Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 12 - Part 5
After the excitement in the
courtyard the entire court gathered in the great hall. King Festil paced
upon the dais, surrounded by his councilors and clearly furious. Lajos
hovered beside him, twirling a goblet between his hands and saying
The crowd parted as Prince Festil and his companions escorted Isolde through the hall. Isolde thought the air fairly hummed with tension. Everyone seemed to be waiting for the king's royal temper to explode.
They halted at the foot of the dais and gave the king respectful bows. Isolde glanced around and her heart sank. Princess Sophia stood just to the side of the royal presence, with her father and several elegantly dressed officials. Not far from her, the smug Lord Niklos gave her a smile that promised revenge for her rejection of him.
If death was the price she must pay to save the hostages, she was prepared. She would be happy enough if Albion lived. Yes, she could accept that bargain.
And she knew even as she whispered the prayer that God would see her for the liar she was.
King Festil fixed his gaze upon her first. "Lady Isolde, this afternoon has greatly astonished Us. You will explain your absence from Our court and the display We just saw to Our satisfaction immediately."
Isolde lifted her chin and drew a breath for courage. Albion caught her hand and lightly squeezed her fingers. His presence helped her find her voice.
"Sire, I was most distressed when I heard you planned to hang the innocent instead of capturing the guilty." A twitch at the edge of the king's lips warned her she trespassed too far into danger, but she saw no way to turn back. "I thought I might be able to reason with he bandits, for after all they surely did not mean for helpless peasants to be harmed. I realize now how foolish my efforts were, but at the time I felt I had a good chance of success. I thought surely I would return to the city within a day."
"That was indeed foolish." The king seemed to fight a smile. "Yet you have shown yourself in Our court often to be a lady of courage."
Isolde nodded. The King's encouragement speeded her in the telling of the complete tale. She left out nothing save the identity of the outlaw leader. Her heart ached for the brother she had loved, and she would let his memory rest in honor and safety even though his body would surely be skewered and displayed like a roast guinea hen upon the city walls.
By the time she finished her tale the tension in the hall was noticeably less. The king rubbed stubby fingers over his jaw as if considering the merits of all she had said. When at last he spoke satisfaction filled his voice.
"Where is this resourceful squire who thought to rescue you all? Bring him forward."
Young Hugh was shoved to the front of the crowd, As he bowed, the back of his neck fairly glowed with the force of his blush.
"So, you fought your way clear and, instead of saving your master you returned to the city for men-at-arms." Festil nodded slowly as Young Hugh shrugged. "This is not the first service your family has rendered Gwynedd, is it? Such skill cannot be unknown."
"My grandfather stood at the right hand of King Bearand for near twenty years, Your Majesty. And my father fell defending the borders last year." The lad's chin lifted just a bit.
"Dare I hope you will serve me as well as your forebarers have served their lords?" The king's words carried an edge of danger.
Young Hugh glanced back at Albion before he answered. When he spoke his voice carried the maturity of a man well beyond his years.
"I will serve you, Your Highness, so long as my lord allows me. I swore my fealty to His Grace of Tolan first and that oath I will keep, regardless of whatever others may ask me."
For a long moment Festil's lips thinned dangerously. Isolde bit her lip and stiffened against the brush of Albion's mind on hers. He sent her reassurance, but looking at the monarch's face she was sure Young Hugh had gone too far.
Then Festil smiled, though his eyes shone with ice. "The two should never conflict, for your lord is Our sworn kin. We will keep Our attention on you, Hugh Ross, for surely you will do well.
"Now, as for your lord, there are answers he must give Us immediately." The king waved Hugh away as he turned to face Albion. "We thought we had settled several matters involving you, Your Grace. Then We discover you have left Our court and gone chasing a woman who, though her intentions were admirable, was none of your concern. We will have your future settled immediately, this very night if Our healers can make you fit for your duties."
Albion glanced at Isolde. A spear of longing lanced through her heart. The king's meaning was unmistakable, Princess Sophia's sympathetic smile only confirmed what Isolde knew. Festil would demand Albion keep to his betrothal.
Albion shook his head. "Sire, you know where my heart stands on this matter. You cannot mean to force me to this travesty."
