Sword of a Saint
Chapter 3 - Part 6
February 923 - Saint Cecilia's
Sister Valerian gently folded Mother Anne's hands over the polished wooden crucifix laid on the old nun's breast. She blinked to keep the tears from spilling down her cheeks. The abbess had been her guide, her guardian and in all ways her mother as long as she could remember.
Her helplessness at Mother Anne's death was the worst. Despite her best efforts, a weakness of the heart had sapped the old woman's life away by stages. No remedy of herbs, no prayers and even Valerian's own Healing could not stem the step of death. She should know better, her mind told her. No Healer could erase old age. She had no time for sorrow. There were other patients to see to, always more in the abbey's infirmary.
The patter of quick footsteps drew her attention from Mother Anne's body. Who would be running in the cloister? Surely none of the sisters would dare break the ordered peace they lived by.
She turned as the curtain over Mother Anne's door flapped open. A plump nun of middle years rushed into the room, tears streaking her cheeks. She wrung her hands as she struggled to speak through the sobs she struggled to restrain.
"Take breath, Sister." Valerian helped the distressed nun to the one stool in Mother Anne's cell. "Calm down and tell me what is the matter?"
"Run!" The one word escaped the plump nun's quivering lips. "Valerian, run!"
"I will do no such thing. What can you be thinking?" Valerian drew a slow, calming breath and fixed her eyes on the crucifix Mother Anne held. "Surely I am in no danger here."
"But you are. Sister Walburga has been named Abbess, and she has already sent for the Custodes to take you away." The words came in a rush once the plump nun calmed enough to speak. "You must hurry! Leave now!"
Valerian suppressed a shiver. The Prioress's hunger for power was well known to the other nuns, but as she was a most efficient administrator there had never been any question that she deserved the place.
Still, Valerian knew Sister Walburga had few feelings, good or bad, for any save herself. If she thought Valerian's presence at the abbey a danger, she would certainly throw her out. Valerian could not believe the other nun could be so cold as to turn her over to executioners.
"I will speak with Sister --- Mother Walburga." The words and the rational decision calmed Valerian immediately. "I am certain there has been some misunderstanding. There is no cause for alarm."
"But there is, Sister! They are at the gate now!" The plump nun struggled off the stool, hampered by her voluminous habit. "I was in the kitchens when I heard them ask entrance. They are coming for you even as we speak!"
Before the nun finished speaking, Valerian heard the tread of boots on the swept stone floor beyond the curtain and the rattle of mail. She turned to face the door just as the curtain was torn away by hands encased in thick leather gloves.
Sister Walburga, the ornamented gold crucifix that Mother Anne had worn for so many years hanging over her chest, stood surrounded by men robed in the black tabards and cloaks of the Ordo Custodes. Their gazes flashed from the plump, trembling nun to Sister Valerian as if they were uncertain which woman they were to take.
Sister Walburga pointed to Valerian with one thin hand. "There she is." A slim, blonde Custodes with a thin scar marring his otherwise handsome features placed a leather bag in Sister Walburga's hand, the bag jingled, unmistakably full of coins. "Just recompense for doing your duty, Mother. It's a pity your predecessor did not show the same loyalty to her faith."
Mother Walburga nodded. "You will have her out of here immediately, I trust?"
Valerian had only a moment to brace herself as two of the knights seized her arms. An instant later she felt something sharp jab into her neck. Her shields crumbled, her mind numbed and the room spun about her as the drug spread through her system.
She struggled to remain on her feet as the Custodes knights stripped her of her wimple and veil. One of them ran his hand through the shorn curls she kept scrupulously clean. He leered into her face, his breath hot against her skin. Valerian managed not to cry out, but it was a struggle. The final indignity came as they ripped the simple wooden cross from her neck and tore away her habit, leaving her clad in naught but her shift and slippers.
The tall, blonde knight who seemed to be in charge motioned his men toward the door. "There's time enough for all that on our way to Rhemuth. Let's be off."
Valerian stumbled as they dragged her from the room. She managed to pause as they passed Abbess Walburga. There was only time to focus on the older nun's smug smile and ask one question. "Why?"
Abbess Walburga's smile widened. "It is God's will that you should be given over to justice. My pleasure comes in following His commands. Especially since, if not for your accursed powers, the old hag would have died years ago and I would have had my just rewards that much sooner."
