Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 10 - Part 3
Festil sat before a flaming
brazier, a cup of warm wine in his hand. A second leather chair was
drawn up near the fire, but the king did not offer Albion a seat.
Indeed, from the look on his face Albion guessed his luck was turning
badly against him.
Festil let him stand for some minutes before he finally turned his attention to Albion. "Well? You desired an audience?"
Albion bowed low before his kinsman and king. "Sire, this is not easy for me, but I fear my conscience and my heart will allow me no other path."
Festil raised his eyebrows. "Tell me, nephew, does this urgent need for conscience have aught to do with the lovely young lady you escorted from Derry? Before you answer, know that I have questioned the men who rode with you."
Ice dropped into Albion's stomach. He drew a breath and continued, keeping his spine stiff and his shields firmly in place lest Festil detect the fear that clawed at him.
"Uncle, I ask you to release me from my betrothal. I cannot in good conscience vow myself to one woman when my heart lies elsewhere. I would not be foresworn before God's altar."
Festil slowly set his cup on the floor. Just as deliberately he rose and walked to a jewel chest near his bed. He removed the heavy beaten gold crown of Gwynedd and set it on his head. After some minutes spent positioning the crown to best effect he turned. His aura flared about him like golden fire.
"You speak freely to your uncle, Your Grace. Now, however, I must set aside family obligations and act as your liege lord and king." Festil's voice fell, cold and dangerous, in the suddenly still room. Only the crackling fire broke the tense silence.
"I ask you again, Your Grace, to repeat your request to your king."
Albion swallowed through a throat suddenly gone tight enough to choke his life out. "Sire, with all respect, I do ask you to release me from my promise to marry the daughter of Howicce. I can no longer fulfill this obligation."
"You can no longer fulfill your obligation? Tell me, have you given any thought to this beyond the obvious prompting of your baser emotions?"
Albion heard the fury in his king's voice, barely held in check. He knew then and there he would be fortunate not to leave this room attained, in chains and headed for the block.
The blow Festil struck made Albion stagger. "Do you think marriages are made based on your preference? Had Sophia of Howicce been toothless, hagged and barren I would wed you to her without a second thought! Be grateful she is young and fair of face!"
Wiping a trickle of blood from his split lip, Albion faced Festil with all his resolve. "My king, I --"
"You would do well to remember that your very life is preserved only through my sufferance. Before you say one more word, I remind you who holds your lands. Should either my royal brother or myself be displeased with you I can assure you never will you set foot in Tolan again."
Festil's eyes narrowed as he spoke. "Think you on this. Should you fail in your duty, Lajos and I will jointly ride through Tolan with fire and sword. Before you die you will watch your lands despoiled, your people slaughtered and starved. As for your dear mother, she will precede you in death by no more than a day."
Albion steeled his courage. "Sire, in all my years of service have I ever given you cause to doubt my loyalty? Have I not served you well in all things?"
"Still I hear a 'but' in your words, Your Grace." Festil's eyes flashed with ice. "I feared you would be as stubborn as your father. He, too, suffered from conditional loyalty."
"My father is not part of this, Sire."
Festil's smile shone like an executioner's ax. "But he is, my lord, in more ways than you know. I am glad that I had the foresight to remind you where your true loyalties should lie before I granted you this audience. Perhaps my royal brother and I have been remiss in our duties to you."
The king raised his hand and snapped his fingers. The sound echoed in the still chamber. A moment later the a side door opened, and a woman shrouded in black entered.
Albion's heart shuddered to a stop.
Festil held his hand to the lady. She knelt and touched her lips to his ring without lifting her veil.
"I thought you might need a few moments alone with your mother, Your Grace. Thus I have taken the precaution of bringing her here from Beldour." The king fixed Albion with the look of a triumphant hunter. "I will leave you now and, when I return, I expect to hear you accept your marriage to the Princess Sophia with gratitude."
Albion managed to give Festil a respectful bow as he left. As soon as the door was shut he crossed the room to where his mother stood, holding her hands to the warmth of the brazier. "Your Grace." Her voice warned him she was more fragile than he had remembered.
When he lifted her hand to his lips he felt the bones through skin as frail as gossamer. He never could manage to think of his mother as old. "My lady. I hope you are well."
"Well enough, seeing how my son has grown." Her fingers closed on his hand before he could release her. "Have you been well, Your Grace."
"I have, Mother." He searched for the right words to begin the conversation.
She solved his dilemma. "When last I saw you, you were beginning to sprout whiskers. Now you look enough like your father to make me forget I am widowed."
"It has been some time." He let the silence deepen for a few minutes. "Are you happy, Mother?"
"I am well enough. Save when my only child makes foolish errors."
Her words stung. Albion licked his dry lips. "I know it seems reckless, Mother. But if you would only meet the lady you would see ---"
"I would see that you learn nothing from what has happened to us." Anger gave her words a brittle tone. "Do you not know why your father died? Why I have spent the past twenty and more years in a cloister, when I could have lived in comfort and security?" "I know my father's treason, Mother." Albion tried to see his mother's eyes beneath that blasted veil. He reached out with his mind, unable to find her face. *And I know you loved him.*
The bitterness that she sent across their joined minds staggered him. *Love? What has that to do with anything?*
Albion closed the link.
She continued aloud, as if she could not hold back her words. "Yes, I loved your father. I adored him. And he gave me the same affection until the last day of his life. All that love could not save him, once a king decided to make an example of a disobedient subject.
"Had I not risked my heart so foolishly I would never have been sent away. My only child would not have been taken from me. I might now have grandchildren upon my lap instead of joints sore from kneeling upon cold stone."
She would not be stopped. "Love cost me every comfort, every happiness I might have had. To this day I curse your father's name!"
Her anger startled Albion. He had never pictured his gentle mother this way. As he drew back, closing his shields tightly against the rush of her emotion, he realized perhaps he did not know her at all.
She drew herself up to face him, reminding him she was born a princess. "Listen to me, my son. However lovely this girl is, she is not worth your life. You are betrothed to a beautiful woman, one who has the wealth of a kingdom to bring to you. Do not throw it all away for something so shallow and selfish as love."