Cedric & Daffyd
jerked awake and to full awareness in the morning. He could hear a dog
whining outside the goat pen, its claws scrabbling against the stout
little wooden door. They had over slept, and now their refuge was their
Cedric's heart nearly refused to beat from fear. The Custodes often used dogs to hunt fugitives, he knew. Mireille was already rigidly upright, pale handfire floating by her head as she stared at the door in terror. Both of them strained to listen for men's voices outside.
**Miri, the handfire! Get rid of it!** Cedric urged.
"What's the use?" she croaked. "They've found us and we're doomed."
**Not yet we aren't,** Cedric returned. **Put it out and maybe they won't guess who or what we are right away.**
Mireille closed her fist, and once again they were hidden in the darkness. Around them, the goats were beginning to wake up and bleat their hunger. Cedric struggled to block them out, listening to the bark and whine of the single dog outside the door. One dog, not a hunting pack. Nor could he hear human footsteps, or the stamp of hooves which would herald the presence of knights.
The door to the pen opened, letting in pale gray daylight and a gust of freezing air. The daylight caught Mireille's booted toes where no human foot should be. The goatherd's dog sprang at her and seized her ankle in its teeth, worrying at it. Mireille yelped, and her attempt to draw away only made the dog cling harder to her ankle.
"Who's there?" a deep voice called. "Back, Brindle. Sit!"
The dog let go and was evidently dragged back from the doorway by his master.
"Come out," the goatherd's voice commanded. Stretching his Deryni perception to the utmost, Cedric could not sense any other human presence besides that of the one man immediately outside their door.
"Come out, you have nothing to fear. I won't harm you," the deep voice coaxed.
**What shall we do?** Mireille asked silently, rubbing her ankle.
**I'd say obey him. He's alone, and there are two of us. If we could get away from that Custodes knight in the village the other day, we can probably get away from him.**
**Biting her lip, Mireille crawled forward, picking up her bundle as she went. They might have to make a run for it, and could not afford to lose any more of their scant belongings than they already had.
Cedric picked up his own bundle and followed her on his hands and knees. He moved slowly, miserably aware of how cold and cramped he felt. His neck and back were very stiff. On the positive side, he was far better rested than he had been the day before, and his clothes were now only damp for having had shelter through the night.
As he'd expected, the ground outside the goat pen and every other surface had a snow coverlet several inches deep this morning. Mireille stood shivering, clutching her bundle to her chest as she faced the goatherd. Her breath and his sent gusts of white steam into the morning air. She looked as ready to bolt for safety as any deer in the woods. The dog observed her from just behind his master, quietly obedient but still suspicious. He growled and showed his fangs when Cedric appeared. The goats came streaming out of the shed after Cedric though, almost over balancing him. At a gesture from his master, the dog bounded off after them, barking and nipping to gather them together.
"Two of you," the man murmured lifting his tufted eyebrows when the dog had herded the goats away. His voice was deep,coming from a broad barrel chest, and although he was short, he had a powerful physique. He was warmly dressed in wool with stout boots and a wore a knee-length goatskin cloak over all. His long hair and beard were white and his face might have been carved from oak.
"Why have you taken shelter in my goat shed?"
"I-" Cedric desperately hunted for an explanation, and could only come up with the truth. As exhausted and hungry as he was, he did not care to try to match his strength against the goatherd's.
"Forgive us, sir. We mean no harm to you or your stock, but we are hunted fugitives. We will be on our way and not trouble you again." The goatherd only smiled. "You would have passed a more agreeable night by my cottage fire."
"We did not dare, sir," Mireille murmured in her normal voice. Usually she was careful to speak to strangers in a low gruff tone. "After so many days of being hunted by the Cus-" she stopped at once, horrified at what she'd almost said.
The goatherd looked closely at her, then cocked his head at Cedric in question.
"My wife," Cedric nodded, seeing no point in lying to the man. "Caution has become a habit for us," he added. "But we desperately needed shelter for the night."
"And did not know whether you would find friends or traitors in the cottage," the old goatherd nodded his understanding. Mireille swayed a little on her feet, shivering hard all over. Cedric felt equally light-headed but he could steady himself against the door of the goatpen. The goatherd noticed this, and his face was calm and kind.
"Your need for shelter is not past, I think. There will be more snow before noon, or I'm no judge of weather. Come inside and have some breakfast at least. There will be a fire in the kitchen, and my old woman will have porridge cooking."
