Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 8 - Part 4
was not disappointed when he returned to the Sailor's Friend. Patrick
and the five men he had collected waited in the taproom, which was
otherwise empty. All of the recruits were strong enough to fight long
and hard. And all wore the look of men who had no hope left to lose, and
nothing left to fear.
Connal dropped both sacks of coin on the scarred table. He gave each of the men the promised ten crowns, passed ten to Patrick and declared the rest the property of the people of Corwyn.
"When does His Graceless," Connal tossed a nod toward the distant castle, "send out his next collectors?"
One of the men, a butcher from a nearby town, spoke first. "We don't know for certain, m'lord. 'E might come twice in one quarter, an' once or not at all the next."
"That way 'e thinks we can't hide nothin' from 'im, if we don't know when 'e be commin." The oldest of the group shook his head. "It weren't never like this with yer lord father, may 'e rest in peace."
Silence hung for a moment. Connal fixed each of the men with a steady gaze. "Are there none of you have a connection to the castle? A sister, brother, friend who serves?"
The youngest of the group, a stripling of perhaps sixteen, nodded. "Me sister works in the laundry. Lucky none o' these Torrs like to watch the washer women or Mam would pull 'er 'ome."
"That's a start." Connal felt a boyish grin spreading over his face. "If they have no care for their tenants they surely will care for their horses. Before long riding my father would start with clean horse blankets."
The lad nodded. "I'll ask 'er when I sees 'er next. She usually comes home for supper of a Sunday."
The fifth man leaned across the table. In contrast to his huge, muscled arms and scarred knuckles his voice was soft, almost womanish in tone. "M. . . m. . .m'lord, if . . . if I m. . . may?"
Connal waved the man on.
"I'm . . . I'm a . . . blacksmith. The duke, he . . . always he sends some horses . . . to be shod . . . just before . . . "
"True enough." The butcher nodded, looking vexed he had not thought of it himself. "The duke, 'e 'as 'is men change 'orses as they go. Makes 'em travel faster, 'e says."
Connal slapped the stuttering blacksmith soundly on the shoulder. "Then you, my friend, are our surest way to know when he will come collecting again. As soon as you are sent horses to shoe, send word to Patrick here."
"And what are ye plannin' to do?" Patrick smothered a chuckle behind a mug of ale.
Connal grinned. "Why, no more than we ought, Patrick. No more than we ought."
The meeting ended shortly after. Each of the men took some of the remaining coin to spread among their neighbors. Connal kept half a sack himself, to purchase weapons and horses. If the travesty in Gwynedd was going to be righted, he needed money to do it. He had not lied to Isolde about his intentions.
He did not mean to return to the castle so soon, but it drew him back like a lodestone. He slipped over the wall and made his way to his mother's gardens. Even now, with the trees bare and the beds covered in straw, he could sense her presence in the shape of the paths and placement of the stone benches.
A shrouded shape moved at the edge of his vision. Connal shrank back into the shadow of a twisted apple tree. Worse luck for him, the cloaked figure moved to the bench not ten feet from him and sat down.
When a woman's slim hand pushed back the hood a bit and a curl of shimmering golden hair slipped free Connal relaxed. This was not a threat, only the lady of the keep. He could handle her well enough.
But why was she out here in the cold and dark garden rather than inside, with a warm fire?
He must have made some sound, for she turned toward him. Her breath caught in her throat as her eyes scanned the garden. "Is someone there?"
Her voice sent flame through Connal's blood. On impulse he stepped out of the shadow.
The lady saw him at once. She turned to fully face him, frowning. "Who are you, sir, to come here uninvited and unwelcome?"
"Oh, but I am welcome, Lady." Connal chose his words and tone for an arrogant, mocking quality. "I am in my own home here. Do you not know the Duke of Corwyn when you see him?"
She paled as he moved closer. One hand clutched the cloak at her throat, while the other rose in a hopeless plea. "Oh," she whispered into the darkness, "dear Christ help me."
