Sword of a Saint
Chapter 1 - Part 2
Michael Cameron stumbled as
his feet touched solid rock. Exhaustion buckled his knees and he fell,
catching himself on his hands. His eyes focused on a pair of fine
leather boots not a foot from his face.
His heart pounded in fear as he slowly looked up. The boots belonged to a man of burly build and stern looks, swathed completely in black silk. His head was covered by a close turban, his tunic and loose fitting breeches topped by a long, hooded cloak. A wide leather belt carried several knives of various sizes and a wickedly curved sword.
Footsteps on either side and behind him warned Michael that this man was not alone. He gathered what was left of his courage and rose to his feet. Seven men stood around him, their arms folded, their faces stern. All were dressed exactly as the first man.
They were unlike any Michaelines he had ever seen in Gwynedd.
The burly man he faced reached out to probe his mind. Michael reinforced his shields as best he could, though he knew the effort was useless. He had not the strength to stop a determined cat, exhausted as he was.
The man laughed and withdrew. "So, you are Deryni then, little one? And you dare enter without an introduction?"
Michael straightened his shoulders. "It was not my intention. I thought to go elsewhere." He fought to stop his knees from shaking.
The man laughed again. "And you are elsewhere, little one. At your final destination, it would seem. We do not allow strangers to come and go at will."
The man lifted a hand. One of the others stepped forward. Michael flinched when the second man drew a curved dagger from his belt. He hated himself for the fear that tore at him. He groped for his dagger, but found nothing. The knife must have slipped from his clothing as he fled.
The first man, who seemed to be the leader of the group, pulled a similar dagger and offered it to Michael, hilt first. "I give you a chance. If you survive, you may join us."
Michael hesitated. He was certain the leader spoke truth, yet why would they take such a risk. Perhaps for them this was some sort of sport.
It was the best chance he had. He grasped the dagger and faced his opponent.
The man in black was young, strong and skilled. His first pass opened a shallow slash on Michael's shoulder. Michael blocked a second strike, but a third left a nasty cut across his chest.
The motherless cur was playing with him! Rage fed Michael's desperation and sent strength to his limbs. He was wiry and quick, having had long training at dodging the hands and feet of Sinclair's guards.
Michael blocked blows and let his opponent lead the fight for a few minutes. Then he saw his chance. His opponent overextended, lunging for Michael's chest. Michael stepped aside and drove the curved dagger into the other man's throat.
Blood sprayed his worn tunic and breeches. His opponent fell, twitching, soaking the dust with his blood. Michael retrieved both daggers and faced the remaining men, braced for a fight he knew he could not win.
The leader laughed as he stepped over the dying man. "Easy little one, I meant what I said. You know that, as you truth-read me. Come, and we will get you cleaned up. You look dead on your feet."
"Who are you?" The question seemed silly even as he asked it.
The answer was worse than not knowing at all.
"You have fallen into a fine chance, young one. This is the chapter house of the Guild of Assassins. I am the Master of this Guild." He gave Michael a short bow. "Abu Khuzaymah Ilban Isa al Farquah, for the moment at your service. Now, a hot meal and a bed await you. Will you refuse?"
Two women in patterned silk caftans came as soon as the Grand Master snapped his fingers. Silver bells adorned their ankles, wrists and belts. The merry sounds accompanied the women as they gently led Michael up a narrow flight of stairs.
The women led Michael through an exquisite garden and rooms of such opulence he could only stare at them without believing what he was seeing. Inlaid marble floors and walls traced with precious metals and set with jewels provided the background for piles of luxurious cushions. Even more incredible to Michael's eyes, there were carpets with colors as bright as new opened blossoms on the floor, to be walked upon.
He was led into a room built entirely of polished marble, or so it seemed. The center was dominated by a pool of steaming water about four feet deep. Men and women wearing no more than turbans, loincloths and strings of silver bells stood waiting with lengths of towel, pitchers and basins of water and small casks of soap. Before Michael could protest, one of the women spoke a few low words to a large female who stood near the door. The nearly naked woman nodded and laughed, setting her fat belly jiggling. She motioned to several of the others, jabbering at them wildly.
Michael was surrounded and gently but firmly stripped, soaped, rinsed and placed in the pool. He sensed they discussed him as they washed him, rather like he was a helpless infant. No matter how ashamed he was, the bath felt too good for him to protest. As soon as he was in the pool, one of the women who had led him to the chamber brought a tray laden with cheese, dates, figs and dried mutton. Another slave filled a cup with watered wine and set it beside the plate.
Michael's stomach rumbled loudly. Several of the slaves giggled. He paid them no mind, but turned his attention to the food and wine. Only later, much later when he had been dried, dressed in a soft plain linen tunic and led to a pallet in a dormitory with other youths did he wonder what sort of a bargain he had made.
Grand Master Khuzaymah stared for a moment at the exhausted boy as the slaves led him away. When Michael was well out of earshot he turned to the slim cloaked man who had arrived from Gwynedd. "What news?"
"The king will die soon, possibly within the week." The assassin threw back his hood. His frown matched the Grand Master's thoughts perfectly. "How did that boy follow me?"
"Who knows? Perhaps a portal has some memory of its last use. Or perhaps it was merely mischance. In any case, our portals are never unguarded. We have nothing to worry about." The Grand Master tucked his hands into the voluminous sleeves of his tunic, wishing he could tuck his thoughts away as easily. "He is not the first we have had from Gwynedd, nor do I think will he be the last."
"I do not see a mass exodus, Master. Most of the Deryni in Gwynedd seem oblivious to what is about to happen to them. It is almost as if they think they will escape their fates by ignoring the obvious."
The Grand Master nodded. "And you must remember Hassan, that our employer wishes that they remain blind until the end comes. He wants as few Deryni in Gwynedd as possible when the prince returns to regain his throne."
Hassan frowned. "And what do you intend to do with the young one who followed me, Master?"
Khuzaymah reached out a delicate probe into his guildsman's mind. Hassan's concern for the intruder was worrying. It might betray emotional involvement that could not be allowed, not if the Guild was to keep its reputation for efficiency and obedience.
When Hassan's shields revealed nothing, Khuzaymah decided to be candid and see what he might dislodge. "I intend to train him twice as hard as any other who has come to us. I will make him the best we have ever had. Or I will see him broken at my feet."