He cupped a hand under Mireille's elbow and led her around the corner of the goat pen with Cedric following. He kept his hand on his belt knife just in case the Custodes were waiting for them, then let it go, feeling foolish. The little farmyard ahead was empty of men and horses. Mireille's footsteps and those of the goatherd made black tracks in the snow but the whiteness was undisturbed otherwise. The sky was the color of iron overhead and to Cedric it felt as if the wind was blowing straight through his body. The holding was larger than it had appeared the night before and, for this high in the mountains, it was quite prosperous for all that it clung precariously to the side of a steep slope. A donkey and two white-faced cows occupied the low undercroft of the cottage, and they peered out as Cedric and Mireille passed. Ahead stood a wooden henhouse. Below them and to the right, three narrow but level fields had been created like terraces in the mountainside. Smoke rose from the squat stone chimney at the far gable end of the cottage, speaking of the promised fire within.
**It's a risk,** Cedric reproved himself even as he staggered up the little hill toward the cottage door behind the other two. Their luck had changed for the better for the first time since they'd left their cave by the creek and he would trust it for now.
Inside, the cottage was dim in the firelight, but tidy, and homely. A comfortable middle-aged farmwife was stirring something in an iron pot over the fire. She straightened as they came in, lifting her eyebrows at the sight of two shabby strangers with her husband.
"I found them sleeping with our goats, Elspeth," the goatherd said simply. "Have we enough porridge to share with them?"
"Aye, to be sure," she nodded. "Come warm yourselves by the fire, friends." She waved her cooking spoon at a low wooden bench to the right of the hearth.
Cedric and Mireille sat and stretched their hands out to the warmth. Cedric closed his eyes and simply basked although the heat soon made his cold hands and feet tingle with pain. Sitting still by that fire was the most blessed luxury he could have imagined after the wet hungry week he and Mireille had just spent in their flight.
He opened his eyes at a nudge from their hostess who placed a wooden bowl of porridge in his hands, and then gave another to Mireille.
"Thank you," Cedric nodded. The porridge had been covered with milk and honey and gave off the most delicious steam. Although he made a genuine effort to not just devour it, it seemed to Cedric that he had only eaten a half-dozen spoonfuls before the bowl was empty. At his side Mireille was finishing her share with single-minded intensity. She clutched the bowl and the horn spoon as if she feared they would be taken away from her.
Generously, Elspeth didn't even try, but ladled more cereal into both their bowls where they sat, then passed the milk and honey.
"Thank you," Cedric repeated, smiling up at the woman.
She nodded and gave them both a kindly look. "By the look of ye both, I'd say ye hadn't eaten a decent breakfast for several days."
"We hadn't," Mireille agreed. "We truly thank you for your goodness, madam." She gave the honey spoon a last twirl over her helping of porridge.
For a long moment, the farm wife looked at her as if poised to ask a question, then shook her head slightly.
"I'm not a 'madam' lass," she said. "Just Geraint the goatherd's wife." She refilled her own bowl and went to sit on a stool at the opposite side of the fire to eat it.
**Careful,** Cedric warned Mireille. **We still don't know these people well.**
**We know that they have been good to us without knowing who we are, or asking many questions,** Mireille told him. She gave him a sidelong, rebellious look.
**Aye, they have, and it's better for them and certainly better for us that they know as little about us as we can help should the Custodes come sniffing around here looking for us.**
**I suppose so,** Mireille sent back much subdued. Cedric sighed and ate his second bowl of cereal, managing to be less voracious this time.
Elspeth finished eating, then rose and came to collect their bowls as well. Mireille began to stand out of courtesy, but winced as she put weight on her left leg.
"Nay, lass. Warm yourselves by the fire. I shan't be long," Elspeth said and ducked through a curtained doorway. Mireille sat and leaned down to rub her ankle with a face full of pain.
**What's the matter?** Cedric asked.
**That miserable dog tried to chew my foot off,** Mireille answered.
**Well he did find two strangers in his master's goat pen,** Cedric pointed out. **Just thought he was doing his job, most likely.** He knelt on the floor beside her and pushed up her gray woolen legging which was torn and speckled with blood near the hem.
