albion, he should not affect her so strongly. Besides, Isolde told herself, she meant to have fun this day and standing here feeling maudlin was not at all fun.
"Milady?" Young Hugh stepped into the stable. From the straw sticking out of his unruly hair Isolde guessed he had tried, yet again, to climb the Fool's Tower and been dumped in the pad of straw beneath the twisting rope ladder.
The lad joined her at the stall. "He's a beauty, isn't he? I'd love to have a go on him, once he gets grown."
Isolde smiled at Hugh's dream. Given the parentage of this foal he would fetch a price an earl would be hard pressed to afford.
"Sir Josce did well saving him." Hugh's voice carried an awe Isolde usually associated with saints. "And His Grace must have run across the yard to get here in time to do any good. He was that worried about you, he was."
"So Albion was watching me last night, was he?"
Hugh nodded, grinning. "Aye, Mistress. He watches you all the time. I think . . . I think he is in love with you," the lad added in a whisper. From his grin Isolde knew he approved of the situation.
She hated to burst Hugh's elation over his master's apparent attraction to her. "If Sir Albion has any affection for me, I am sure he will tell me so."
Young Hugh's freckles danced as he grinned wider. "He can't tell you anything, Mistress, if you're in here. There's a juggler out there tossing pots in the air."
Isolde caught the mood of his words. Playfully she dropped a graceful curtsy and offered Hugh her arm. "Then come, my good knight, and escort me to this wonder."
Connal McQuillion sank his teeth into a steaming sausage. Hot grease, resonant with sage and pepper, dripped from his chin. He wiped it off with one hand and licked his fingers. Treats like this were too rare now to waste on good manners.
He stood in the shadow of the blacksmith's shop and watched several archers shooting at butts placed in the field between the village and the dark forest beyond. Sir Albion Cammeron, Duke of Tolan, was trying to show his skill with a longbow and doing a positively pathetic job of it. Connal nearly choked himself laughing as yet another of Albion's shafts missed the square of saffron linen pinned to the center of the target.
It would not be so funny, save that the Deryni lord was obviously used to doing much better. Every line of his body fairly screamed his frustration, even though he was out shooting the rest of the archers soundly. Something was bothering him this afternoon, and that was more than enough to make Connal's day perfect.
Perhaps Albion was trying as hard as he was to keep an eye on Isolde, Connal decided as he took another bite of the sausage. She was not making it easy on them. Since the festivities began, she had been flitting about like a veritable hummingbird, laughing and flirting with every young man she came near. He was glad to see her enjoying herself, for once, but did she have to be so energetic about it?
As Isolde allowed one of the castle guardsmen to draw her near the kissing apple she glanced over toward the archery targets. The gesture took a moment to register with Connal, but when it did his teeth froze half way through the last bite of sausage.
Isolde was flirting with every man here except one: Albion Cammeron. He'd seen this game played more often at Ifor's court than he could remember. Hell, he'd had too many maidens play these tricks on him not to recognize the ruse Isolde was using. It was one of the oldest between man and woman, and she was doing it very inexpertly.
The idea that Isolde might have given her heart to a Deryni made Connal's stomach churn. He respected Sir Albion as one worthy opponent respects another. He did not want him breaking Isolde's sheltered heart, not for the space of one thought.
He caught the attention of a pair of his own men stationed near a booth selling steaming meat pies. A jerk of his head told them to move closer to the archers. He intended to have a word with Albion as soon as the shooting was finished.
Let the Deryni make a fool of himself first.
Connal straightened just as Albion loosed another shaft. A flash of recognition jarred Connal like a bolt of lightning, quick and gone. He'd seen that man shoot before. But where?
The prick of cold steel against his ribs stole all his attention. A voice, rough and low, whispered against this ear. The breath of the speaker was as foul as the inside of Connal's boots. "Come wi' us, Yer Grace. Me lord's wantin' a word wi' ye."
Connal debated for a heartbeat the wisdom of a fight. When his peripheral vision registered three more of the thugs near enough to touch him he realized he had not the chance of a snowball in a bonfire. He wasted an instant cursing his own stupidity. He had been so absorbed in the by-play between Isolde, Albion and the archery targets he'd let himself be taken like a greenling lad!
No use for it now. Better to comply now and wait for an opportunity. He'd not been caught firmly before, and he didn't intend to end his life on a rope now.
He nodded and gave his captor as genial a smile as he could manage. "Lead the way, then. But I warn you, I walk far better without the knife in my ribs."
The blade disappeared. "As ye will, Yer Grace. But me master said tae warn ye do ye give us any trouble it's the mill burns that very instant, an' the rest o' this town o' sheep wi' it."
Connal nodded. "And I thank your master for sending his best mannered messenger to bid my attendance. Lead on."
At the archery butts, Albion was having the worst day he'd known since he was five years old. His arrows seemed to have a will of their own, and went where they chose regardless of how carefully he aimed them.
At first he'd suspected Josce, who stood on the sidelines chuckling all the while. But he knew Josce would never be so petty as to mar his shooting for a jest, at least not when there appeared to be no punchily to it.
It was all Isolde's fault. Damn her for her scheming. He knew exactly what she was up to, with that dress that brought out the fire in her hair and the smiles for every man except himself. Hell, even a fortunate shire horse that was turning a huge cider press earned a kiss from her and a couple of bruised apples.
She was doing her best to catch his attention. It wasn't working. He wasn't preoccupied with her. He barely paid attention to her.
His next shot veered to the right and missed the center of the target by a good three inches. *Problems, Albion?* Josce's voice carried laughter in his mind.
Albion clamped his teeth down on the retort he wanted to throw at his best friend. *None. Why do you ask?*
*I just thought, perhaps, if you paid a bit more attention to the target you might come closer to hitting something.* Josce laughed again, louder this time. *Then again, it's been a while since you shot without directing your shafts. Maybe you've lost your touch.*
*And I suppose you could do better?*
To his great annoyance, Josce nodded. He took a bow from one of the other archers, borrowed a shaft and sent it sailing cleanly to pin the yellow linen to the target, barely a finger's width off the center.
Josce handed the bow back to its owner with a broad smile of thanks. "It helps, Albion, if you keep your attention where it belongs."
The sparkling tones of Isolde's clairsach sent delicious tingles of awareness down Albion's spine. He glanced around and saw her seated on a wide bench near the alehouse, her harp on her knee. She looked up and met his gaze over the crowd.
And he knew for certain her antics the day long had had only one purpose. She meant to capture his attention. Though he realized it should not, the thought sent a warm wave of pleasure to the tips of his fingers.
His next shot speared the center of the target cleanly. He gave Josce a grin of triumph. In this game, the hunt was his and he would savor the feeling for as long as he could.