Sword of a Saint
Chapter 4 - Part 1
Dawn came cold, but still. The storm
had blown itself out, leaving a dusting of snow on the frozen mud and a
chill mist that hung like a death shroud in the air. Not a bird called.
No small beasts scurried amid the fallen bracken and branches of endless
Valerian licked her lips, wishing for a drink of anything to quench the thirst she suffered. Her captors had given her nothing since she had been thrust into the leader's tent the night before. Nothing, that is, save a cup of sour wine laced with the mind numbing drug. She was grateful for that, in a way. She'd managed to sleep through most of the night's experiences.
Now they bound her hands behind her back, as if she were threat to anyone. God help them if they feared her so. She could barely stumble as she was led from the tent. Behind her the captive monk groaned as he, too, was led into the dim morning light.
A sturdy stake stood in the center of the road, the largest cleared space available. A thick pile of wood and bracken surrounded it. Their captors were gathered, waiting expectantly for what was to happen. Valerian shuddered. It was not that she feared death, but the agony of flame undid her resolve. She had tended burns in the village near the abbey, seen blackened flesh curl back from the muscle and bone beneath and heard the screams of the victims.
Those burns were small. What would happen when her entire body was engulfed in flame? Her imagination settled in her stomach and she retched violently, though there was naught to come up. The man leading her laughed and jerked the rope around her aching neck. She stumbled, found her footing and fell again as she was pushed up the stack of faggots.
The other captive cried out as he was bound to the far side of the stake. "If you be men, give me a priest before I die! I would be shriven."
Their captors laughed. One of the brutes fastening Valerian's ropes ran a rough hand over the exposed flesh where her shift had been torn from neck to hem. "How about it, pretty?" His breath, hot on her face, reeked of rotting teeth. "Would you ask for a priest too?"
She pressed her lips together and focused her eyes on the clinging mists. Her tormentors left her then, muttering. From some distant place she heard a rough voice reading the sentence passed upon all Deryni daring enough to follow a religious calling. Valerian commended her soul to God. Surely a merciful Master would not turn away His good servant for want of a few earthly formalities. Her sins could not be so horrible. But she desperately wanted to see the gardens at the abbey again. To feel the joy of the earth waking to spring's warmth. To hold a newborn babe she had helped into the world.
One of the Custodes stepped from the group, carrying a torch. He started toward the pyre, his step steady.
**You will not die this day.** The thread of a thought touched her dazed mind, so lightly she was not certain she heard it. Valerian blinked, but nothing in the scene before her changed. She was still bound to a stake, her executioner moving steadily toward her and wearing a smile of sadistic satisfaction. Perhaps the message came from beyond this world. An assurance that whatever agonies her body suffered her soul would go on to a better place. That had to be it. She lifted her chin to bolster her courage. With a divine presence near she dared not appear ungrateful for the fate decreed by the Almighty.
The Custodes man at arms advanced with the torch that would light the kindling at her feet.
And mayhem exploded.
From the concealing shelter of undergrowth Michael surveyed the camp. He sank his teeth into his lower lip, wishing he had more time to plan this rescue. It would be easy to dispose of the Custodes while they were otherwise occupied burning their captives. With Fergus's words of the previous evening still echoing in his mind, Michael could not consider allowing the execution. Fergus might be the only one of his men to speak directly to him, but Michael knew his friend's feelings were probably mirrored by the others in their group. Dissension could doom them to failure.
So they needed to stop this before the prisoners were in any real danger. Michael took another moment to assess the arrangement of his enemies. From the way they were all grouped, without so much as a squire posted to watch the woods, he guessed they did not anticipate any trouble. Hellfire! Even the squires holding the horses were paying so much attention to the one standing tent that he could cut all their throats before they noticed his presence.
A pair of guardsmen emerged from the tent, each leading a bound captive. Michael guessed from the way the bound man stumbled he must be heavily drugged. Worse luck, for he would not be much help in his own rescue. The woman was another matter. Despite her bedraggled appearance she bore herself like a queen, proud and brave. The filthy remains of her shift did nothing to conceal a slim form that sent a shaft of lightning through Michael's belly.
