Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 8 - Part 1
the chaos of the fire it was very late before the inhabitants of Derry
Castle got themselves to bed. Later still the next day Albion got his
small party on their way to the capitol. For all his annoyance, he had
to admit Isolde caused little of the delay with concern for her own
belongings. Indeed, she seemed to have very few.
Her gowns, shifts, veils and jewels fit into one trunk that could easily be carried by two squires. Her slippers were packed in another box, one most ladies he knew could not have put their baubles in. The one cloak she owned now rested on her shoulders and spread over the back of her horse.
No, she had held them all up worrying over the rebuilding of the mill, checking the injured, and making certain the mare and her new foal were well tended. Never had he seen a woman with so much interest in the manor that provided her comforts.
There was one exception, one that annoyed Albion no end. Isolde insisted on packing her clairsach along, strapped to her saddle in a sturdy leather case. That argument had cost them nearly half an hour. The quarrel still rung in his ears.
"Be reasonable," he had virtually pleaded as one of his squires stood by. "I am sending my lute to Rhemuth with Carridock. He can carry your harp just as easily."
"And how is he going to get there?" Isolde had shot back while she strapped the harp into its leather satchel. "Ride back roads?"
"He will arrive well before we do. You may trust me on that." Albion had not wanted to reveal to Isolde that he had created a transfer portal in her family crypt without her knowledge, let alone her permission. She would surely be furious over that.
She tossed her head as she picked up the case and turned. He had to step back to avoid being struck across the eyes by her thick braid. "You may trust your squire, my lord, but I do not. I will keep this with me for its' safety."
"Then at least will you not pack it in the wagon?"
Isolde gave him a short laugh. "And have one of those ham-handed stable boys dump a tent on top of it? I think not!"
Thus the harp traveled strapped to her saddle, well padded and protected, and covered by the trailing ends of Isolde's cloak.
The lady herself rode a few paces behind him. Albion could feel her presence without the need to extend his senses. She was at once a constant torment and pleasure to his world.
As much as Albion hated to admit the human Connal was right about anything, he knew the outlawed lord's words were only an echo of his own soul's decision. Isolde was no sophisticated jade he could toy with, take his pleasure of and leave with a jewel for compensation. She deserved his whole life, and indeed she had already taken it.
He could no more marry another woman now than he could cut away his right hand. As soon as they reached Rhemuth he would ask Festil to release him from the contracts with Howicce.
That thought he followed to its natural conclusion. Should his king prove troublesome, he would reveal Isolde's heritage. By now Albion was positive she carried strong Deryni blood, though he could not say from what source. She would make a more than acceptable duchess for him, and Josce could be given Derry in a simple grant as Isolde would no longer have right to the land. It was all so simple.
Albion smiled, thinking he should ride straight back and reveal his decision to Isolde. Then common sense overtook him. Should Festil prove difficult he might well rouse her hopes only to have them delayed. Better he tell her nothing until all was set and done.
And in his own mind he pictured her in his bed, warm and welcoming, with the wealth of chestnut hair spread around her shoulders and a dreamy smile on her sweet lips.
Several paces behind Albion, Josce pulled his gelding alongside Isolde's mount. The horses acknowledged each other with a whicker. Finally, after several moments of silence, Josce ventured conversation.
"You are quiet this day, my lady. Are you enjoying the ride?"
His voice startled Isolde out of her thoughts. She realized she had been concentrating so much upon the tall, dark knight riding before her she was paying no attention to what was around her. "Forgive me, Sir Josce. I fear I was not listening."
He shook his head and his lips lifted in a small smile. "No, you were focusing on Albion, unless I miss my guess."
"You know where my thoughts run, then? Can you Deryni read minds at distance?" Isolde gave her full attention to the knight beside her. Above all things she wanted her thoughts kept private, hers alone. So few things were.
Josce shook his head. "We can, my lady, but most of us do not without being directly invited. I am merely observant, and the direction of your thoughts is written in every line of your body."
"Then you have discovered my secret, Sir Josce." To cover her embarrassment, Isolde found refuge in a half-truth. "I love to ride through the woods, and I rarely get to enjoy the privilege."
"Have you not learned you cannot lie to Deryni, my lady? Not even if the lie is harmless and meant only to protect feelings."
Color flooded her cheeks with warmth. Isolde let her hands relax, resting the reins on the rim of her saddle as she shifted to face Josce more directly. "I apologize if I have embarrassed you, my lord. I realize the proposal you gave me earlier was made in all seriousness and depth of feeling."
"My lady, I --"
She shook her head and did not give him a chance to interrupt. "I can only give you my sincere sympathy if the feelings of my heart do not match yours, my lord. But it would do a great disservice to both of us should I accept you when my affections lie so fervently elsewhere."
