Cedric & Daffyd
into a dark corner of the common room of a tiny mountain inn, Jesse
MacGregor automatically looked up to observe the new party of men when
the inn door opened. The room was noisy and crowded this noon for the
weather was wretched. Heavy, sleety rain had been falling since before
dawn, blown by a cold, strong wind.
Expecting more of the local men, Jesse almost spat out his mouthful of ale when he saw six very wet Custodes Knights file into the room. A short, thin dark-haired man followed them. He too wore Custodes black although he was clearly not a knight.
Jesse leaned back, glad that he and Ansel weren't near the fire or it's light, and that the rickety old table in front of them was far too small to accommodate the party just arrived. But he kept a close watch as the Custodes leader loudly demanded the table nearest the fire, meat, bread and the best wine on the premises. Beside him, Ansel too was watching the Custodes closely. They were safe in watching since everyone else in the common room was staring too, and those closest to the knights edged away as far as they dared. The men who had been obliged to give up their warm seat by the fire muttered and glared, but vacated the table nonetheless. The Custodes settled in their place, crowding around both sides of the table. The small thin man with them was obliged to make do with a too-short three-legged stool at the end farthest from the fire. He sat huddled there, his sopping cloak wrapped tightly around him while water dripped off his wet hair and down his face. Jesse could see him shiver and his teeth were chattering. His eyes were closed and he looked so miserable that Jesse almost pitied him though he knew that this man was perhaps the most dangerous member of the Custodes party.
He also thought he recognized the knight in command of the group, and had never heard anything good spoken of Sir Andrew McMahon. He was a good looking man, but that was overshadowed by the menace of his Custodes garb, and a steely hardness in the blue-gray eyes.
Jesse made himself take another bite of bread and cheese, and another swallow of the inferior ale in his tankard. Ansel glanced at him in question when Jesse nudged his elbow. Jesse indicated the unarmed member of the Custodes party with a jerk of his head and sniffed. Ansel nodded, understanding the clue at once.
"We'd better go," he mouthed at Jesse and reached around for his own cloak.
Jesse pressed his foot down on Ansel's instep, earning him a puzzled glare from Ansel. "Stay where you are and just keep eating," he murmured to Ansel. He lifted his tankard up as if to drink, but used it to hide his face instead as he continued in a low voice. "If we leave now just after they've arrived with our own meal unfinished, they're bound to wonder why."
A particularly strong gust of wind blew the inn door open, and for just a moment, Ansel and Jesse could see the rain falling in a thick, whitish curtain outside. Hail was bouncing off the muddy earth, and more floated in the puddles. On the roof overhead, the rain sounded more like a shower of gravel than water. The leaky roof sent a chilly thread of rain spattering down on the table in front of them.
"Particularly in weather this foul," Jesse concluded.
"So we just sit here eating and drinking within ten feet of a Deryni sniffer, with six armed Custodes knights between us and the door?" Ansel replied low. "I say we get out now, while we can."
"I don't like this either, but we have to keep our heads. In more ways than one," Jesse added with a grim smile. "That means attracting no attention. We'll go as soon as we've finished eating. Now eat."
To both Deryni, the next quarter hour felt like the longest of their lives. Neither of them could help bolting their food in their eagerness and anxiety to be gone. But the bread felt like wool on their tongues, and their throats were almost too dry to swallow. They tried not to look at the Custodes party and could not help glancing at them continually. To their relief, the sniffer just sat on his stool and shivered with his eyes closed. He took no notice of them or of his surroundings at all. He was pale and gaunt, Jesse noticed, his eyes dark circled with fatigue. Even if he'd been healthy, he alone wouldn't have represented a physical threat to either himself or Ansel. But his companions surely did. And Jesse knew it was safest to assume that every other man in this inn would help the Custodes capture himself and Ansel if they were discovered. And they must avoid capture at all costs. Not only would it be fatal to himself and Ansel, but disastrous to the fight to protect the few remaining Deryni in Gwynedd considering the sorts of things the two of them could be forced to reveal under Custodes torture and interrogation.
Ansel reached out and managed to grasp the landlord's apron as the harassed little man passed their table with a flagon of the Custodes captain's demanded wine. Swiftly, he and Jesse paid for their meal, and rose. Jesse looked along the inn wall to his left to see if they could circumvent the Custodes table, but there was no way out in that direction without making themselves conspicuous. But the most direct path to the door would lead them right past the table full of Custodes and within touching distance of their sniffer. Hard to tell which was the more dangerous course of action.
Jesse drew back into his own mind as far as he could go, keeping his shields low and sensed Ansel doing the same. They'd have to brazen their way out and hope the sniffer was too exhausted to sense them. They started out in single file, Ansel going first. It was impossible to move swiftly in the packed room, and even though the place was tiny, the door looked miles away. Fortunately, both he and Ansel were lean, and Ansel managed to get past the sniffer and the Custodes without either colliding with them or attracting any attention. Unfortunately, just as Jesse was stepping past the stool, the man to his left straightened unexpectedly, catching him off balance, and Jesse stumbled straight into the sniffer, actually steadying himself with a hand on the man's shoulder.
Startled, the sniffer opened his near-black eyes and looked up, and for just a second, his and Jesse's eyes met.
"Pardon me, " Jesse mumbled, snatching his hand away from the man's shoulder and bobbing his head in apology.
The sniffer only nodded wearily, and his head drooped again, his eyes closing. He moved his feet as far out of the way as he could to allow Jesse to pass. Jesse hurried out after Ansel, who was already at the door, waiting for him anxiously.
**For God's sake, why did you have to touch him?** Ansel said mind to mind when they'd reached the inn hostelry.
**I didn't plan on it!** Jesse retorted more sharply than he intended because of his fright. **I was knocked off balance. It was sheerest bad luck that it happened right then, that's all. And he didn't say anything, so he may not have realized I was Deryni.
**I'll get the horses, he continued. You watch the inn door and call out if you see any of them come out. We have to get out of here, fast.**
Ansel nodded and mounted guard at the barn door. Jesse retreated past the sleek Custodes horses, to where his own and Jesse's horses had been tethered. He buried his face in his mare's mane for a moment, shaking all over, his heart pounding like that of a captured wild creature. The minute he'd touched the sniffer, he'd assumed it was over for himself and Ansel. But the man had said nothing, and done nothing to betray him. Moreover, Jesse had sensed a trained, disciplined mind even in their brief contact. That sniffer was a Healer, and one trained by the Gabrilites, too. Was it possible that he hadn't sensed Jesse's own shields? Or had he sensed them and not said anything to avoid betraying any more of his kind than he absolutely must? Surely, such a man did not *want* to use his powers to betray his own people. His eyes themselves haunted Jesse, though. The sniffer had abandoned hope long before reaching the gates of Hell.
Jesse straightened and untied their two horses. It required some insistent tugs on the reins as the animals were not eager to leave their hay and the relative shelter of the leaky barn for the rain and cold outside. Jesse glanced over his shoulder dreading and half-expecting to see Ansel already in the custody of Custodes knights. But Ansel still stood alone at the barn door, watching the inn with motionless intensity. They both mounted quickly, and shot from the inn yard in a shower of mud, bent low over the horses' necks, intent only on leaving the inn behind as fast as possible. Even the rain and stinging cold were welcome in the relief of their escape. Fortunately, the mud was too soft to hold their horses' prints for long. Already, their tracks were being obliterated by the driving rain.