Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 12 - Part 1
Albion woke slowly, face
down upon a dirt floor. His hands were bound so tightly with strips of
leather they were beginning to swell. More terrifying still, his head
still swam and his shields were as useless as shattered glass.
Whatever these brigands had done it was quite effective. With much struggle he managed to roll to his side, but the effort made his head swim and his stomach rolled. He glanced around the hut. Josce lay on the other side of the room, bound in the same manner. Young Hugh was nowhere to be seen.
As he turned his head he caught sight of their only other companion. One of the brigands, armed with a sturdy mace, sat near the door. Apparently the leader wasn't stupid enough to leave them alone to plot escape.
Albion gathered his resolve and tried to focus his mind enough to contact Josce. The effort was agonizing, exhausting and futile.
At last he gave up and drew a painful breath. "Josce! Are you awake?"
A moment later his friend nodded without opening his eyes. "I wish I wasn't."
The mace crashed into Albion's stomach. He doubled over, retching violently though there was nothing to come up.
The guard settled himself, a grimly satisfied smile on his face. "You'll get your chance to talk more than you want to soon enough."
Shadows lengthened as day turned to night. Albion drifted in and out of awareness, rousing only when he was offered a cup of bad ale. His first taste told him the cup was laced with the same poison they had used on him earlier but he was too thirsty to refuse it.
The day passed to mid afternoon. Then shouts outside the hut roused both of the Deryni from their drugged sleep. Running feet sloshed through sodden ground. From the sound of the cries, Albion hoped rescue might at last be at hand.
A few minutes later a brigand entered the hut, his cloak dripping. The guard glanced up but did not leave his comfortable stool. "What's this?"
The newcomer tossed a brief nod toward the hut's door. " 'His Lordship wants 'em brought t' the chapel."
"Makes no sense." The guard growled as he rose, clearly not wanting to leave his relatively comfortable shelter. " 'Hain't had enough time t' soften 'em up yet."
"Oy! D'ye think I'm in charge 'ere?" The brigand shrugged and continued as if he were discussing weather. "Th' sentries caught a pair o' morts sneakin' about. One o' 'em's important, so 'Is Lordship says we'll get the message sent right quick."
"Good enough for me." The guard stood with a grunt. "I'm ready t' get out o' this soggy mess. Is it still rainin'?
"Not for some time. It's snowin' now." The second brigand seized Josce and hauled him to his feet. "Did ye give this one 'is tonic yet?"
The guard shook his head as he forced Albion to stand. "Didn't see the need. 'E wasn't the one tossin' about. Besides, why waste good ale?"
Josce sagged in his captor's grip. Albion struggled to keep his feet, but he stumbled more than once as they covered the distance to a small, partially ruined church. His guard let him fall to the ground each time, so he was covered with chill mud by the time they reached their destination.
The chapel bore only the most peripheral resemblance to a sanctuary. Clearly someone had lived here for more than a few days. Albion tried to glance about, hoping to spy some clue to their captor's identity. He only made himself dizzy.
Then a cloaked figure rose from a stool placed near the altar and advanced on them. At the same moment four brigands joined the group, leading two men tightly bound. Blades held to the new prisoners' throats kept them from struggling.
Footsteps warned of more to join them. Albion's heart turned over in relief as Isolde came to stand near him. She was unbound, but a brigand with a crossbow stood a few feet behind her, loaded and cocked.
The cloaked figure turned slowly as if he were surveying the room. Then he lifted an altar chalice and drank a silent toast to all of them. "Well done indeed, my friends, and good fortune to us this day. Here I had thought to deliver only one portion of justice and I am favored to bring three criminals to their full rewards."
Isolde made a small sound. Albion turned as best he could to look at her. Her soft brown eyes glistened with tears, the fear in them unmistakable.
He tried to give her a reassuring smile. The effort failed miserably.
The cloaked brigand pointed first at one of the new prisoners. "As you all know, I was in service to the great Ifor Haldane, true King of Gwynedd, when these monsters attacked us without provocation. Many of you were with me. You saw the slaughter of innocents in the courtyard, the execution of our beloved Queen and the butchery of His Highness Ifor Haldane by these monsters."
Rumbles of assent came from all sides. Now Albion knew what this was about. These men had survived the coup and somehow believed they could reverse the loss of their homeland.
"And here," the cloaked figure continued, seizing one of the new prisoners by his hair, "is the heir of the usurper himself! What say you all? Shall the sins of the father not be repaid in the fate of his son, as scriptures tell us?"
How in God's name had Festil come here? Albion closed his eyes against the madness even as cries from every side condemned his prince and friend to a traitor's execution.
Isolde stepped away from the group then. Her voice rose over the tumult, a frantic undertone carefully controlled. "Listen to me! You cannot be so foolish! Think what you risk!"
The cloaked leader turned to her. Isolde stiffened her stance, clearly not willing to back down.
"You think to defend them?" The leader's voice carried an edge of menace.
Albion watched Isolde pale, but she held her place. He shook his head, trying all the while to catch her attention. Don't, he thought wishing futily he could send the message to her. Don't put yourself in his way. He's mad, they all are, and you are not enough to stem this tide. This is not your fight.
But she stood her ground. "In any trial, Brandonn, the accused is entitled to defense. I will speak for them if none else will."
The cloaked leader laughed. "You always were the one to side with the trapped wolf. Defend them then, sister. Is the heir of the usurper not subject to his father's crimes?"
"He was not with the army that came to claim our lands." Isolde faced the group of brigands, her chin up, her voice steady. "He could not have stopped them. There was no way he could have saved us."