Josce sighed. "Lady Isolde, have you learned nothing of Albion as yet?"
"I have learned that he is just and generous. That he gives genuine thought to the common people as so many do not. That he shares my love of music, and . . ." The thought of what their kiss last night had taught her made her heart race and her face flame. "Must you make me reveal all? Or can you simply read it for yourself?"
"I could, but I will not." Josce let the silence between them lengthen almost to the breaking point. When he spoke again his eyes were filled with compassion for her and, she sensed, for his friend Albion.
"I do not know the best way to tell you this, my lady." He licked his lips, and stared at the back of his mount's neck as if the answer were written there. "Albion is betrothed to Sophia, the only child and Heir to the throne of Howicce."
Isolde drew her gelding to a halt. "Why do you tell me this?"
"Because you must protect yourself, sweet lady. You must guard your heart jealously, lest it be trampled beneath the affairs of state."
His words tore into her thoughts of the past hour with the fury of a whip. Isolde drew herself up as straight as she could and schooled her face into careful neutrality. "Fear not, Sir Josce," she assured him in a cold, steady voice. "My heart is in no danger from Sir Albion's intentions."
"The only way to say that for certain, sweet lady, is to have no heart at all." Josce reached over and laid his hand on hers. "I pray you do not shut yourself so far away."
"I pray you, sir, worry not. I --"
Feathered shafts whistled out of the trees ahead of them without warning. One of the guardsmen took an arrow in the shoulder and fell, screaming, off his mount. The rest struck packs, wagons or horses.
While doing little damage, they created instant chaos. Albion drew his sword and shouted orders as bandits swarmed from the brush.
Screams and curses blued the air. Clearly the bandits were badly out matched. Still, knowing their fate was sealed, they put up a stout fight for their lives.
Isolde, surrounded by four guardsmen, tried desperately to bring her mount under control. The gelding snorted and shifted, shaking all over as he was jostled by men and horses.
When she chanced to look up she found Albion amongst the melee, laying about with his sword as three of the bandits jabbed spears at him. A fourth man, armed with a longbow, was sneaking behind him while his attention was diverted
Before she could consider her actions, Isolde screamed Albion's name and spurred her gelding toward the archer. The startled bandit jumped, loosing the arrow without aim. The shaft flew wild, striking through the leather satchel and into Isolde's mount.
Isolde lost her grip and plunged to the ground as the injured gelding reared. Before she could scramble to her feet one of the bandits seized her cloak and dragged her against his chest.
Cold steel rested against her throat. Isolde became horribly aware of both the rapid pace of her own heartbeat and the sudden stillness all around. Only the moans of the injured and the whickering of the horses broke the silence.
Albion's horrified gaze caught her attention. A thin white line around his lips betrayed his tension.
Her captor chuckled. "Drop it or I cuts 'er throat. Drop it, I said!" he shouted when Albion made no move to obey. The knife pressed closer to Isolde's throat.
Albion straightened. Although he lowered his sword, the blade remained trained on her captor. "Release the lady. She means nothing to you."
"Oh, I don't know about that." The bandit laughed. The horrible odor of his rotted teeth nearly made Isolde retch up her lunch.
Albion seemed ready to explode with fury. All that restrained him was her presence in the line of attack. Isolde decided she had had about enough of being used as a shield.
She gathered what courage she could find. The result was pitifully small, but it would have to do if she meant to remove herself from her vulnerable position.
"Why don't you face me, you pitiful excuse for a man?" Her voice cracked with fear, much to her disgust.
The bandit laughed again. He turned her about to face him, with the knife still poised beneath her jaw. His grin widened into an obscene leer. "Think I'll keep this one for a while. Been a long time since I seen anything so pretty."
As he stood, swaggering and running one grimy hand over the swell of her breast. Isolde seized her chance. With all the force she could manage she brought her knee up between his spraddled thighs.
The bandit's shriek shattered the tension. At once, Albion's men at arms launched themselves at the remainder of the outlaws. The bandits scattered and ran for the woods, leaving their companion moaning on the ground.
Albion crossed the space between them in three strides. He nearly crushed the breath from Isolde as she stood, staring at her former captor. The brute no longer looked so fierce. Indeed, she almost felt sorry for him.
Albion lowered his sword point to the bandit's throat. His voice held suppressed fury. "Now, dog, you will die for laying hands on my lady."
The poor wretch whimpered as he rocked back and forth, clutched in a fetal position and unable even to defend himself.
Pity drove Isolde to interfere. This villain was no threat to them or to anyone, if the ineptness of the attack was any indication. He did not deserve to die for upsetting her. "Albion, don't. He did not hurt me, really."
Albion's glance turned her bones to ice. His eyes fairly blazed with power, matching the crimson aura wreathing his dark hair in flickering flame. "Are you sure, Isolde?"
