Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 7 - Part 4
turned quickly to chill darkness. The revelers gathered around a huge
bonfire that had been lit in the field where the archery butts stood.
Drums and pipes picked up a lively tune. The people, gorged on roasted
meat and spiced apples, joined hands to dance the night away.
Isolde allowed the simple steps and turns to carry her spirit away. A bransle was a perfect expression of her mood. She knew Albion watched her, and had watched her all the long day. Just knowing that made her feel beautiful.
The ale and cider she had consumed finally made its' presence known, and Isolde slipped off to the privy. As she walked back toward the fire a chill of apprehension shivered down her spine. She stopped, feeling suddenly as if she were being watched.
The shops and houses stood dark and silent around her. Nowhere could she see anything, but her senses still warned her someone was there.
At last she gathered a bit of courage and voiced her concern. "Is anyone here? Show yourself." The command came out with far more tremor than she would have liked.
Two cloaked figures slipped from the shadowed wall of the alehouse. Isolde knew she should run, wanted to flee toward the safety of the fire. Unfortunately fear froze her legs to the ground.
One of the men paused and tugged his forelock in respect. "Evenin', m'lady. Our master wishes a word wi' ye."
Isolde found her voice and her courage once she was fairly caught. Fine time it was now, she thought ruefully. Still, better late than never. "And who is your master that he sends a summons in such a way?"
The second man spoke then. By his accent, he came from the wild mountains of Cassan. "Ye'll find that oot in a wee bit, lass. Ye'll be commin' wi' us noo."
"And should I choose otherwise?" Isolde grasped her eating knife. The blade was pitifully small, but she felt better with it in her hand.
The first man grinned. Firelight glanced off his few rotted teeth. "Then yer village will be less a mill, m'lady. The master wishes ye no harm, but ye'r commin' will ye, nil ye."
Isolde glanced toward the revelers at the fire, then at the still and dark bulk of the mill. She had no choice. Should she scream there was no way her people could reach the mill before these brutes set it alight. And should the mill burn, the rest of the village would likely go as well. Flames jumped from one thatched roof to another more quickly than thoughts could follow.
She resigned herself to her captors' will, at least for the moment. No doubt these stupid brutes would make a mistake somewhere and she could flee them. She vowed to keep her wits about her.
They took her arm and led her well away from the fire and into the dark forest. They took care to choose a clear path, so helpless as she was she was in no danger of stumbling. She reminded herself to thank them for their concern before she had them executed.
How long they walked she did not know, but at last they reached a small clearing where the round silvery moon sparkled on the frosted grass. Nearly twenty men stood there, some bearing torches, others holding horses or keeping watch. With a sinking heart Isolde realized these must be the raiders that had so brutally attacked her villages and farms. She was well and truly caught.
The group parted as her captors led her forward. Isolde fought to keep her knees from knocking loudly enough to be heard beneath her cloak.
A man at the center of the group turned. The hood of his wool cloak covered his face so completely only the gleam of his eyes and a bit of his jaw could be seen.
Now she knew this was the monster who led these brigands. Anger drove away the fear and stiffened her spine. "I presume I face my abductor?"
"If you would call me that."
His voice, though gravely and rough, was familiar. Isolde's breath caught in her throat. It couldn't be, she told herself. She had had too much ale and was hallucinating.
"Remove your hood." She had to know.
"You don't want me to do that." He shook his head firmly.
She lifted her chin. "I do. I'm certain I know you."
"You should, little sister." He chuckled.
This was not happening. Isolde shook her head to clear it, but the images remained. "Remove your hood."
He shrugged. The gesture was too familiar to deny. Loneliness, love and longing crushed her heart as she let a small sob escape in anticipation.
With his hands gripping the edges of his hood, the raider leader nodded.
Tears steamed down her face as Isolde dashed forward. She threw her arms around her brother and hugged him until she was sure she would crush the breath from his body. His warm, solid form hugged her back, laughter rumbling through his chest all the while.
At last, after the tears of joy were spent, she drew back. "We were told you died. Thank all the saints you return."
His expression was barely visible in the shadow of the hood he had not yet removed. "I survived by luck, much as Connal did. Now I've come back to save you from that bastard Festil. Did you think I'd leave you to face these outlanders alone?"
She shook her head. "Bran, I thought you were dead. We all thought . . . And when your men grabbed me I thought you led the brutes that have been terrorizing us these past months. But that doesn't matter now."
"I do lead them, Isolde." His voice held a tone that turned her blood to ice. "It's war, and sometimes things must be done we would rather not do. But that does not mean we abandon family."
Something told her this was not to her liking. She drew back a step and pulled her cloak more firmly around her shoulders. "What do you mean?"
"It's simple enough. Festil wants you to marry one of his freaks." Brandonn turned and waved to someone at the edge of the circle. "I plan to foil him by seeing you wed elsewhere, where you will be safe."
The raiders parted as four men approached from the edge of the glade. Isolde's mouth fell open as she recognized the two being escorted by two heavily armed guards. Connal and Father Thomas looked worried, but unhurt.
Father Thomas frowned as the guards stepped away, but held his silence. Connal was more direct. He placed himself beside Isolde and laid his hand on the hilt of the sword he still wore. "Have they hurt you, Dove?"
"I am fine, Connal." She chewed her lip as she considered their situation. If Connal was still armed, then she might have been mistaken both about the men who seemed to be guarding him and the priest and about his involvement in the recent attacks. "How came you here?"
