Sword of a Saint
Chapter 2 - Part 1
A slave woke Michael just before dawn and
led him outside the compound. The Grand Master waited there with two
slaves. One held a spirited horse and the other carried a small leather
bag and a curled whip.
The Grand Master pointed across the open plain. "Do you see the red flag? You have until I mount this horse to reach it."
Michael frowned and squinted into the brightening sky. A flash of crimson barely larger than the tip of his thumb was the only sign of anything he could see. That had to be miles away. He felt stronger after a meal and a solid night's sleep, but this was impossible. "I'll not be mocked."
Grand Master Khuzaymah's face wrinkled into what must have been a smile beneath the turban and veil he wore. "You refuse? Then you choose death, boy."
Michael straightened his shoulders. "You cannot make me a fool. No one can outrun a horse."
His answer came without warning. The Grand Master's leg flashed out, catching Michael behind the knees. Michael fell heavily, knocking the breath from his chest. Before he could recover, the whip slashed across his face. A second lash tore his tunic, leaving a thin, bloody welt.
"Run!" The Grand Master's command came with a third stroke of the whip.
Michael scrambled to his feet, ignoring the pain as best he could. He dashed toward the flag, his legs pounding frantically against the shifting sand. Behind him he heard the dulled thunder of hooves and the crack of the lash. The stinging pain pf a new whip stroke drove him on.
At last he reached the flag, which had been planted near a bubbling spring. By this time the sun was fully up and the day beginning to heat like an oven. He was bleeding from more than a dozen welts. Thirst thickened his tongue, exhaustion dragged his limbs.
Slaves waited there, along with several experienced guildsmen and a slim fellow in a silk cloak of Healer's green. One of the slaves poured watered wine into two tall cups.
The Grand Master seized both cups before the slave could move. "Now learn the lesson of defiance, boy. Our Healer will see to your cuts, and you may drink from the spring. Before you have anything more you will run back to our holding with Hassan riding after you."
One of the assassins took the whip from the Grand Master. Michael stiffened his spine and glared at them, hating the Grand Master more at that moment than he had ever hated Hugh Sinclair.
The Healer spent a moment tending Michael's cuts. He managed two quick swallows from the spring before Hassan uncoiled the whip. With a shouted command Michael could not understand and a crack of the whip the assassin let him know the race was on again
The run back to the compound seemed a bit easier than the first. Michael was moving away from the sun this time, and the whip did not strike him half as often, though it flicked near his face and back time and again without touching. These mercies were small as he ran with all his strength into the waves of shimmering heat, but they helped.
He reached the compound just as his legs refused to support him further. Michael collapsed, catching himself on his hands and knees. Darkness ringed his vision and he struggled to vomit, but nothing came up for his efforts.
A roughened hand lifted his head. A cool metal cup filled with lemon water touched his lips. "Best drink, my friend," a voice just testing the deeper tones of manhood advised in his own tongue. "You're spent as it is."
Michael swallowed the tart water gratefully. As his vision came back into focus he realized he was looking at a red haired, freckled lad of perhaps fifteen. Though dressed in the linen tunic and trailing scarf of an apprentice, this was no Easterner.
The red haired fellow tossed the empty cup to a slave and offered Michael an arm. "We haven't met, but I heard you arrived last night. My name's Fergus, but I'm called Fraoraosa. They'll give you a name in their language, too, once you've earned it."
Michael shook off Fergus's hand as soon as he was standing. "Did they make you do that?"
Fergus shook his head. "Not until I'd been here a couple of months. You must be special." He glanced over his shoulder. "I've got to get back to my training. Get yourself out of this sun before you cook. And do yourself a favor; don't defy the Grand Master. You'll live longer."
Michael was allowed a couple of hours in the dormitory to recover himself. Then, after a meal of flat bread and cheese, he was led to a training yard shaded by a high stone wall. The man called Hassan, the same who had chased him back to the compound, stood there with an assortment of wooden weapons.
Hassan gave Michael a short bow. "As I speak your language, the Master has asked that I begin your training. You have much to cover boy, so let us start immediately."
Hassan's curt words were followed by abrupt action. He tossed Michael a wooden sword and took one himself. The sword had a gentle curve along its length and was noticeably broader on the flat side. The curved hilt had an odd shape, to Michael's eyes.
Hassan frowned when Michael caught the sword with his left hand, but said nothing. With a shout of "Yallah!" he lunged.
Michael managed to parry the blow, but then his teacher's curved sword slid off his parry and smacked his ribs. He fell, gasping for breath, Hassan's shout ringing in his ears. "Slow!"
Biting back a curse, Michael rose and shifted his grip on the practice sword. Hassan laughed and lunged again. Michael moved to protect his ribs. This time his master caught his thigh, knocking him to the dust again.
"Slow!" Hassan laughed. "And, worse, you use the wrong hand. Stand up, Outlander. I will show you how it is done."
Michael shook off the hand Hassan offered him. His pride stung like the blows of a whip. He would master this skill before he left the training ring this day, and he would see Hassan in the dust while doing it.
Hassan placed the sword in Michael's right hand and folded his fingers around the oddly shaped hilt. "Now, when you move, do not think to use the point of your sword. Let the blade draw its flow from your left side, from your heart. The sword knows its own way better than you do."
Michael let his teacher guide his arm through a few basic strokes. The new grip let the blade flow more smoothly, though it still felt foreign in his right hand.
"Now, we try again." Hassan faced Michael and swung his sword at Michael's shoulder. Michael blocked the blow, then caught a second strike to his ribs on the flat of the blade.
