Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 14 - Part 4
It took four days for news
of the coup to spread to Rhemuth and Beldour. When he heard his nephew
had regained Tolan, King Festil flew into a rage. He ordered troops
massed and rode for the border at their head, leaving his guests
wondering at his hasty departure.
In Torenth, King Lajos delayed his own departure at the head of an army only long enough to execute the hapless messenger who brought him the unwelcome news.
Both armies converged on the duchy, riding at a full gallop. The reactions upon reaching the border were very similar. Horses panicked at the smell of blood and death. Men screamed at what they saw. Many fell, retching into the new fallen snow. Others gasped in horror and turned away, swearing they faced a monster. No king's command, not even the execution of several officers could make either army step across the border.
For the border was clearly marked. Tall stakes were sunk into the ground at intervals, each bearing the impaled body of an occupying soldier. Some of the corpses merely gaped in death, while others wore frozen expressions of such agony all knew they had been alive and conscious when they were mounted on the stakes.
Not one man moved close enough even to obey Festil's single, repeated plea. "Cut them down! For God's sake, cut them down!"
Yule court glittered with a thousand candles. The great hall of Rhemuth hung with evergreens and mistletoe. King Festil had returned from his ill fated expedition and seemed in a mad mood to celebrate.
Wine flowed freely. Musicians gave lively accompaniment to the dancers who frolicked between the tables as the feast was laid before the noble guests. Dressed capon, peacocks with their feathers replaced after roasting, piglets with apples stuffed in their mouths, all made splendid accompaniment to the centerpiece of the feast, and entire boar roasted to perfection.
King Festil drained his wine cup for the third time. As he lowered the goblet he froze. Albion Cameron stood in the doorway, the ducal coronet of Tolan gleaming on his forehead.
The king stood and beckoned Albion forward. "Welcome, nephew. We thought you were not going to join us."
"I cannot stay long, Your Highness." Albion strode to the head table and stopped without giving the king so much as a nod. "I come only to pass a message."
"Then out with it. I've no patience for these games."
Beside the king, Prince Festil laid a hand on his father's arm. "Sire, it might be best if you heard this message in some privacy. We could withdraw into the hall, or better yet a separate chamber."
"No!" The king rose, shaking with his anger. "I will hear what this pup has to say now, on the spot!"
"Very well, Your Highness." Albion threw back his cloak. He wore full chain mail over padded leathers, clothing more suited for war than celebration. "Know this! I have returned to my patrimony, and I will not give it up. The army you had stationed in Tolan is no more, nor have you access to the ports there. Your plans, such as they were, are at an end. If you've a mind to come chastise me for stopping you, be my guest. I will be waiting!"
"You ungrateful whelp!" Festil shoved back his chair so quickly the heavy, carved piece toppled to the floor with a crash that echoed through the silent hall. "I saved you from a fate you richly deserved, and how do you repay me? With treason! I'll have your head hung from my walls by morning!"
"I think not." The Supreme of Howicce stepped back from his chair and crossed the room to stand behind Albion. "If you do such a rash thing, Your Grace, I believe His Grace of Tolan will very likely expose the entire sordid history of your plans and those of your royal brother to all assembled before he can be silenced. You would be better served to accept your loss with good grace, for you will save what you have already won in that way alone."
"Father." Prince Festil tightened his grip on the king's arm. "Think. None can take Gwynedd from you. Let it be enough."
For a long, long moment the hall hung silent. Many gripped their eating knives and wondered if such short blades would be enough to defend them should open battle begin.
At last the king nodded. Servants righted his chair and he sank into it as if the support had been removed from his spine. When he fixed his eyes on Albion his glare could easily have slain a more timid man.
"Get you gone! And never, never return. You are no kin of mine, though your mother be blood of my father's. Get out!"
With a bitterly satisfied smile, Albion spun on his heel and left the hall.