**I'll take care of it now. A sore ankle will only slow you down, and we can't have those bites festering.**
The dog's teeth had made some bloody, but shallow puncture wounds in Mireille's thin ankle, four deeper wounds marking where his fangs had sunk in. The ankle was warm to the touch and evidently tender for Mireille winced at even the light pressure of his fingers although she did not draw away. Cedric descended easily into his healing trance to close up and erase all signs of the dog bites. His work done, he came back to normal consciousness and glanced up at Mireille. She took no notice of him, but sat motionless, staring at the curtained doorway. His survival instincts piqued, Cedric turned swiftly.
Elspeth stood there with folded blankets draped over her arm, staring at him with wide eyes. There was no doubt what she had just seen. But there was awe and tenderness in her face, not fear.
"Praise God," she murmured and crossed herself. "Then not all the Healers died when St. Neot's was destroyed!"
"I was not at St. Neot's," Cedric returned feeling embarrassed. "But I've heard rumors that some of the Gabrilites managed to escape that night."
"I'm glad to hear it," Elspeth replied. "And glad that Geraint and I had this chance to repay our debt."
"Debt? I don't understand."
"Geraint was badly injured some years ago when he fell while tending our goats in the mountains. He would have died but for the help of the Gabrilites. They found him and took him into their infirmary and healed him, then sent word to me that he was safe. After that, Geraint always sold them the cheese from our goats and cows and the honey from our hives. After the snow melted last spring, Geraint went to take them a new load of our cheese and honey only to find St. Neot's all burnt and ruined and the Brothers dead, disappeared or just gone. We grieved as if we'd lost our own family."
Elspeth crossed herself once again, then raised her face to smile at Cedric. "Be assured that Geraint and I would never betray you to your enemies, Master Healer. Consider our home your refuge."
Tears came to Cedric's eyes at her words. He could meet hatred and the venom of the Custodes and the hatred and fear of human commoners dry eyed and proud. The necessity of being on his guard against every unknown person seemed no more than good sense for a man in his situation. But Elspeth's compassion reminded him of everything he'd lost in the past two years in a way that hatred and suspicion never could.
"Elspeth speaks truly," Geraint's voice came from the door. A gust of cold air entered the kitchen with him, but he quickly shut the door behind him, and set two heavy wooden buckets down on the floor.
"You are among friends, and may stay with us as long as you wish."
"We thank you, but-" Mireille began.
"We cannot stay," Cedric broke in. "If the Custodes should find that you've sheltered us, you'd be fortunate if they limited themselves to burning your house and slaughtering your stock. More likely, they'd do all that and you'd be captured and taken to Valoret as prisoners along with us. Your offer is generous, but we."
"You would find us very dangerous guests," Mireille finished. "We thank you for the meal and the shelter, but we must not put you at risk by staying. It's best for everyone that we go now."
"Go where?" Geraint asked mildly.
Cedric tensed "We must go," he told Geraint. "The Custodes will never give up hunting us, and we must stay as far ahead of them as we can if we're to have any chance of escape."
"Look out the window," Geraint said quietly. Cedric glanced out the one small window. All he could see was the whiteness of blowing snow. The small, thick windowpanes were almost coated with ice already.
"You'd not get fifty feet from our door without being lost in that storm," Geraint told him. "Not even Satan would be out hunting for you in such weather. What would be the use of escaping them just to get lost and freeze to death in a mountain snowstorm?"
Cedric just knelt at Mireille's feet, paralyzed with his indecision. With all his heart he wanted to stay in this warm firelit kitchen, but feared it would ultimately become a trap. He glanced up at Mireille whose face was neutral. He touched her mind with his own and read that she was tormented with the same desire to stay and urgency to be gone as he was himself.
"Will not your scent be cold and your tracks covered by the snow?" Elspeth whispered at last.
Cedric started to rise and staggered instead. Geraint caught him by the shoulders and guided him to sit down onto the bench beside Mireille.
"Friend Healer, how long has it been since you've slept in a proper bed?"
Cedric's head drooped and he sighed, knowing he could never venture into the storm now. "I've forgotten," he told Geraint simply. "Months. No, years."
"Today at least you shall. Rest and recover your strength for now, and go on when the storm is over. I see we can't persuade you to stay longer than that."
Cedric and Mireille allowed themselves to be guided into Geraint and Elspeth's tiny bedchamber. Once alone, they undressed and climbed into their benefactors' cupboard bed and slept as soon as they had pulled the blankets up around their shoulders.