Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 14 - Part 5
The image materialized in
the circle of armed men, and once it formed all present knew who this
must be. Ifor Haldane, or rather a shadow of the man that had been,
stepped between the king and his nephew. The image did not flicker or
fade, indeed it seemed solid enough to touch save that Albion could see
the men on the other side of it gaping as he knew he was.
The ghost spoke, its' voice hollow and commanding. "Enough blood has been shed here! Put away your sword, Festil, and look you to hold what you have taken thus far. For I tell you now your line is already doomed. Thus it has been written, and thus it shall be."
The king's sword fell from nerveless fingers. "You're dead!" he whispered as he stumbled away from the vengeful spirit. "You have to be dead. I saw your corpse!"
"A man may be dead and yet live. You do not yet know all you have spawned, Usurper!" The image of Ifor began to grow, swelling until it blocked the torchlight and shrouded the dim clouds above them.
One by one the guards' courage failed. They broke and ran, stumbling over their own feet to escape the other-worldly vengeance. The king slipped as he scrambled backward, landing hard in the mud. He struggled but could find no footing to rise.
Prince Festil and Albion braced themselves as they stood, shoulder to shoulder. The ghost turned to them then and seemed to shrink. When Ifor's dead eyes fixed on Albion, the Duke of Torenth felt his belly drop into his feet.
Albion bowed his head and fell to his knees before his victim, grief and guilt overwhelming him. "Forgive me. I betrayed you and all you loved, lord king."
*You did never betray me.* Ifor's reply filled Albion's mind, though his ears heard nothing. *Never was your loyalty mine to assume. If any here showed honor to my family and to me it was you, Albion Cameron.*
*I killed you.*
*I was already dead, lad.* Ifor chuckled in Albion's mind. *Outnumbered, there was no chance. Your arrow ended my pain, for which I can only thank you. And, thanks to you, my line will return in but three generations' time.*
Albion looked up, his mouth agape in shock.
*The small boy beneath the stair was no servant's child, Your Grace. He was one of mine, a younger son who ought to have been in the nursery with his brothers and sisters. Thank God he has ever been an adventurous sort, for he was not taken. And thank the saints you were here to shield him from the slaughter and to send him safely out of the castle with a trusted servant.*
Then, with not so much as a whisper of wind, the dead king was gone. Albion had a brief image of a plump woman and several children of varying ages swarming around Ifor as he faded into the darkness.
He nearly missed the sudden movement and flash of torchlight on a drawn blade. Lajos lunged toward them, a wicked dagger in his hand. The old man's eyes glowed with the light of madness.
Albion whirled and raised his guard. Prince Festil was a shade slower.
"Death to you!" The old seneschal's blade slashed wildly, though Albion easily blocked it. "Traitor! Unnatural son of your father! I will see you dead."
As Lajos gathered himself for another attack Albion realized he was not the target. The madman meant to kill the prince, though why he could not guess.
Lajos sidestepped and dove for Prince Festil's unprotected left side. Albion threw himself at the older man, knocking him to the ground. Lajos struggled with a strength the belied his gray hairs and wrinkles, but Albion kept a tight grip on the hand that held the knife.
After a moment, Lajos shuddered. The knife fell from his fingers. In the varied light his face paled, then began to turn blue.
Prince Festil shook Albion roughly. "Get out of here before Father picks himself up and regains his temper." The prince gripped Albion's forearm as he rose. "You've saved my life for certain, and perhaps my crown, cousin. I'm in your debt yet again. Get going."
Albion left without a backward glance. It took no time at all to reach the cathedral, step on the transfer portal and return to Tolan. Still, something of the late king's words clung to his mind like the shadow of a storm.
Prince Festil stood, shaking and staring at the nearly empty courtyard for several minutes. Of all the endings to this encounter he had envisioned never had he expected this one.
He retrieved Lajos's knife and bent over the dying man. "Why?" It was a question he had to have an answer for.
Lajos shuddered. His breath rattled in his chest. "It's always the fault of the children." His words were barely a whisper. "I told him she would ruin everything."
"What are you talking about, old man?" She? Who in the devil was "she"?
Lajos chuckled. His eyes were fixed on the dark sky above. "The little mud hen from Derry is no simple country maid. Her mother was princess of Arjenol. Many would restore her to that throne, even to this day."
"And who was her father?"
"She carries your blood." Lajos seemed to drift away. When Festil shook him, his lips twitched for a moment. Then the answer came so soft it was barely a breath. "Lajos of Torenth sired her."
It took Festil a moment to absorb this. Isolde of Derry his natural cousin, and heiress to the crown of Arjenol? More important, he realized that given her age she would have been Lajos' first born. In some lands she could claim two thrones.
The civil war this would spawn could shatter the tenuous peace in the Eleven Kingdoms. Festil closed his eyes and willed himself to forget this secret. Never should she have been allowed to draw breath, but he could not bring himself to hunt down and kill an innocent woman simply because of her parentage.
Lajos' ragged breathing drew him back to immediate needs. "Let me get you a priest, old man."
"Forget the priest." Lajos' eyes flashed red in the torchlight. "I'll be dead before you return. As for their puling rites, I'll go to Hell in my own way." He chuckled, gasped and breathed his last.
Shadows seemed to close over the old man's body for just an instant. When the light returned Festil felt as if he had been brushed by something so foul it would bring him nightmares for the rest of his life.
His father was at last struggling to stand. The prince turned toward the castle, his mind on a cup of strong wine. The night had given them all more than enough secrets.
He could only be thankful Isolde of Derry was long gone. Where she had taken herself off to he could not guess. Thank all the saints her future did not lie with Albion. The union of royal blood so closely related would forever throw the succession of two lands into question.