Sword of a Saint
Chapter 3 - Part 3
December 922 -
The Black Stag Tavern smelled of wet wool, strong ale, smoke and too many unwashed bodies packed together. Michael leaned against the wall and surveyed the room from beneath the hood of his dark cloak. Fifteen of Manfred McInnis's personal guard stood watch as two pinch faced clerks collected the rents due the Earl of Culdi, the Church, and the Crown. The guardsmen wore chain mail and did not allow their attention to stray from the clerks, save for an occasional glance at the three buxom wenches who wove their way through the crowd with pitchers of dark beer and hot cider.
Something had put the Earl's men on their guard. Besides the crowd of muscle and weapons in the inn, Michael had already found one surly idiot in a black robe who jabbed a needle tipped with merasha into the arm of anyone who entered the inn. Michael grimaced as the two guards nearest the door seized a burly fellow as he entered the tavern. The cleric in the dark robe thrust his needle into the hapless man's arm.
At the startled grunt of pain, Michael flexed his own shoulder. The preparation they were using was so poorly done he doubted it would have offered a trained adept much trouble. No doubt these clods were looking to catch the unwary, untrained, unfortunates who still strove to live with their human neighbors. Or perhaps they just wanted to provoke general rebellion. The drug might not be a problem, but those needles hurt.
"Ye drinkin', handsome?" One of the bar maids thrust her ample breasts against his arm. Michael glanced down. The girl held a pitcher of steaming cider and several leather mugs. Sweat made her dark hair curl enticingly over her forehead and cling to the rounded shoulder the collar of her loose tunic exposed. With the light dusting of freckles on her rosy cheeks she was definitely appealing.
"My thanks." Michael accepted the mug of cider. "How much?"
She shrugged. "Today it's on the house. Our master says we serve all them that comes here on tax day. He thinks it keeps 'em from tearin' the place apart."
Given the surly mood in the room and the added assault at the door, Michael doubted the innkeeper's efforts were worth much. Still he slipped a broad silver penny into the girl's cleavage. "Then keep this for yourself."
Her cheeks flushed a deep red. "Ye're a true gentleman, m'lord. Not like them that serves the Earl now. I hope they didn't give ye no trouble. They've been rough on strangers of late."
"And why is that?"
She glanced over her shoulder. "I must get back to work."
Michael felt her heart begin to race. Something made her nervous, and he wanted to find out what. "You are working. After all, isn't it your job to give your patrons whatever they ask for?"
"And what are ye askin' me for, m'lord?" Her feet shifted on the hard packed dirt floor. Clearly she wished he would let her leave.
Michael slipped another penny into her bodice. "Your company. That's for sale, isn't it?"
She shook her head firmly. "I ain't that sort, m'lord. Yer pardon, but I'm a decent God fearing girl."
He gave her a gentle smile carefully calculated to put her at ease. "And I've no need to pay for that sort of comfort should I desire it, lass. I only wanted a bit of conversation. After traveling long it's good to see a friendly face, especially a pretty one."
She studied his boots. "Aye, m'lord. I ask yer pardon if I thought wrongly."
"You are wise to make your assumptions clear at the outset. It might save you trouble later." Michael shifted slightly to give her space to lean against the rough paneled wall. "Let's start with your name, shall we?"
She licked her lips as if debating the wisdom of further conversation. Then, with what could only be a rebellious smile, she set her pitcher and cups on a nearby table. "I'm called Evie, m'lord. And ye?"
"Michael." He offered her his cup. "Plain Michael."
She took a long swallow of the cider. "Well, plain Michael, ye've come at a bad time. I've never seen the Earl's men so nervous of strangers."
"I take it they fear more than robbery?" Michael glanced across the room. Adrian sat near the hearth studying the rear of the inn. When he caught Michael's eye, the lad nodded and approached them carefully through the crowd.
Evie lowered her voice to a whisper. "There's been strange rumors about, Demons that rise from the mist, attacking good men and women even on the steps of God's Own Church. The Earl's thinking it's the work of Deryni, and he's been hunting them more eagerly than before. He says they can summon devils from the deep to aid them."
Her eyes darkened as she spoke, and her lips thinned slightly. Michael's attention peaked at the subtle signs of evasion. "And what do you believe?"
Evie licked her lips again and glanced at the nearest guard. He appeared engrossed in studying a plump fellow who stood arguing with the clerks.
"If there's Deryni doin' this, m'lord, it'd be no more than's due. I was young when the bishops passed the Statutes, but I remember how it was before. The bishops are wrong, and the Earl's just looking to fatten his purse at the expense of others." She looked up at Michael with wide, doe brown eyes. "I hope I ain't spoken out of line, m'lord. I know if you're sent to hunt heretics I've put my neck in the noose but I can't stand to see my neighbors treated like they are. The MacRories were good lords, when they were here, an' our current Earl has done little to gain anyone's respect."