Valerian shivered. The malice in Abbess Walburga's tone turned her blood to ice. She closed her eyes to regain her equilibrium and shut out the malice she could not block any other way. The Custodes led her from the abbey into the chill, clear afternoon light. Other sisters, most of whom she had known all her life, watched them. Some bowed their heads over folded hands, perhaps asking God's protection for her, others turned away. More than one began whispering to a companion.
Valerian raised her head as they passed the Sisters. Pride, her greatest sin, demanded she not show any fear to the others or to her captors. Unfortunately when she moved the world about her spun sickeningly, her head wobbled as if on strings. She stumbled and was rewarded with laughter.
The Custodes horses stood near the gate, held by a pair of squires. One of the knights bound Valerian's hands with a long leather strap. She turned her head, trying to block out what was happening, as noticed with shock that she was not alone. A balding man wearing a muddy brown cloak over a simple tunic and breeches stood near her, bound as she was. His eyes were glazed, his face lined with exhaustion.
The tall blonde knight leered at Valerian and gave her a malicious grin. "As you see, my dear, we are fortunate to have bagged more than we bargained for on this journey. Your companion was unwise enough to show himself when he visited one of his old patients. At least you'll have the honor of entertaining the lot of us when we reach Valoret."
The Custodes set off at a brisk walk, dragging their captives behind them. Valerian struggled to keep up, bound as she was. The knight who held the leather strap that tied her hands did not make the job easier, for he seemed to go out of his way to choose the roughest path and to vary his pace, making her stumble.
They traveled all afternoon without rest. By the time darkness fell, Valerian's muscles screamed with pain. She had never walked so far, not even when she went to visit the village market with the Sisters. Rough stones tore her slippers and bruised her feet. Worse to her mind, mud and sweat stained her shift and matted her hair.
She realized tears were trickling down her cheeks as the Custodes dismounted and began setting their camp beside the road. Fires were let, tents raised. The horses were tethered to sharp iron stakes driven into the muddy ground. Both captives were secured the same way.
The tall blonde knight approached them with a companion once the camp was set up. They turned first to the captive man. The dark haired one seized the prisoner's jaw and held it in a knuckle whitening grip. A crimson aura flared around the dark man's head. The prisoner moaned, his eyes rolling.
"He's fine 'till morning," the dark Deryni told the blonde knight as he released the wretched prisoner. The man fell to the ground and lay there, gasping, seemingly unaware of the soggy muck he lay in. They turned to Valerian. Smiles spread across their faces.
Valerian struggled to raise her shields. Her mind refused to obey. A moment later the dark haired Deryni's presence slammed into her mind, examining her as if she were goods in a market. Even as he ravaged her mind the foul Deryni fastened a hand over one breast. His grip drew a moan of pain from her though she clamped her lips together.
"Think we should give her some more?" The blonde knight's voice held laughter.
The Deryni shook his head as he released Valerian. "Let's leave it for later. She'll be livelier if we don't."
He dropped the torch. It lay, still burning amid the steam that rose from the sodden ground. The light it threw flared weirdly off their faces, highlighting the crimson lining of their black cloaks.
"I'll hold her for you, and you for me, alright?"
The first knight grinned. "I'm going to enjoy this one more than most. I have a feeling she's a virgin, though it's hard to tell with these witches. I've been thinking about this all day."
His companion laughed. "You and everyone else in camp, but let's at least get a blanket. I don't want to get covered in mud."
Valerian's drugged mind refused to understand their meaning. She sighed with relief when they left, leaving the torch still burning in the mud. A short while later they returned, carrying a thick length of wool blanket and followed by two squires and several other knights.
The blanket was spread on the ground. One of the knights shoved Valerian onto it and seized her shoulders in a grip of iron. The handsome blonde unfastened his cloak and unbuckled his wide leather belt. One of the squires took the garments.
"Nothing too rough tonight," he told the gathered crowd of men. "After all, we've got a few days traveling to enjoy her and we don't want her dead just yet."
The laughter that followed his words chilled Valerian's soul. Then the attack began. Unable to resist, unable even to distance her mind from the invasion of her body her courage crumbled. Her screams echoed through the forest, finally dissolving into whimpering sobs.