Cedric & Daffyd
still don’t like it," Mireille muttered. "We can’t risk
being seen, Cedric and you know it. What if you’re recognized?"
Cedric prayed for patience, wrapping his damp cloak closer around him. "I don’t like it myself, Miri, but I don’t like being hungry, either. We’ve been on the run for a week, and have had nothing to eat for two days. How long do you think we can keep moving ahead of the Custodes without food? We’ve got to have something to take with us before we get into the real mountain country. There’s no way around it."
Mireille had no answer to this at first.
"I still think there would be less danger in a larger town," she answered finally. "In a little place like this…"
"It’s here or nowhere, Miri," Cedric said. "This is my village, and these are my people. I know every little alleyway, and I know who can be trusted and who can’t. We’ll make for Tabor’s house; he’s the local blacksmith. He was a friend of my father’s. I’m sure he’ll help us."
Mireille bit her lip and nodded her reluctant consent. "I suppose we have to risk it at some point."
Cedric let Mireille go first as they crawled out of their leaf- filled hollow between three great tree trunks. In the week since they’d left their cave, she’d shown an uncanny sense of direction and a skill for picking a good path through the thick forest. The woods had both hindered their progress and had hid them from hostile eyes. But although they had seen no one in all their days of travel thus far, both their feelings of foreboding and of pursuit growing ever closer behind them had strengthened each day.
The trees thinned ahead, and they slowed, keeping well behind the screen of underbrush. Cedric watched the muddy road leading to the village for some time before he and Mireille crept into the open. Standing in the middle of the little track under the open day lit sky after traveling at night under the cover of the forest felt nearly as bold and dangerous as attending noon Mass at the Cathedral in Valoret. Nevertheless, the familiar village of his childhood still perched at the top of the small hill, looking very much as it always had in the dripping grayish morning light. There were the cluster of wattle and daub cottages thatched with straw, a few shabby half-timbered houses with their shingle roofs, and two lonely stone houses roofed in slate. Smoke rose from almost every chimney as the villagers began their daily routine.
Mireille looked up at the village like a suspicious watchdog that has smelled a stranger on his property. Cedric tugged his own hood further forward and gestured for her to do the same as they started slowly up the hill toward the village.
"I’m a stranger here" Mireille whispered while they walked. "Can you be so sure that no one will betray us to the Custodes?"
"They know what the Custodes did to my family, and people in the Hills stick together," Cedric murmured back. "They’re not in the habit of volunteering information to outsiders, Miri."
No one took any notice of them as they came up to the outskirts of the village. Nonetheless, Cedric had to force himself to walk normally and not skulk in the shadows between houses. Familiar ground or not, he was uneasy, and there was a tingling between his shoulder blades as if a knife might fly out of nowhere and bury itself there at any minute. But Tabor’s house was inconveniently located near the center of the village, and there was nothing for it but to keep going. Mireille followed him, but kept switching her head this way and that, looking all around them for signs of danger.
**Can’t you stop?** Cedric snapped at her mind-to-mind. **Keep looking around that way, and we’ll attract far more attention than we want.**
Mireille stopped looking all around, keeping her eyes focused on the ground just ahead of them, but Cedric caught her resentment at his brusqueness clearly.
**I'm sorry,** he sent to her. **I don’t like this either. The sooner we reach Tabor’s the better We won’t stay here a minute longer than we have to.**
Cedric led them to Tabor’s house staying off the crooked main road as much as he could. Finally, they slipped down a narrow path between Tabor’s house and his neighbor’s. Knowing that Tabor’s forge was in a lean-to shed at the back of the house, Cedric kept going, but slowly, and he hesitated before stepping into the open and calling to Tabor. His sense of foreboding was stronger than ever. His mouth and throat were dry with apprehension, and his heart pounded as if he’d just run a race. The blacksmith was already at work, early as it was. around the corner of the smithy shed just ahead, Cedric could hear a great hiss as hot iron was dipped into the water trough to cool. Very carefully, Cedric stepped out from behind the house wall to look for Tabor, but stopped. Mireille collided with him from behind, though fortunately she said nothing. They could both see the head of the horse Tabor was working on, and it was no local farm animal but a fine saddle horse of the Gwyneddan native breed. Cedric knew no one in his village could possibly own a horse like this one, but it was not just the horse that made his panic flare. A black-clad man walked out of the smithy shed not ten feet away from them. He pushed his heavy black cloak back on his shoulders so that the brilliant crimson satin lining was plainly visible. Cedric saw his white knight’s belt plainly, and above it, the haloed golden lion insignia of an ecclesiastical knight of the Custodes Fidei.
