Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 14 - Part 2
Albion quietly gathered
those few men loyal enough to him to be in danger when his disappearance
was discovered. His instructions were brief: meet at the cathedral near
sundown tomorrow evening. Bring what weapons you can easily conceal and
wear helm and chain. Leave your horses in the stable.
Then he and Hugh left the castle. They spent the rest of that day and the next at the rundown inn where he had talked to Harold the night before.
The time before their meeting passed slowly for Albion. His anger toward Sophia cooled gradually as understanding filled its space. No doubt, from her point of view, she had done the only thing she could to salvage their marriage. To know he loved another must hurt terribly.
Still, empathy did not solve the problem. He could never go back to her, not now. Without trust how could anything be salvaged?
God willing, please let no child have started from the madness of bewitchment. Albion knew he had done his best to accomplish just that end, though he had believed all the while that another woman lay beneath him.
Would the priests consider his actions adultery?
He drained his ale. The bitter stuff was hardly the best he'd ever had, but it washed the maudlin thoughts from his mind. If he were worrying about the potential sin of actions taken under influence of a charm he had better collect himself. There were far more urgent concerns facing him immediately.
They met his men shortly after the lamps were lit. The great cathedral glowed like a beacon, racks of candles throwing light from the glazing on all sides. They shook the snow from their cloaks and carefully wiped their boots clean before they entered. Let any tracking them lose their trail here.
Albion took Hugh and guided the boy onto the portal square. A heartbeat later they were standing in a storeroom. Familiar smells of cinnamon, clove and pepper welcomed Albion home.
Harold met them in the kitchen. Six men were gathered near the glowing firepit. Only two of them looked old enough to have served Albion's father.
All the men straightened and gave Albion respectful bows. Harold met his questioning gaze with a shrug. "You remember Michael and Stephen, Your Grace. The rest I doubt you know, but they're loyal and true to you just the same. There weren't many of us left after the king got finished, and most that were have died in the past twenty years."
Albion nodded as he fixed each man with a steady, critical look. He moved to the head of a sturdy trestle table, with Hugh and Harold a step behind him. The others took their places to either side of the table. All watched him intently.
"Let's begin, gentlemen. How goes your plan?"
A dark haired fellow who looked a few years younger than Albion leaned on his hands to see around Harold's broad shoulders. "Better than we'd hoped thus far, Your Grace. The castle's full of guards who are either staggering or snoring. The oaf in chief is in your late father's bed, doing the same thing I expect. He had enough of that wine to drop a Shire horse."
Albion nodded as he read the truth of the younger man's words. "Then this should be easy enough. I want to be ready to ride out before dawn. There's an army along our border that will need to be neutralized before they can get a message to my uncles."
Harold opened his mouth to speak. Before he could utter a word the great door at the far end of the kitchen crashed open. Armed and very sober guardsmen raced into the room, followed by a swaggering fat man in a fur lined robe. The chain gleaming at the fat fellow's neck proclaimed him the regent Lajos left in charge of Albion's inheritance.
Not that Albion needed such an introduction. He recognized the man instantly, thought years of dissipation had thickened his features. He had seen the face of his father's executioner in his dreams since he was seven years old.
The Regent smiled as he surveyed the stunned conspirators. "All the mice in a single basket. I never thought to be so fortunate."
Behind him, Albion heard the slight whisper as Hugh drew his dirk. Fortunately the boy was shielded from view, surrounded by grown men. Albion shook his head slightly, hoping his squire would get the message and hide his blade. A fight in this confined space would be disastrous.
He decided to brave the issue. Things, after all, could not possibly be worse. "Now that you are here, my lord, you may hand back your chain of office. I have arrived to assume my rightful place as Duke of Tolan."
He gave the Regent his most commanding look, long practiced in his uncle's court. Then, with a confidence he did not feel and his shields locked tightly against any probe, Albion strode forward and held out his hand.
The Regent laughed. "Did you really think it would be so easy? I've had your old loyalists watched for years. I knew they'd try something eventually, just as they tried to free your father. It did not work then, and it will not work now."
Albion stared into the Regent's eyes and saw his own death written plainly there. He advanced until barely two steps separated them. "Whatever your plans were, they are done. I am here, in full legal right to assume responsibility for my heritage. Withdraw your men, give up your office and no harm will come to you."
"Never were you meant to return!" The Regent's voice dropped to a poisonous whisper. "Your only responsibility, puppy, is to breed a brat on the trull you wed. As soon as you've secured that throne you're to die conveniently and give your uncles control of another kingdom.
"Of course, this may be a bit premature," he added, raising his voice so the whole room could hear. "Leave His Grace alive so I can return him to his keepers. The rest can be staked along the walls."