She laughed. The entire situation was ridiculous. "Let the poor fellow go, Albion. After all, his village may miss its idiot."
He relaxed then, and to her relief his shoulders shook with the mirth he fought to contain. "Besides, love, he will never live this tale down. Remind me never to stand too close should I anger you."
Only two of the men were wounded, neither so seriously he could not ride. Isolde tended them while the rest of the party set things to rights and straightened the overturned cart. Still, for all the simplicity of the tasks it was nearly an hour before they were ready to continue.
When at last Isolde finished bandaging the two guardsmen and repacked her dressings in their chest she looked around for her gelding. Sir Josce stood with him, applying salve to the arrow wound in his flank. Broken shards of the shaft that had struck him littered the ground by his hooves.
There was little blood, but Isolde still used caution approaching him. Wounded horses were unpredictable, no matter how docile they might be normally.
Josce glanced up as she approached. Albion stood from where he had been, crouching beside the gelding and concealed from view. From the looks both of them wore she wondered how serious the damage to her horse could be.
Josce tried to bar her way. "My lady, I am sorry --"
"It's all my fault." Albion held out his hands to her. "Isolde, I ---"
She saw it then, lying on the crushed leather satchel. Her clairsach, or rather what was left of it. The sound box was a mass of splintered wood, its decorative carving and paint a shattered ruin.
"It stopped the arrow." Josce's words were unnecessary. She could see perfectly well what had happened.
To keep from dissolving into wretched sobs Isolde focused her attention on the gelding. He whickered and stretched his velvety muzzle to her hand, as if he too offered comfort.
The arrow had barely pricked his flank. She had seen worse wounds from playful nipping.
Now if ever was the time to behave like the noble lady she was born to be. Trouble was, she wanted to rage like a spoiled infant.
To keep from balling her hands into fists, Isolde stroked the horse. "It's all right. Better the harp should be hurt than the animal."
Albion came to stand beside her. His warm, strong hands rested on her shoulders. "I think I can get this fixed in Rheumeth. I know a good luthier."
"Thank you, but I can see the damage." She managed a smile for him.
His returning smile drained away much of her pain. "Do you lose faith in me so quickly, lady? I am Deryni, after all."
"Deryni, but no saint to work miracles." She drew a deep breath and squared her shoulders. "Can he be ridden, do you think?"
"I would not." Josce spoke first, running his hand over the gelding's shoulder as he did so. "Give him a day or two to rest. Have you another mount?"
"She can ride with me. My destrier can carry double for a while." Albion wrapped his arm around her shoulders.
Isolde knew she should refuse. She should, in fact, be furious with him for so publicly proclaiming his ownership of her before they were even formally betrothed. If she were at all the lady her mother had worked so diligently to make her, she should slap his face right now and find herself a spare mount. Or even ride in the baggage cart, if it came to that.
But Young Hugh was already leading the huge black stallion to his master. The war horse rolled his eyes but when Isolde offered him her hand he lipped her fingers as if they had known each other for years. And he really was beautiful, well muscled and built for speed.
She allowed Albion to lift her up. Before he could mount the horse himself she swung a leg around so she sat astride, a bit forward of the saddle.
Albion leapt up and raised his eyebrows as he gathered the reins. "You normally ride astride?"
"Whenever I have the choice."
His chuckle filled Isolde with butterflies and turned her bones to melting butter. "Then we shall have to ride the hunt while you are in Rheumeth. The deer lead our hounds a merry chase."
As he gathered the reins and started down the road again Isolde relaxed against him. Something about the position felt right, as if she should have been here from the very first.
More quickly than she would have thought possible exhaustion from the night before and the excitement of the past hour took Isolde to sleep in Albion's arms.
* * * * *
Connal pushed back the hood of his cloak as he stepped inside the Sailors' Friend. The tavern was one he knew well, barely an hour's easy ride from Coroth castle. He had spent many a night here, awash in wine, easy company and willing wenches.
And that was a lifetime ago. The tavern, like everything else he'd seen since he returned to Corwyn, had changed for the worse.
Connal found himself a seat near the fire and stretched his legs to the warmth. The bench was familiar. He closed his eyes and for a moment he was back, the son of a Duke, with fine leather boots on his feet and warm velvet beneath his cloak, coin in his pouch, and not a care in the world.
The interlude did not last long. Some sense he had developed in his year living wild warned him he was being watched a score of heartbeats before the observer made herself known. Connal closed his hand over the hilt of a wicked knife in his boot and forced his muscles to relax. He counted his breaths to keep himself from moving too soon.
When the observer approached he reacted. One hand caught the woman's arm, while the other drew the knife from his boot and pressed the tip to the base of her throat.
A pair of exotic dark eyes blinked back at him. "My lord Connal?"