**BACK!** Cedric underlined this command by backing swiftly into the shadows of the house himself, shoving Mireille behind him until they were swallowed in the shadows again.
**Did he see you?** Mireille asked frantically.
**Don’t know, but he may have a sniffer with him. We’ve got to get out of here now!**
Leading the way back out of the alley, Mireille stopped Cedric as she quickly glanced up and down the street to look for more Custodes. Cedric waited, looking over his shoulder, one hand on the hilt of his belt knife, horribly conscious of the Custodes Knight at the forge behind them. His knife wouldn’t be much defense against a sword.
Mireille stepped back suddenly, her eyes huge with dread. **There are two more of them up the street on our right, Cedric! They’re coming this way.**
**Get moving, then, Cedric ordered. We’re villagers as far as they’re concerned. We belong here and we’re going to brazen this out.**
**Are you mad?!**
**They may be coming to rendezvous with the one at the forge. If those two find us skulking here in the alley, what possible explanation could we give them for being here? At least in the open street, we may be able to get away.**
**MOVE for the love of Heaven!** Cedric gave her a little shove in the middle of her back. Do you want them to corner us here?
**Mireille moved at that although she deliberately turned to their left, away from the approaching Custodes knights. Cedric followed her, his stomach muscles bunched into a tight knot of fear.
"You there!" one of the Custodes knights shouted from behind them.
"Just keep walking," Cedric muttered when Mireille hesitated. "Ignore them. The villagers here don’t like strangers, remember?"
"Don’t turn your back on me, peasant!"
"Keep going, keep going," Cedric whispered, speeding his own walk to a near run. All his attention was directed backward, listening for footsteps following. Ten feet to the end of the street, and once they were around the corner, they could make a run for safety.
"Someone needs to teach that ignorant pig a lesson!" The first knight shouted.
"Ah, let the fools go, what could they tell us?" the second knight said in a loud, scornful voice. "They wouldn’t know a Deryni if they tripped over one!"
Cedric smiled grimly, relaxing his guard not at all. Five more feet, three, ata last they were safe around the corner.
Or they would have been, had a fourth Custodes knight not been standing there, holding the reins of half a dozen horses. The three of them stared at one another in shock for a matter of seconds. The Custodes knight opened his mouth to call out, and Cedric dove at him. He slapped his hand over the knight’s mouth to silence him at the same time his hand on the back of the man’s neck sent the knight plummeting into unconsciousness. Cedric eased the knight soundlessly to the ground, reaching out to grab the reins of the nearest horse in the same continuous motion. Mireille energetically flapped her cloak at the other horses not daring to shout at them. But although they backed away from her, with eyes rolling and ears pinned back, they did not scatter or run. In desperation, she brought both arms over her head palms together and opened them wide again. A sphere of bright green light flew from her hands straight at the horses and burst directly over their heads with a shower of green sparks. The loose horses did run at that, and Cedric nearly lost control over the panicked horse whose reins he held. Nonetheless, he vaulted into its saddle and quickly hauled Mireille up behind him before he gave the frightened animal his head.
The horse bolted through the village down the crooked main street, scattering dogs, chickens, pigs and people before it. In his peripheral vision Cedric saw blurred Custodes Knights converging on them from several directions at once, trying to block their escape. He flattened himself along the horse’s neck at the crack of a fired crossbow. Mireille too leaned down close along his back, both her arms wrapped tight around his waist, her legs squeezed around the horse’s barrel. The crossbow bolt whizzed over their heads, close enough to ruffle Cedric's hair, but harmless. Then they were through the village and pounding down the narrow twisting track beyond it. Two more crossbow bolts whined behind them, but the shots went wide. Then their mount careened around a sharp curve in the trail, and they were safe out of range, lost to the sight of the village above.
Cedric simply held on tight and let their horse run, praying it was sure-footed enough not to stumble and break all three of their necks on the steep path, and strong enough to carry them for several miles beyond the village before its strength was spent. The poor creature couldn’t run forever double-mounted, but they’d need all the head start they could get. Once their Custodes pursuers had rounded up their scattered horses, the hunt would be on in earnest. He marveled that they’d been able to escape the village alive at all. In spite of the fear of the past minutes, and their renewed danger, their swift plunge down the mountain trail exhilarated him.
He urged the horse to keep going as long as it could until the trail had become a gentler downward slope through the forest. Finally he took pity on the exhausted horse, and pulled it down to a walk. Its breathing was noisy and its coat was lathered from the hard run they’d given it.