Connal paused and leaned his weight on one leg, swaggering a bit. He folded his arms over his chest. When she neither moved nor spoke further he gave her what he hoped was a confident smile. "Lady, you bid me show myself. Are you not pleased I obey?"
"Forgive me." Tears glistened on the lashes of the most incredible eyes Connal had ever seen. "I knew this was wrong, I knew but I could not stop it. Please, I beg you, show mercy."
She bowed her head, unable to face him. "Lord Rhydon did as he was ordered," she whispered. "I had not the power to stop him. But each day I ask for your forgiveness. Each day I pray for your soul, and those of your family."
Connal realized she mistook him for his father. The thought only added to his bitterness. "What mercy was shown to me? What did you show to my wife, my sons? You would do better to pray for the salvation of your husband's soul, madame."
She shook her head. More of that lovely hair fell over her shoulder. "I fear, Your Grace, he has none to lose."
Connal stepped closer. The errant moonlight fell across her cheek as she drew back. The bruise already purpling her cheek and the marks of Rhydon's fingers on her throat stood out sharply against her pale skin.
"What is your name, lady?" He wondered, even as he asked it, where the question came from.
"Melissande du Harcourte, Your Grace."
"Melissande." The word felt right, sweet on his tongue.
A wave of protectiveness stirred in Connal. He moved to stand beside her, his legs brushing the smooth stone bench. "Melissande, I mean you no harm. And I swear to you none will harm you again."
"Your Grace, I do not seek your protection."
"But you have it nonetheless." He brushed her bruised cheek with the backs of his fingers, careful to touch her only lightly. "You are no longer alone here."
Melissande nodded her acknowledgement. "But what can you do, my lord?" She shook her head. "Even if you are a wonderfully lively feeling ghost, the laws of both this world and the next will protect my husband."
"What do you mean?"
She faced him squarely now. Her eyes glittered with unshed tears. "Should any harm befall a Deryni, fifty humans will be executed unless the attacker is caught. I cannot sacrifice so many lives for my own happiness."
Connal gave her another grin. "Did I ever swear to kill him, gentle one? No, there are many ways a man may be brought to suffer. Death is easy, and quick." He paused, then added with only a touch of bitterness, "I should know."
She nodded, apparently resigned. Their faces were only inches apart now. He could feel the warmth of her breath upon his skin, smell the sweet scent of the herbs she used in her hair.
It had been a long time since Connal had wanted to kiss a woman, really kiss her. The lip locking exchanges with whores as they negotiated the price of an hour's entertainment hardly counted. He wanted to kiss Melissande, here, and now.
He leaned forward. His lips brushed hers. The exchange lasted barely an instant, but the taste of it lingered on the tip of his tongue as he pulled away.
Footsteps rattled on the path. "My lady?" A maid called as she approached.
Connal slipped back into the shadows as soon as Melissande turned around. He watched as she shook herself, rose, straightened her gown and left the garden.
When the way was clear he made for the wine cellar. It was just as he remembered it, with the addition of more racks and bottles. It looked as if the new Duke of Corwyn spent a fortune on his taste for Fianna wines.
Connal pulled the short knife from his belt and went to work. One by one he loosened corks and opened stoppers. Rich red wine poured onto the damp dirt floor. Mud the color of blood spattered the barrels as he slid his blade between the staves.
A king's ransom was spilling into the soil. If he had one wish now, Connal thought as he wiped his feet carefully before leaving the cellar, he would turn himself into a mouse. Then he might hide in a hole and hear Rhydon's screams of outrage.
He had a feeling revenge was going to be more fun than rebellion.
As he exited the wine cellar the tramp of booted feet caught warned him he was not alone. Connal shrank against a dark corner and watched, holding his breath and gripping his dagger. For a fight in the enclosed corridor, the short blade would serve him far better than his sword.
Four men wearing the chain mail, leather boots and close helms of military officers walked down the corridor with quick steps. From the look of them, Connal suspected they bore important news.
He slipped after them, holding his breath. Whatever was happening he meant to discover it for himself.