"I care not a jot for the intentions of your heart, Your Grace. Duty demands you wed as promised. More important, that is the price I demand for the life of the woman who now stands beside you."
"Sire, you cannot --"
Isolde interrupted Albion immediately. Desperation fueled her words, for she saw clearly how dangerous their position was. "Lord King, it is not his decision to make. It is mine. And I would not wed His Grace, not now nor ever should he ask me."
The king turned on her like a fox on a wounded goose. "You would deny him? Why? What purpose can it serve you now?"
Isolde squared her shoulders and put her head in the noose. "Sire, as it has been revealed today, I am not the child of the late Earl of Derry. That being the case I have no claim to the land that would have been my dower. I can not even call the clothes upon my back my own. I am no fit bride for a landed duke who, no doubt, thought to enrich himself through the marriage bed."
"You speak well, my lady. And We are not unsympathetic to your unfortunate plight." Festil smiled with satisfaction as Albion gaped at her. "We will see you well dowered for marriage to a lord of Our choosing, for after today's revelations it is obvious Sir Josce St. Cyr is no longer a suitable match.
"This then is Our decision. His Grace of Torenth will be tended by Our Healers and made ready for his wedding this evening. We have all those necessary already assembled. We see no reason to further delay the ceremony."
Albion cast a last look at Isolde as the king's squires surrounded him and led him to a side door. She barely saw his expression through the blur of tears she refused to shed before this audience.
"Sir Josce, you have long hidden a talent most precious to Ourselves and to Our Kingdom." Festil turned his attention on Josce, who seemed ready to melt into the floor. "We understand your reasons for your deception, but find them unacceptable. We Ourselves will see you properly trained at Our expense. And by Our desire, you will begin immediately. Our clerks will have a letter drafted to the Abbot of St. Neots by the time you have bathed and packed what you need for your journey."
The glow surrounding Josce's face could only partly be explained by the emergence of a slightly green halo around his head. When he stepped away from the dais he fairly skipped with happiness all around could feel.
Festil then turned on Connal, and his face darkened slightly. "What shall We do with this miscreant? We thought him well and truly dead these many months. We now find him not only alive but having done good service to Our eldest son We cannot in good conscience execute him as he well deserves."
"Perhaps if he were closer to our court we could better keep track of him." Prince Festil spoke for the first time, matching his tone to his father's. Mischief twinkled in his eyes. "After all, My Lord Father, if he returns to Corwyn he will only have to face the spring and a return to warfare when his king tries to replace Duke Rhydon. Battle clearly holds no terrors for this man. We should keep him where we can best make use of his unique talents."
King Festil raised a thick eyebrow. "And do you have a suggestion as to where We should put him? Other than Our royal dungeons, that is?"
"I do. As the Lady Isolde has pointed out so prettily, the Earldom of Derry is now without lord. It is not so much as Corwyn, but the lands are well tended and thanks to the lady's good husbandry the coffers are in better shape than Corwyn's." Prince Festil shot Connal a cocky grin. "If I am right he has a lady to support now. No doubt he will gladly accept a healthy estate over one plagued by debt and strife."
The king leveled his gaze on Connal. As if by command armed soldiers stepped from the edges of the crowd and loosened their swords in their scabbards.
Isolde realized then with a shock that Connal was unarmned. He had handed over his sword and dirk when they entered the Royal Presence. Please, Mother Mary, let him accept.
Connal appeared to ponder the offer before he slowly nodded. "I'll have to ask my lady, Your Highness. You understand, I am sure, that my first loyalty must be to her wishes."
"Ask her then. And get your worthless hide to Derry without delay. Any land that produces such swordsmen as that flame haired squire and fine horses as well must be tended with a mother's love if it is to serve Us as it should.
"And you are the last." Festil waved one hand to Isolde. "It is Our pleasure that you should spend the winter learning the talents you so eloquently revealed earlier this day. We see you as an asset to Our court too great to risk losing. Our councilors shall teach you all you need to know that you may serve Us better and be better suited to your place in Our circle."
The king turned his back on them all, indicating the audience over. The crowd began to disperse and many stopped to congratulate Isolde on her good fortune.
As she accepted their good wishes she felt her heart cease beating. The tears she fought not to shed ran freely now down her cheeks.