Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 12 - Part 4
The next morning Josce did
what he could to mend Albion's wounds. His healing was far from
complete, but when at last the glow faded from his hands the damage
looked days old. Still, Albion could not bear to sit upon one of the
horses they found in a thatched hut.
Connal created a litter of branches and blankets. Then he, Josce and Festil loaded the brigands' bodies onto the spare horses. The corpses would serve as proof the raiders had indeed been found, proof they needed if they were to see the hostage peasants released.
As the Connal tied the last corpse onto a horse Prince Festil held, the Prince glanced at him, licked his lips and spoke as if every word brought pain. "I have not thanked you for yesterday. You nearly lost your life to save mine. I am most grateful."
"Truly?" Connal's motions were short and forceful as he fastened the last of the ropes. "Well, you're welcome, Your Grace. I couldn't see letting us all be butchered just because you are an idiot."
Festil stiffened. "I beg your pardon?"
"I said I could not see letting us all be --"
"I heard you the first time." A crimson aura flashed around Festil's uncombed hair. "It takes a brave man to say aloud that his prince is an idiot."
"Fine." Connal faced the prince, his hands braced on his hips. "I'm a brave man. I've never felt like one, but if you say so it must be true. And I stand by my statement. The next time you decide to do something fatal and stupid, please do not involve the rest of us."
"And just when have I done something either stupid or fatal?"
Connal replied with an oath so foul that Isolde, standing only a yard away, gasped and Josce, beside her, chuckled. Connal ignored the audience.
"The first time I met you you were sneaking around, spying where you knew you weren't welcome. When you got caught you thought you could use your father's name to protect you. Did it never occur to you that your father has plenty of replacements waiting for their chance to take your inheritance?"
"Rhydon was a fool and a traitor. I am still my father's heir."
"And all 'heir' means is liability that shares the same name." Connal shook his head. "It's not a substitute for self preservation. And what did you mean to do yesterday, I ask, once you broke free? Take on that entire pack of demented wolfsheads by yourself?"
Prince Festil's eyes narrowed. "Let me repeat, Your Grace, it is never intelligent to call your prince an idiot to his face."
"Fine." Connal's lips twitched as he fought to suppress a smile. "I shall endeavor not to refer to Your Grace as an idiot even when you go to great lengths to provoke me."
Silence hung for a moment. Then Prince Festil's shoulders began to shake with suppressed laughter. The crimson glow faded as he clasped the hand Connal extended.
Isolde, who had been busy with Josce settling Albion on the litter, shook her head. "What can they be doing?"
"Becoming friends, I think." From the litter, Albion grinned. "Festil likes a man who will stand up to him when necessary."
"And Connal, from what I have seen of him, is reckless enough to do it." Josce checked the ropes holding the makeshift litter between the horses carefully. "This will hold well enough. We'd best be going."
Albion glanced around the barren village with a slight frown. "Josce, where are our men? And where is Hugh? I've not seen him since those outlaws knocked me off my horse."
Josce paused and looked about, as if he might notice something his friend had missed. "I think they killed our men, unfortunately. That much I remember. But you're right about the boy. I don't see him anywhere."
Isolde's empty stomach twisted itself into a knot. "You brought Young Hugh with you?"
"I did. He's the best tracker I've ever known." Albion struggled to raise himself on his arms for a better look around. When he realized he had not the strength to do so he settled down, sweat trickling down his cheeks.
"Maybe he's still in one of the buildings." Isolde headed for the nearest hut. Josce and Connal followed a step behind her, leaving Festil to hold the horses.
Every hut was empty save for a few scraps of furniture and broken crockery. There was not even a sign the boy had been held anywhere, no evidence of ropes or remains of food.
At last Connal ran his fingers through his hair, sending flakes of frost flying in every direction. "Well, he's not here. That's for certain. Stop worrying, Dove," he chided when Isolde wrung her hands to ease her tension. "Hugh's more than a match for this pack of mummers and he's woods-wise enough to get himself back to the city. I'd lay coin on it that he's bringing us a rescue right now."