Adrian brushed past Michael's shoulder on his way to the door. The touch was brief, but long enough for the boy to pass a quick thought. ** The back room's full of ale and wine. There's a cook fire, and no back door. **
The time was right. Michael straightened his cloak and handed Evie the mug of cider. "Why don't you finish this for me?"
As she took the cup he followed an impulse before he could consider what might follow. His fingers brushed Evie's hand, and Michael invaded her mind just long enough to impart an urgent need to find the outhouse.
Michael pulled his leather gloves from his belt as if preparing to ride. He pushed his way thought the narrow door and stepped into the cold evening air. Snowflakes dusted his face with feathery kisses.
The rest of his party waited near the stable, with the horses. Michael glanced back at the inn. To his relief he saw Evie turn the corner and head for the toilet, several yards away.
"The hogs are in the pen, lads. Shall we shut the gates?"
"Absolutely." Fergus looked up at the heavily thatched roof. "We drop the roof on them?"
"Of course. And I've thought of a bit of drama to add here." Michael sent them a quick image of blue flames shooting into the darkening December sky.
"Let's bring the roof down."
They clasped hands in the center of their group, forming a quick star pattern. Michael took half a moment to gather and concentrate the energy from the three powerful minds. Then, as if he were casting a javelin at a target, he hurled the concentrated energy at the nearest wall of the inn. Just as Michael launched the power at the wall, the black robed cleric with the merasha tipped needle dashed to the narrow door, shouting and gesturing at the group of Deryni near the stable. Michael's nerves jumped. There must be someone inside who could detect what they were doing. He searched the inn and found, near the door, a shielded mind, beaten, terrified, and definitely Deryni.
But it was too late to call back the spell. Too late as the power struck the wall and collapsed the support beams, sending the roof crashing down on all inside. Too late as the flames in the hearth and the cook fire at the back leapt into the oily straw and spilled beer.
Even had he wished to, Michael knew he could not have saved that pathetic wretch. He was only surprised at the effort it took to close his heart against the agonized shrieks of those burning to death and send the final touch he imagined for their memorial. In the space between one breath and the next, the raging inferno burned brilliant blue.
The villagers who rushed to the scene of the accident recoiled at the horrifying sight. Buckets fell from hands numb with shock. They stood while those in the inn suffered the torments of the damned.
Unnoticed by the living, the angel Uriel passed through the flaming debris to welcome the departed. The innkeeper, his wife, daughter and servant clung to each other for comfort as they followed his direction to the shining path that opened from the darkening sky.
The tormented Deryni McInnis had been using to ferret out others of his kind held back a moment. The man's face broke into a broad smile as he found the four who had ended his life. Although his executioners could not see him, the fellow gave them a jaunty wave that clearly spoke of gratitude.
Sometimes, Uriel thought as he watched the last of his charges go, death is better.
Dark shapes oozed up from the earth. A fetid smell not discernible to the living filled the air. Hands grasped at the souls remaining, those who had served the twisted ends of the Earl of Culdi and now must pay the price for all eternity.
As the wretched guardsmen and clerks were dragged away, shrieking and begging for mercy that would not come, Uriel sighed. Sometimes death is better, but not always.
"Well, what did you expect?" Uriel leaned against a tree and watched his fellow archangel Michael pace like a caged cat. "That he would grow into a paragon of piety in the assassins’ guild hall?"
"He had good parents. I had hoped some of their teachings at least would have stayed with him." Michael stopped pacing and jammed his hands into his wide leather belt. The frustrated gesture was so human Uriel almost laughed aloud. Of all their kind his friend, the Heavenly Protector, was the most like men.
"Michael, be reasonable. His parents have been dead for years. Before that, they could barely control him." Uriel straightened, sympathy for his friend's distress overwhelming his desire to chuckle at the problem. "You wanted him to protect the scattered remnants of a vanishing race. He is doing that by killing those who would butcher them to the last child."
"And desecrating sacred ground? Those brutes died on the steps of a church, within the Sphere of Sanctuary. No blade could be drawn against them."
Uriel shrugged. "Well, no blades were used. What's the problem? I don't think the common folk will be giving any information to Custodes' inquisitors any time soon."
"And that's all well and good, but the effects are not so benign." Despair shadowed Michael's eyes. "Do you think those in power will cease their efforts because the hand of Divine Justice has reached out to mark some of them? They will redouble the horrors they inflict to secure their positions of power before fear can spread through the people."
Michael's shoulders slumped as he leaned against the same tree Uriel had only just left. "I have created a monster. Now I must unmake him."