"He was brought here at my request, sister." Brandonn's teeth flashed beneath the hood in what could only be a smile. "Just as you were. For your wedding?"
"What?" Isolde tried to step away.
Brandonn nodded. "It's an idea I've had for some time. You need a husband, sister, and Connal is perfect."
Connal, for his part, shook his head firmly. "Never. Not while I'm outlawed. I'll not wed any woman, least of all Isolde."
Brandonn waved Father Thomas forward as if he heard none of the protests. "You will be Duke of Corwyn again soon, my friend. Not a bad match for my sister."
"But Bran, be reasonable." Isolde fought to keep her voice calm. Surely he would see how wrong this was. "The king has commanded me to wed one of his knights. If I do not obey he may well fall upon Derry with fire and sword, as he has so many other places."
Brandonn nodded. "It's war, sister, as I told you before. Some sacrifices must be made. And when we have won you can restore the damage done. These outlanders bring much wealth with them."
"Can lives lost be restored?" Isolde blinked away the tears that stung her eyes. "What's happened to you, Bran?"
"There will be no more discussion. Priest," Brandonn turned to Father Thomas. "Marry them. Now."
Father Thomas remained where he was, his hands folded firmly in his woolen robes. "I will not, and for many reasons. Firstly the banns have not been called in my church. Secondly," he added before Brandonn could wave away the protest, "both the bride and groom appear unwilling."
"I care not. Marry them."
The priest stood a bit straighter. "No. Not were you the king himself."
Brandonn's fists clenched. Beneath his hood his teeth gleamed in a grimace that reminded Isolde of a skull.
Connal stepped quickly between Brandonn and the priest. "Listen to reason. If you are set on this match, we can wed once the outlanders are safely away. There's no need to hurry things."
"Traitor!" Brandonn struck Connal a backhand blow across his face. Connal staggered, but remained on his feet. "You allow your own lands to fall to the Deryni! You would do the same with Derry!"
Connal's jaw tensed and his fingers tightened on the hilt of his sword. "I never ceased to resist them. But I will not attack my own people. Only the commoners suffer under your methods."
"Then you have not heard of the dead Deryni on the Dhassa road." Brandonn actually laughed. "I had hoped the news would spread more swiftly, but no matter. After all, in a couple of months they will be seen as the first small casualties in a great war."
"What are you talking about?" Connal's stance shifted to one Isolde recognized from watching him train with her brothers in the practice yard. He clearly expected a fight, and was preparing to defend not only himself but her and Father Thomas.
Brandonn reached into his pouch and withdrew a stoppered bottle. In the silvery light it looked to be made of black glass. The sight of the bottle sent Isolde's overwrought stomach rolling.
Brandonn grinned. "What's in here will win the war for us. I, or rather some well paid allies, discovered it in the East. It is a poison for Deryni only, one that can remove their Hell-spawned powers and render them vulnerable to the least armed of our peasants."
"And you think this little bottle will give you victory?" Connal's voice dropped a level as he spoke. "Have you not heard of this new law Festil enacts? Fifty humans for each of them we kill. Jesu Maria, will you see us slaughtered?"
"They'll not have time for a full reckoning. Once the spring opens the roads so we can move we will fall upon them like avenging angels. And this," Brandonn brandished the bottle, "is only the beginning. So long as the Deryni have gold to trade I have an unlimited supply."
"Why are you doing this?" Isolde gripped her brother's wrist. Fear shot through her, and she let him pull away easily. She did not want to be near that evil poison, but she knew she must reason with him before he got them all into serious trouble.
"Brandonn, I love the Haldanes too. I still grieve for the children." She kept her voice soft, thinking to reach him with gentle words since shouting obviously had not worked. "But they are dead. All of them. Should you manage to win your war, who would take their place?"
"We will choose a new king. One with the strength to rule us."
Isolde thought she heard madness in her brother's words. Her heart forced the notion away. Brandonn was all the family she had left. He could not be mad, he could not.
Connal laid a hand on Isolde's shoulder. "We are leaving," he declared in a voice that told all he yet felt powerful enough to command any situation. "Since you seem intent on betrothing your sister to me, I will accept that for now. And as you give control of her over to me, I say she will return to the fire before she is missed."
Brandonn's eyes narrowed beneath the hood. "We have not ended this, McQuillion."
Isolde laid her hand on Brandonn's arm, more gently this time. "You are my brother and I love you, Bran, but give up the hate. I beg you, let it go before you destroy us all."
Connal pulled her away as her brother turned his back on her. Isolde managed to keep her tears at bay until they stood at the edge of the forest. Then she drew a breath to steady herself. This could not be happening, it could not! She was dreaming, and would awaken soon in her own bed ready for the day.
Connal turned her face up and forced her to look at him. "Will you tell Sir Albion about your brother? You know he hunts those raiders like a hound hunts a stag. He should know."
"I will not. Nor will you." Isolde shook her head. "You must promise me, Connal"
"Dove, you heard him. He's mad. He could destroy far more than himself if we let --"
"He is all I have left." Clearly Connal was not supporting her in this. Isolde pulled away to stand alone and straight as she faced him. "Promise me, Connal."
Connal shook his head. "You must tell Sir Albion before more happens that cannot be undone, Isolde. You realize that."
"Then let me deal with this in my own way. Brandonn is kin to me. I know I can reason with him."
At last Connal nodded, slowly, as if he regretted the gesture. "All right, but I warn you should more start than I believe you can stop I'll take action myself."
"Fair enough." Isolde knew she must be satisfied with that, as little as it was. "Shall we rejoin the party?"