They mounted the remaining horses and set off. The journey was slow, as none of them trusted the makeshift litter too closely.
Just as they reached the path they heard the jingle of bridles, horses blowing in the chill air and men's voices. Twenty of the king's soldiers rode in an orderly cluster, led by a gangly lad in a heavy cloak. Even at a distance the boy's fiery hair gave his identity away clearly.
Young Hugh set his heels to his mount and trotted to meet them. "Lord Connal! I had not thought to see you here. Is my lord Albion alive yet?" His grin set his freckles dancing. "I brought help but it seems it was not needed."
"Indeed, lad, you may have saved us all from a slow ride back." Connal ruffled Hugh's hair affectionately.
Isolde, watching them, fought not to cry with relief. "What happened to you, Hugh?"
"I'd like to know that as well." Albion twisted as best he could on the makeshift litter. "Not that I'm not giving thanks you're safe, lad."
Hugh grinned more broadly. "I was better than they expected, Sir. When the raiders attacked I managed to kill a couple of them and slip into the woods. I saw I couldn't get to you or Sir Josce, but the trail they left was clear enough for a blind monk to follow. I headed for the city, thinking to bring help to rescue you."
"And you nearly did, lad. I'm proud of you." Albion's smile made Hugh blush fiercely.
"He did indeed do well." The captain of the guard joined them then and gave Young Hugh a fatherly smile. "This lad's a good one, for all he's common born, Your Grace. I ---" His gaze focused on Prince Festil. His hands shook as he managed a short, respectful bow from horseback. "Your Grace! We ne'er thought to see you here."
"I'll wager not. Rise, Captain, before you fall head first into the mire." Festil settled easily into the air of royal command. "At the moment it is most important we get Sir Albion to Rheumth as quickly as possible. Did you bring a proper litter with you?"
The captain of the guard twisted his reins around one hand nervously. "We did not, Your Grace. Didn't think to find any wounded as were yet alive, so it was. And were it not for His Grace's condition I'd suggest we all would be far better to spend the night in the forest. The city's not a place you want to be at the moment, not if you're serving His Highness, leastwise. No disrespect to Your Royal Father," he added hastily when Festil glared.
"And why is that, sirrah?"
The captain looked as if he wished he could slide off his horse and become part of the mud oozing out of the snow. "Your pardon, m'lady, if it upsets you." He gave Isolde a short nod before continuing. "Festil's --- that is, His Royal Highness is beginning the executions today. The hostages are going to start dying come sundown, an' the city's turned ugly for it."
Isolde felt a jolt of mingled terror and hope. "But we can stop this. We have the guilty men here. Surely when we hand over the real bandits His Highness will let the hostages go free."
The captain gave her a slow nod, but looked doubtful. "If you say so, m'lady. I'm not too sure of it myself. His Majesty's furious an' he wants blood."
"Captain, my Royal Father is not a madman." Prince Festil straightened on his horse and lifted his chin. He appeared regal despite his bedraggled clothing and unkempt hair. "Let us reach the city as quickly as we may."
The captain of the guard was right to be worried, Isolde thought as they passed through the gates and entered the capital city. Even surrounded by twenty armed men she could hear the ugly whispers and see the veiled glares the commoners sent.
When someone hurled a rotted cabbage at one of the men-at-arms all the guards snapped to attention. The captain shouted a curt command that stopped those who would have charged into the crowd in search of the miscreant.
"Don't be more fools than you must! That's exactly what they want. Our safety lies in staying together."
Isolde was thankful for the captain's wisdom. If the soldiers were pulled away from the group by ones and twos she and her friends stood little chance amidst the hostile crowd. A crowd she would have thought as little as two weeks past was made of her own kind. Now she knew differently. Her position amongst the new rulers of Gwynedd marked her as traitor to all who still longed for all they had lost.