"But he benefits from our defeat!" The leader pointed again at Festil, who shot mutinous glares around the room but dared do nothing more with a knife at his throat. "What say you?"
And the cry came without dissent. "Guilty!"
The leader turned from Festil to the next prisoner, who was struggling mightily with his captor. "And what say you of this one, my friends? True, he stood with the Haldane and has led some measure of resistance in the past year. But when I needed him most he refused me his aid. He says he is unwilling to attack women and children to support our cause. I ask you, my friends; was our Queen not a woman? Were the Haldane children not slaughtered?"
"And would you condemn a man because he will not lower himself to the levels you so despise in your enemies?" Isolde did not allow the leader to finish before she interrupted. "Connal McQuillion has been your strongest supporter. He has inflicted Heaven knows how much damage on the king you call usurper."
The cloaked leader rounded on her with fury in his voice. "McQuillion would not protect you! His loyalties are divided!"
"No." Isolde refused to be cowed. "His priorities are valid. He will not waste his efforts where he knows they will do no good."
The leader turned back to his men with a growl that would have suited a wolf. "What is your verdict?"
Again the gathered outlaws roared, "Guilty!"
With a grunt that might have been pleasure the leader moved to Albion and Josce. As he paced before them, Albion risked a glance at his friend. Josce's head hung limp and he seemed barely aware of what was happening.
Albion wished he could be as oblivious. Obviously these brigands did not know the dosage of the drug they were using. He was horribly aware of everything around him despite his rolling stomach and swirling brain.
"These two are the worst of the lot. They came with the usurper! They drew the blood of loyal men! They butchered our beloved queen as if she were a sow in farrow!"
"No!" Isolde interrupted, her voice rising above the muttering. "Indeed they came from Torenth, but you have no proof they committed atrocities. Where are your witnesses to accuse them?"
"I am a witness!" the leader roared. "We are all witnesses. Even your beloved McQuillion was in that yard that morning. Ask him! Let him testify!"
Connal shook off his guard before he could be hauled forward. He faced the leader squarely, then turned to look at Albion and Josce. At last, when he spoke, his words fell like lead.
"I did see them in the yard. They did not murder the children, nor did either of these men attack any woman."
"But they did wrong!" The leader seized Albion's hair and dragged him forward.
Albion stumbled and fell to his knees, unable to stay on his feet. The brigand allowed him to stay down, but hauled his head back so he was forced to face the ceiling.
"This is the greatest felon of all," the leader exclaimed, raising a fist in triumph. "McQuillion, do you deny this is the archer who shot the shaft that killed Ifor, King of Gwynedd?"
Amid the roars of outrage Albion heard Isolde's despairing gasp. Dear Christ, why had he never told her his part in the invasion?
With a supreme effort of will he managed to turn his head and look at her. Her expression sent waves of nausea rolling through his already tortured belly. The tears in her beautiful eyes tore apart his soul.
The outlaw leader jerked Albion's head forward. "Do you deny it?" he shouted in Albion's face. His rancid breath made Albion gag.
"I cannot. It is true." Every word came with an effort. "I did kill King Ifor."
"Then you are guilty of all we have accused!" The brigand let Albion fall face forward onto the floor as he fairly crowed his triumph. "And, for having defended you, so is my whore of a sister. This trial is over. It is time for the sentence."
Behind Albion, the outlaws' cheers rose like thunder. Their leader strode back and forth before the prisoners, clearly relishing his position.
Albion wished then, if only for a moment, to have his powers back. If only he could focus his mind he could blast that swaggering brute apart. Rage and helpless frustration tore at him, but they gave him enough strength to struggle to his feet.
Beneath the leader's hood yellow teeth showed in what must have been a smile. "I had thought to give these villains the death reserved for traitors," he said as if he were contemplating the crossbeams above them. "You know I had, in fact, prepared all necessary to do it right. We have the rope to hang, the knives to disembowel and the horses necessary for the final step.
"But I have changed my mind. They shall not be hung, drawn and quartered. Instead I think they shall face a fate more fitting heretics, for indeed they have offended not only ourselves but The Most High with their heinous acts."
The chapel fell silent, save for Isolde who was still weeping helplessly.
Albion bit his lip to keep from shrieking. Terror seized him and shook him like a terrier shakes a rat. Had he eaten anything in the past day he knew then he would have spewed it up.
The brigand leader braced his feet apart, clasped his hands behind his back and raised his voice so loudly he might be heard in Beldhor. "We have the lash, stake and flame at ready. These wretches shall be flogged until not a strip of flesh remains unscarred. Then, while yet aware they shall be sent to hell in flames of our making."
Shouts of approval greeted his pronouncement.
The leader gestured at Albion. Two of the guards seized him and dragged him from the church into the softly falling snow. The others followed, held securely by gleeful brutes.
Four stakes stood behind the chapel, surrounded by piles of faggots. Ropes hung from each of them. Nearby a small fire burned, ready to light the torches already prepared.
Dear Christ, he prayed silently as he was stripped naked as a babe. I know I have not been the servant you would wish. I am not the man my father was. I have not always done as you would ask, for I feared the mortal cost. I ask naught for myself, but Isolde is an innocent. If you have mercy in you, Christ God, save her.
And let her know I love her, he added as he managed to look back and find her amid the crowd of watching brigands.
That was his last thought as he was bound to the stake. Each stroke of the lash tore away strips of flesh. They slapped wetly against Albion's legs as the methodical flogging continued.
Only when he was turned about and the first blow caught his naked belly did he lose control. His scream of agony seemed to echo forever.