He was rewarded with a wide, toothy smile from his teacher and a stout pat on his shoulder. "Well done. Oopah!"
Unexpectedly, he felt a swell of pride warm his belly. He caught himself smiling back.
Hassan took the stance of a fighting man and Michael knew this would be a true test. He braced himself and let the sword guide him. Hassan struck for his leg, a shot easily blocked. Then the teacher threw the same shot a second time. Michael hit the ground with a gasp of surprise that knocked the wind from his lungs.
Again and again Hassan struck Michael. Again and again Michael faced his teacher, determined not to make the same mistake. Anger at the laughter of other apprentices drove him, building his determination to master this strange new sword.
At last, aching in every joint, streaked with dust and sweat, he found the secret of the sword. Hassan moved in for a shot that, had it struck, would have landed hard on Michael's bruised back. Michael stepped into the blow, shifted the sword from his right arm to his left and let the triumph he felt at his impending victory flow from his right shoulder through his left arm and out the end of the blade.
His blow caught Hassan beneath the arm with enough power to send the older man staggering back. Michael did not give his teacher time to recover. He immediately threw another shot to Hassan's belly, then changed his target and struck the older man's knee. Hassan tumbled to the earth in a cloud of dust.
Michael's triumph was short lived. The exertion of the morning coupled with the full afternoon of training at last exerted its' hold on him. He realized the sun was setting as he sank to the ground, too exhausted to rise.
Watching unobserved, the Archangel Michael smiled as a pair of slaves helped young Michael Cameron leave the training yard. The boy had done himself proud this day. The morning ordeal should have been enough to exhaust him, but he still found the strength to throw himself into training again. Stamina and pride were essential to make him the kind of protector the archangel sensed would be necessary in the all-to-near future.
"You nearly brought his death to him this day." Uriel's words held a thread of laughter. "That is supposed to be my task, Michael. Not yours."
"Have you changed your name to Nemesis?"
The dark angel laughed richly. "If only He would allow me the freedom of that legendary nymph! There are many in this world that waste away from lack of divine retribution in just measure for their sins."
"Then why do you not dose them with the physic we both believe should be given?"
Uriel shuddered beneath his full black cloak. "I have not your secure position that I might defy My Lord. You risk much."
"He has yet to chastise me should some innocent be spared the fate chance throws." Michael allowed the silence to stretch between them. Then he took a moment and resettled his cloak upon his shoulders. "I believe I shall remain with the Grand Master for a time. Young Cameron's training needs to be watched most carefully."
"You just want to make certain I stand none too close by his shoulder." The setting sun flashed in Uriel's wide grin. "No fear, my friend. It is you who are known as Defender of Innocents, after all. I take no more than my due."
"You must have angered someone important." Fergus offered Michael this bit of encouragement as he handed the younger boy a towel. "I've never seen bruises as bad as yours."
"Thank you for the encouragement." Michael sat up and wrapped the towel around his hips. The slave who had just finished massaging sandalwood scented olive oil into his aching muscles withdrew with a tinkling of silver bells.
"No one trains the whole afternoon after a morning run." Fergus grinned, showing freckles beneath his tanned cheeks. "And I've never seen anyone drop Hassan in the first lesson. That was rich."
"Yeah." Michael did not want to think about his first real lesson in swordplay. Even after a long soak in the steaming pool and a thorough massage he swore even his bones ached. His stomach rumbled with hunger. The evening meal had not yet been served.
"I wonder who I offended?" He did not expect an answer.
Fergus shrugged. "Possibly the Grand Master. After all, you did sneak through a portal and land practically at his feet. You're fortunate to still be breathing. Then again, Hassan probably wants a piece of you if there's anything left. You made him look a fool when you dropped him."
"Wonderful." Michael took a cup of watered wine flavored with lemons from a slave and swallowed most of it in one gulp. The cool, sour drink felt good on his throat. "How did you come here?" he asked, hoping Fergus would change the subject. "Who were you?"
"Me? Nobody, really." Fergus held out his own wine cup for a refill. "My father was stable master at St. Liam's Abbey. He got wind something was happening and told me I had to get the devil out of there before all hell broke loose." He set the untouched cup of wine on a low table.
"I was supposed to be traveling with a party from the Abbey to their Mother House. Unfortunately we got caught in a sand storm and I got separated. A couple of the guildsmen found me and brought me in." Fergus's smile did not reach his eyes. "I guess I looked strong. Or maybe they Read me and discovered I was good with a sword. Anyway, they don't offer choices about joining here. It's either become an apprentice or become a slave. And they don't let most of the slaves live long."
Michael absorbed his words with a shiver of apprehension. In the one day he'd been here he'd seen more slaves than Guildsmen. Male and female, all wore the strings of silver bells to mark their movements.
Fergus drained his wine and wiped his lips on the back of his hand. "Don't let me discourage you, Mick. It's not at all bad here, not if you can get over what they're training us to do. The food's good, the beds are soft and you'll get the education of a gentleman. They usually spend the middle of the day inside, teaching us to write, play their instruments and dance like a proper noble."
Michael grimaced at the thought. "I never was much good at any of that, couldn't sit still long enough." He accepted a clean tunic and loose breeches from a pretty slave with thick lines of kohl around her eyes. The woman's smile sent a thrill through his blood.
"We'd best get to dinner if we want anything to eat at all." Fergus tied a long scarf around his hips to control the tunic's loose length. "Just one word of warning, lad. If one of these Easterlings wants you to convert to their religion, don't even think about it. Once you say yes, they circumcise you."