"Why are you stopping?" Mireille whispered. "We’ve got to keep going, Ced. You know they’ll be following us!"
"Aye. But the horse is spent, Miri. We’ll go faster on foot."
"Are you insane? They’ll catch us!"
"They’ll be looking for hoof-prints and a double mounted horse, not for two people on foot. If they catch us riding one of their horses, we’ll be considered horse thieves on top of our crime of being Deryni."
"We could sell it and get some money, at least!"
Cedric shook his head. "None of the locals would dare take him, Miri. The Custodes may hate us most of all, but they don’t treat human peasants much better. For a peasant to accept him would be tantamount to begging the Custodes to be hanged for horse thievery."
He studied the soft ground of the trail. If they were to dismount here, their footprints would leave an all too convenient trail for their pursuers. However, there was a large fallen log lying by the side of the track not far ahead, and Cedric urged their horse toward it.
He kneed the horse next to the great rotting log, then dismounted on the offside, sliding down the horse’s side until he’d found his balance on the log. While Mireille also dismounted, Cedric stroked the horse’s neck in gratitude, giving it silent instructions to wander further down the forest track in search of grass. Once Mireille stood beside him on the log, Cedric slipped the horse’s bridle off, and slapped its rump to send it on its way. Together, he and Mireille walked down the length of the log until they’d reached a little streamlet. Cedric hurled the bridle away as hard as he could into a deep thicket of brambles and fallen leaves before jumping down into the stream.
The water was deeper than it had looked from above, wetting him to mid-thigh, and so cold he gasped from the shock. The water would cover their scent, though, and they’d not leave a recognizable trail for several yards. The week they’d just spent had honed both his and Mireille’s already keen survival instincts.
"Not enough, though," Cedric muttered. "Not nearly enough." He leaned against the log to steady himself. The exhilaration had worn off, and now he shook when he thought of the narrowness of their escape from the village. If those Custodes knights near Tabor’s house had pursued them more aggressively, or if the one with the horses had cried out, he and Mireille would surely be captives by now, drugged with Merasha and in the hands of their enemies to face the Lord knew what kind of fate.
The splash of cold water from Mireille’s landing made him open his eyes. Mireille’s mouth was wide open from the coldness of the water, although she hadn’t made a sound.
"What wasn’t enough?" she asked him.
"My wits and my survival instinct. You were right, Miri," Cedric whispered. "I was a fool to take us into the village. We’re lucky to be alive, and I’m amazed we weren’t captured back there."
"And we still have no food," Mireille pointed out lightly. "I thought my heart would burst with fright when I saw those Custodes back there. But Ced, we DID get away, and we ARE still alive."
"Blind stupid luck!"
"Pere always said ‘The Lord looks after fools’," Mireille answered. "It must be true, as here we are."
"I ought to have realized the Custodes would come looking for us in my home village," Cedric insisted with a bitter shake of his head. "I just about put both our necks in a noose!"
Mireille put her arms around his neck and squeezed, pressing close to him. Cedric returned the embrace automatically, still shivering. Mireille was thin and wiry in his arms. She’d never had a voluptuous figure, and after two years of hard living in the wild, her spine and ribs felt hard and knobby under his hands. Her breasts were nearly nonexistent against his chest. Nevertheless, he felt a sudden surge of wayward desire for her. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt anything as normal as a desire for intimacy with his wife. In the week since they’d fled their cave, they’d slept uneasily by day and had traveled by night. Even in their cave, the tension and uncertainty of their life in hiding had all but crushed normal sexuality out of their marriage. This spurt of desire he felt now must have been triggered by their mutual danger and the enormous relief of having cheated capture and death, Cedric decided. He held Mireille tighter, and moved to kiss her.
Mireille pulled back at that, one hand going to his lips. She shook her head, her face full of regret. "There’s no time, my love," she murmured. "We have to keep going, and as quickly as we can. They’ll be after us already." She released him the rest of the way and stood up straight.
Cedric nodded reluctantly and pushed away from the log. He tried to ignore the hot emptiness of his stomach, and the cold wetness as they struggled upstream through the thigh-deep water. Rain was beginning to drizzle down through the filter of the branches and leaves overhead. The provision problem was still with them, and now they had the added danger of more aggressive Custodes pursuit behind them. Cedric doubted he and Mireille could stay ahead of them for long, especially not if they didn’t find food and soon. The hopelessness of their situation made him feel far wearier than he had been at daybreak, but there was nothing for it but to keep going. He was not going to sit passively by the road and wait for his enemies to take them.