He relaxed, feeling a bit foolish as he replaced his knife. "Hullo, Jenny. How did you recognize me?"
Jenny laughed softly. "Yer Grace, I've seen ye in far less, both sober an' not so. How do ye think I knew ye?"
He chuckled. "Just keep it quiet, will you, Jen? You may not mind my being back, but I'm certain my replacement will feel differently."
"Oh. Him." Jenny wrinkled her nose in the general direction of the ducal residence. "He's brought foreign folk here, Connal, an' no good's come of it. Trade's off to be sure."
"Not for you, if I'm any judge." Connal sobered. "Is Patrick about still?"
"Aye, he is. I'll fetch him for ye." Jenny flashed Connal a look that raised the temperature in the room to near furnace level. "Will ye come with me later, then? I could use yer company."
"And at what cost?" Connal squeezed her bottom through the layers of garishly colored skirts Jenny wore. "I haven't a groat to my name, lass."
She ran a long finger down his nose and trapped his lips with the touch. "For ye, luv, it's on the house tonight."
"Fetch old Pat and we'll see."
Jenny flounced off. A few minutes later the innkeeper appeared with two foaming tankards in his large hands. When he recognized Connal his ruddy face broke into a smile that sent his jowls shaking.
The cups hit the bench with a wet slap. Connal jumped, only to find himself caught in Patrick's heavy embrace. "Oy, lad," the innkeeper cried when at last he released Connal. "We never thought to see ye alive on this earth, sure!"
"Keep your voice down, man! That is if you want me to stay that way."
Patrick laughed at that. "Don't fret, lad. There's not a man here who ain't loyal to yer late father, may God rest his soul." He barely paused to sign the cross before he continued in a voice thick with controlled anger. "Them foreigners don't come down here none. Don't like the set o' our stout, an' I don't like the cut o' their coin if'n it comes down to it.'
The scattered muttering from the few sullen patrons in the Sailor's Friend affirmed his words. Connal told himself to relax, but his spine remained stubbornly tense.
Patrick pulled him down to the bench and shoved a mug of stout into his hands. "Didn't none o' us think t' see any o' ye alive again. Then when Jenny told me ye was sittin' in me common room I nearly spilled a keg, so I did. Sure, ye've the look o' yer father in that ye do."
Connal took a long swallow of the stout and leaned forward, cup in his hands. "Patrick, what's been happening here?"
"It's like Jenny told ye, lad. There's a new lord in the castle, an' he's brought a pack o' his Torrs wi' him. They're stayin' near the shore, eatin' everything in sight. Betimes they get bored an' they go tearin' through the upper side o' town breakin' windows an' lootin' shops. Dragged more'n one lass off t' their pleasure, more's the pity.
"Don't come down here much, thank all the Saints." Patrick paused for a breath and a drink, then continued with a bitter laugh. "They think our girls'll give 'em sommat they don' want."
As he listened to his old friend, Connal felt anger blaze. He controlled his emotions with an effort and swallowed the rest of his drink to give himself time to gather his wits. "Any more I should know?"
"Aye, lad, though I doubt there's aught ye can do about it." Patrick took Connal's mug and set it on the packed earth floor. "There's the tithe to pay, an' that's bad enough. But this new duke's addin' on his own taxes and levies hand over fist. There ain't no way any o' us can live on what he's leavin' us."
This at least was something Connal could remedy. He lowered his voice and leaned closer to Patrick. "How bad is it? Have any died yet?"
"Aye, there's a few what couldn't manage last winter an' a few worked to death this summer. More'll likely go this year, if help don' come t' us soon. An' then there's the women carried off. Some o' 'em come back, an' some don't. Them that do mostly wish they hadn't."
"I've a job for you, Patrick." Connal patted the innkeeper's muscled thigh. "You must call any men you think have the muscle and the heart to fight this. Tell them I am alive. Bring them here on Sunday next. By then I will have a plan."
"They ain' goin' to come, Yer Grace." Patrick shook his head sadly, sending his jowls shaking again. "Most won't believe yer alive, an' them that do ain't goin' to risk angerin' His Lordship for nothin' more than the promise o' a plan."
"Then tell them to come tonight and there's gold in the bargain for their families." Connal felt a reckless idea take hold and spread its roots through his entire being. "Tell them every man who comes by moonrise takes home ten gold crowns."
Patrick blinked. "Are ye serious?"
"As sure as I'm tellin' you now." Connal laid his hand on the short sword at his waist. "I give you my word, Patrick, and I won't break it."
"Ye always were one for keepin' yer promises." Patrick nodded and stood with a grunt. "Are ye leavin' us until then?"
"Only for a bit. I've got to get inside that castle." Connal stood, smiling. Now that he had a target if not a plan he felt energy returning to his limbs. "Meantime, I did promise Jen a visit."