He reached the courtyard before any called his name. Sophia ran to him, lifting her skirts out of the churned mud. A cloak lined with ermine covered her from head to heels, the hood shielding her face. One of her hands held his lute, wrapped against the weather in a sueded calfskin.
In the scant light he saw tears glistening on her cheeks. She drew herself up regally and faced him.
"I want you to know I am leaving you. I return to Howicce with my father in the morning."
Albion brushed a tear from her cheek with the back of one finger. "Are you certain that is what you want? We could try to start over, you and I."
"No. You were right when you tried to dissuade me from this marriage. I should have listened." She caught his hand and held it between both of hers. Her slender fingers were as cold as the falling snow, despite her warm cloak.
"I was always fond of you," he offered.
She shook her head as she forced the instrument into his hands. "I want more than your affection, Albion. I want your love, your passion, all of which you gave to someone else. Perhaps a marriage like ours could survive if there was nothing between the partners, but not if all the right emotions are directed toward a third party. It simply cannot work, and I'm not willing to endure years of agony."
She lifted her chin and faced him squarely. "It's odd, really. Like having three in the bed. I will find a man to father the children Howicce must have, and when I do there will be only two in my bed. I trust you will not contest the divorce?"
Albion could not stop the chuckle that rumbled in his chest. "God, but what a queen you will make. Of course I won't fight you on it. And I do wish you happiness, Sophia. You know that."
She nodded, turned and retreated indoors with the dignity he would expect of a princess. Only in her last *goodbye* did he sense the tears she fought to contain.
It took a few minutes before Albion realized he should be going. He glanced around the snowy courtyard, illuminated by flickering torches and the light from the windows of the great hall. Here the Haldanes had died in a nightmare of blood.
He swore he could hear their ghosts still.
A heartbeat later he realized there were no ghosts. Guards stepped out of the darkness, swords drawn. King Festil strode at their head, with Lajos hovering beside him.
"Did you think you would escape so easily?" The king chuckled as the guards fanned out to block Albion's path. "I will not allow you to destroy all I have worked for and walk away without a backward glance, nephew. You should know that by now."
"You'll gain nothing by this." Albion drew his sword and calculated his best route to the gate. An irrational thought wandered through his mind: no doubt his lute would be crushed in the melee.
Festil's blade hissed as it left its sheath. Torchlight flashed from the honed edge. The king's aura flared crimson around his head as he advanced on Albion, his eyes gleaming red in the light. "I mean to put an end to this traitor with my own hands. All of you stand away."
"Father! No!" from the edge of the crowd Prince Festil's shout echoed through the courtyard. "This is madness!"
The king did not even turn. "And when I have finished with my nephew I must rethink which of my sons will inherit the kingdom I have won for him," he stated as he advanced. "It may well be your brother will better serve the house of Furstain."
As Albion backed away from the king, reluctant now that the issue was forced to draw a kinsman's blood, he felt the soldiers close behind him. There was nowhere for him to escape. And, worse thought, what would happen when he killed his uncle?
Festil was a fair swordsman, but Albion had matched him in the training yard several times and never lost. Would the men at arms stand back once the king was dead? He doubted it.
Young Festil shoved his way through the crowd of guards before any could stop him. The prince stood at Albion's side, armed only with a short sword and cloak he had obviously grabbed at a run as he left the hall.
Albion spared him barely a glance. "Get out of here."
"I'll not. You've stood by me many times."
"Don't be ridiculous. One more makes no difference against these odds."
The king swung wildly at Albion. The blow was easily blocked, but the ring of steel on steel tensed his nerves. He threw one more useless command at his prince and friend. "Don't throw you life away like this. Get out of here now!"
The king lunged again. Albion sidestepped, knowing he could only play at this cat-and-mouse for so long. He must eventually kill his uncle or be killed by him.
He braced himself to end it here.
A draft of wind, frigid even in the winter night, swept through the courtyard. A cold that chilled the soul of every man present settled over the suddenly still night. Albion glanced around, dread filling his belly with ice as he sensed rather than saw something out of a nightmare.