In the space of a heartbeat the conspirators drew daggers and bunched together as best they could in the crowded kitchen. Albion reached for his sword, but the point of a dagger beneath his chin stopped him. The Regent's smile made his stomach roll as he felt the blade draw a drop of blood from his throat.
Silence hung like the blade of an axe. After a space of heartbeats Harold lowered his knife. "Surrender, lads," he ordered the conspirators. "For our duke's sake."
The guards moved forward to disarm their opponents. Suddenly, with a wild scream that shook the rafters, Hugh sprang forward. Before any could stop him the lad shoved his way between the guards and thrust his knife into the Regent's fat belly.
As if on cue, the men who had followed Albion from Rheumuth burst from the storeroom, blades drawn. Pandemonium exploded in the kitchen and burst through the doors into the corridor. The Regent backhanded Hugh, but the boy fell against one of the guards and sprang away before the stunned soldier could react.
Free from the threat of the knife Albion drew his sword and bore down on the Regent. The fat man bled like a hog, but seemed unaffected by the gaping slash in his gut. He seized a sword from one of his men and slashed at Albion, laughing all the while.
Back and forth they battled, each thrusting and parrying in fear for his life. Chairs and candlestands were kicked aside in the fury of the fight. The Regent might be fat and wounded but he had the strength of a bear and long practice made him fast.
Albion focused on blocking his opponent's swings and wearing him down. The man was too good for an easy kill. This would be a test of endurance.
Hugh remained at his back, defending him from guards who thought to take the opportunity to end his life while he was fully occupied with the Regent.
All around them the battle grew. It seemed there were a good many servants who were waiting to free themselves of the unwanted occupation. Guards were attacked with brooms, candlesticks, pokers and eating knives. Crockery and glass shattered as the riot raged into the main quarters of the castle.
Albion saw his chance at last. His opponent was slowing, the wound finally wearing him down. As the Regent lunged for him, Albion sidestepped and brought his sword up under the man's chest. The blade entered the Regent's throat and he died in a gurgling shower of blood.
The fall of their commander disheartened the guards in the immediate vicinity but did little to slow the raging fight in the rest of the castle.
Albion battled for his life against four more foes before at last the conflict slowed enough for him to catch his breath. When he paused and glanced around he was shocked at the carnage.
Of the men he had met in the kitchen four still stood near him. Two others lay dead or dying in the kitchen where they had fallen. There was no sign of the loyal fellows he had brought from Rhemuth, nor were any of their enemies still breathing.
Hugh brushed tangled red curls out of his eyes with a hand that left a streak of blood over his forehead. "Not bad, Your Grace. I think we've won it."
"Not so easily, boy. Can't you hear the fight continuing? But well done, there." He ruffled Hugh's hair. "I'm glad to have you at my back."
The boy gave him a worshipful grin as he cleaned his blade on the tunic of a dead guard. "Shall I tend yours for you, Sire?"
"No, thank you, lad. Let's leave the blood on it for a bit. I might need to make an impression on the more hard headed of this lot."
By the time they reached the great hall the fighting was done in the castle. Looking out one of the mullioned windows Albion saw the battle had spilled into the courtyard and from there run through the streets of the city like a wildfire.
A youth wearing the badge of an archer captain dashed up to Albion, panting. Freckles dusted the still downy cheeks as he grinned. "I've put archers on the walls, Your Grace. The castle's secure. We'll have the city before dawn, if our luck holds."
"Good enough. Send any of our men that are able to secure the streets and do the best they can to keep fires from spreading. And see to the harbor. We don't want any of these buggers getting away in ships."
The young man nodded. "Daffyd's tending to the harbor, Your Grace. He's been second captain of the guard, under one of these stinking piles o' dung. It should be in hand within the hour."
"And might I ask your name?" Albion fixed the young archer captain with a look that should warn the boy he was being scanned for truth .
The lad straightened. "I'm Daryll, Your Grace. Captain of Archers for the past two years now. My mother was seamstress to Her Grace, your lady mother."
That was where he got his freckles. Albion vaguely remembered a plump woman with green eyes that seemed to dance with she laughed. "And your father?"
"Dead, m'lord. Five years past, now. One o' these bastards killed him when he took offense to the fellow's attentions to my mother." Daryll's lips thinned. "You'll not lack for support among us here, Sire. There's many a man and woman with a score to settle."
"Then they'd best be ready to ride. Is there someone who knows where the garrisons are stationed? We must take care of all of them quickly, before word spreads to my uncles that I have returned home."
"Of course, Your Grace. When will you be wanting a council?"