The gates to the castle opened at the captain's shout. The courtyard was more crowded than Isolde had ever seen it. Soldiers surrounded a tall scaffold that had not been there the day she and Ivo left. A few priests stood waiting nearby. Noblemen and city elders waited to observe the executions, surrounded by more guards. Whether the armed soldiers were there to keep the city eldermen safe should the rebellious crowd outside break through the gates or to force them to watch the helpless hostages die she could not guess.
"We must reach Father before this gets any worse." Prince Festil slid from his horse and raised a hand to assist Isolde. Connal mimicked his gesture at the same moment. Isolde ignored both of them and leapt from the saddle, kicking her skirts out of her way as she sought to push through the crowd.
Without warning silence fell over the milling mob in the courtyard. Isolde glanced around. King Festil stepped out from the castle, flanked by his councilors, with the gaunt shadow of Lajos standing at his elbow. The king's gaze drifted over the courtyard until it fixed on a place directly opposite where he stood.
More soldiers emerged from a side door. Behind them, held together by iron manacles, came the hostages. A more pathetic, ragged group of hopeless beings Isolde had never seen.
They would be too late to stop the hanging! Isolde drove desperately through the crowd. Behind her she heard her companions cry her name, but she paid them no mind. Instead she kept her eyes on the scaffold, where one man, shivering in his threadbare tunic, was being fitted with a thick black hood.
Somehow she reached the steps. No point shouting from the bottom, for she knew none would pay her any heed. She had to draw attention quickly.
Isolde lifted her skirts and ran to the top of the scaffold. Even the executioner stopped checking the fit of the noose and stared as she turned to face the king and his council dressed in a plain woolen tunic and fur cloak spattered with mud.
"My Lord King!" Isolde raised her voice over the murmur of the crowd and ignored the glare King Festil gave her. "You must cease this! We have those guilty of the attack on Sheele. Free your hostages!"
The crowd's murmuring grew louder.
The king glared at her so fiercely she knew she should be dead upon the spot. "Lady, you interfere where you were not asked. Step down!"
"I'll not. These people are innocent of any fault save the misfortune of their birth." Reckless now, she pointed at the king. "Do as you promised, Your Highness. Release them."
"Sire!" Prince Festil leapt up the ladder to join Isolde. "At least delay the executions until you hear our tale. I vow upon my honor the felons you sought are dead and you have no further cause to hold these peasants."
"How can you prove the brigands you say you have with you are the ones we seek?" Festil shook his head. "You travel where you know not the landscape. Get you down and we will discuss your willful behavior after the hanging."
Prince Festil drew a breath to argue. Isolde looked about and noticed several of the nobles moving toward the scaffold. She would bet the last chain of her Derry lands they meant to subdue both the prince and herself until the poor hostage was dead.
She stepped to the edge of the scaffold. "My king, if you will not listen to reason you must at least be willing to make an equal bargain. If fifty humans are just payment for the life of one Deryni, than surely the life of one Deryni may substitute for the fates of these fifty hostages. I will make that trade myself!"
Isolde closed her eyes and sought the power deep inside herself. It remained there, glowing strong in the back of her mind. She pictured a ball of light such as she had seen Deryni lords and ladies at court create upon occasion.
And, as much to her amazement as any others, a glowing sphere of silver light rose before her and hovered just above her right shoulder. At the same moment a nimbus of the same color formed about her head.
Silence thundered all about her. As Isolde faced the king she knew beyond doubt that she had saved the lives of the hostages. She also knew as certain as she knew anything that she was surely dead.
King Festil glared furiously as he nodded. "My lady Isolde, you have given Us much pause. The prisoners are released. Your fate, however, remains much in question." His angry gaze flew from Isolde to touch Prince Festil, Connal, Josce and Albion. "I would speak with all of you. Immediately!"