Albion sensed Daryll knew exactly what he was about. "In thirty minutes, here in the great hall. Have maps brought, and some food. We will need to eat before we ride out."
They were away just as dawn broke the winter sky with blood red light. Three bands of armed men rode hard for the garrisons that had to be subdued before any suspected the coup had taken place. Each detachment bore the Regent's banner displayed prominently to forestall any alarm. Speed and surprise were their main weapons, and Albion meant to make the most of them.
He set a trusted man in charge of two of the detachments, taking the third himself. They rode for the border that separated Tolan from Torenth, a flat plain between mountains hard to defend.
They arrived near nightfall of the second day. The troops they came to deal with, mainly mercenaries from Connait, had taken control of a large walled town.
Albion pulled eight men from his group of thirty and divided them into teams of two. Each team was to station themselves by one of the four gates leading in and out of the city walls. When a signal was given, the gates would be shut and barred, trapping their enemy in the city.
The rest of the detachment he led through the main gates in a smart column. None challenged them, for the banner clearly marked them as allies. When the last of his men were in the city and the two set to shut the gates were in place, Albion shot a ball of crimson flame high into the air.
The battle was furious and quick. Townsfolk scattered before the combatants, at once helping and hindering attacker and defender alike. Some few craftsmen and laborers even struck out against Albion's men, seeing them as unwelcome invaders and threats to their quiet lives.
The churchbells were tolling midday as the last of the fighting ended. Albion climbed the steps and stood before the doors of the church. The clamor and confusion filling the square gradually faded as all eyes turned to him. He let full silence fall before he removed his helmet.
"I am Albion Cameron, son of Roland, Duke of Torenth. This day I return to take back my rightful titles and lands. No harm will come to any civilian, nor will any property be destroyed if you accept my just rule."
The murmuring started again. At last a short, burly man in a fur lined silk robe stepped forward. He gave Albion a pugnacious glare. "How do we know you are who you say you are? Or that your promises will mean anything now that the fighting is over?"
This must be one of the village aldermen. Albion frowned. The fellow looked barely older than he himself.
"I have given my word on the steps of Holy Church. What more proof do you require?"
Behind Albion, the church door scraped open. Albion whirled and reached for his sword, prepared to defend himself. Several of his men started up the steps to his aid, only to freeze as a gray haired priest stepped into the sunlight.
The priest bowed stiffly to Albion, then faced the townsfolk. "I can give you the proof you desire," he said in a voice that rang with the authority of experience. "For I do remember Roland Cameron, his Lady Wife and his scamp of a son. This man could be no other man's offspring. He is your rightful liege lord."
"And will he be any better than those who have protected our town for so many years?" The alderman ascended the church steps as he spoke.
Albion had to admire the courage it took for an unarmed man to face a bloodied conqueror. He wanted this fellow firmly in his camp, preferably without coercion. Forced loyalty was uncertain loyalty.
The priest shook his head. "Master Tolman, do you not remember why there are so few men in our city with gray hair? His Grace, our duke, was a good and brave man who met an unjust death. Now that his son has returned can we think he will be any different than his father?
"Unless he has been corrupted by the surroundings he was raised in?" The priest gave Albion a penetrating look. "Let him vow on the steps of God's own house to keep the peace and we will be well off."
"And I do so vow, Father." At the priest's gesture, Albion dropped to one knee and kissed the hem of the long black robe the old man wore. "I will keep the laws of this land and let no man suffer injustice from my rule."
"Then the Holy Church, our Mother, does recognize you rightful Duke of Tolan, Albion Cameron." The priest laid a hand on Albion's head. There was a brief warmth and a soft golden glow nearly lost in the sunlight.
Albion rose and faced the bold alderman. "Satisfied?"
The man hesitated a heartbeat longer. Then he dropped to his knee on the steps and bowed his head. "I do recognize Your Grace as my lord in all matters both high and low. And I do surrender to you now my chain of office."
"Keep your office, man! You've courage. I'd rather have you as my loyal official here, and perhaps as my friend."
The Alderman gaped up at him. When Albion dismissed the man, he scrambled down the steps and was immediately surrounded by well dressed men and women. A young woman so pregnant she looked about to burst threw herself into his arms, crying hysterically.
Albion turned his attention from the townsman's drama as he descended the steps. "We've work to do," he told his men. "Gather up all the prisoners you've taken, and the bodies of the slain. I intend to send my uncles a message they will not soon forget."
He handed his helmet and sword to Hugh, who waited eagerly beside him. "Find me the woodcarvers. We have work for them. Then give me a few moments of quiet and a couple of you to draw from. I need to check on our comrades' progress and pass on some orders."