Michael shook himself. Her rescue would take more than a fervent vow. He focused his attention on a spot slightly to his left, where Fergus lay hidden. **On my signal, surround them with flame. I will rescue the captives before the fire is lit.**
He felt Fergus nod, though he could not see his friend. It would take a moment for the message to spread to the other two raiders and the two armed slaves. Michael could not tear his attention from the girl as she was bound to the stake. While the man whined for the scant comfort of a priest, she held her head high and faced her executioners with the heart of a lioness. Something glistened on her cheeks, but whether it was sweat from the drug they had given her or tears he could not guess.
**You will not die this day.** It was stupid to send the thought. She was probably too drugged to notice, and if there was a Deryni aiding the Custodes the thought might well be his death.
An officious lout read aloud the death sentence. The girl smiled as the oaf rolled up the parchment. Michael licked his lips in anticipation as the crowd of Custodes tensed. A guardsman in black lifted a torch and approached the stake. Michael rose to his feet and stepped clear of his cover. He focused his mind on the torch. Flames danced, blazed, and with a roar like a rushing wind engulfed the hapless torch bearer. The Custodes dropped the torch in an instant, his arms flailing helplessly as he burned. Tortured shrieks seemed magnified in the misty morning. He stumbled and fell onto the faggots stacked at the captives' feet.
The Custodes had to be subdued before any rescue could be managed. The three Deryni assassins joined Michael surrounding their enemies. A spell passed from man to man and the chaos was contained in a wall of flames that licked at the canopy of bare branches above them. Some few of the Custodes began to draw their weapons. Well placed throwing stars ended their lives before their blades could clear scabbards. Horses shrieked in panic, lashing out with iron shod hooves at whoever came near.
Michael drew his sword and leapt through the wall of flames. The pyre burned rapidly, the kindling ignited by the twitching Custodes. If he was going to rescue the prisoners it had to be soon. A bowstring twanged loudly in the circle of flame. Michael felt the arrow strike his hip and lodge there. He was forced to waste a moment controlling the effects of the merasha on the arrow's tip. One of the enemy used the opportunity to bar his way. The man's broadsword was slow, heavy and clumsy. Michael ducked under his swing and drew his own fine, curved blade over the man's belly. The sharp copper odor of blood mingled with the stink of opened bowels as the Custodes' belly spilled onto the road.
" 'Ware the fire!" Fergus's shout spurred Michael toward the stake. He could no longer see the woman through the wall of smoke and flame. He closed his mind to the pain that would come and leapt upon the faggots to reach the captives before the fire could.
Both captives were coughing, blinking against the searing hot smoke but untouched by flame as yet. One swipe of Michael's sword severed the ropes that bound them to the stake. The man staggered, coughing, but kept his feet. The woman's knees folded as soon as her bonds were cut. Michael threw his sword away and caught her before she could fall. He swung her light form into his arms and moved toward the man and the back of the pyre, where the flames were not so high. "Go!"
The man stumbled down the pile of faggots. He fell to his knees, retching, as soon as he was away from the flame. Michael's men were inside the circle and, from the look of things, had the situation well in hand. Their two slaves now held the horses, while their enemies weapons lay in a pile in the middle of the road.
Fergus gave Michael a grin and a short bow. "What shall we do with this lot of cattarah?"
"Feed the ravens." The pain in Michael's hip and the smell of burning feathers demanded his attention. The arrow seemed to have caught fire from its trip through the flames.
"Do you need help?" Fergus reached for the arrow before Michael could answer. "I can Call Yasmina easily enough."
"I will be fine. The wound's not deep." Michael held still as Fergus snapped off the burning shaft, leaving enough to pull the arrow out later. Controlling the merasha and his own pain was rapidly exhausting him. He needed to finish this quickly. "Let's deal with the immediate problem."
Michael managed not to show his surprise as the male captive addressed him, the wretched fellow was actually on his feet, standing about a yard from him. The woman in his arms shifted. Michael realized how closely he was holding her. Embarrassment flooded his cheeks as he lowered her feet to the ground.
The balding man licked his lips. Sweat shone on his face as he spoke. "My lord, I am Brother Trystan, of the Order of Saint Gabriel. We thank you for saving our lives. Let there be no further blood shed on our accounts, my lord, I beg you."
"You're mad." What could this idiot be thinking? Michael looked to Fergus, who, from his expression, was as confused as his friend. "Kill the bastards and be done with it."
"My lord, no!"
The woman now stood on her own, though her pale cheeks and over bright eyes showed the price of her independence. Her soft hand caught Michael's arm as she strained to look him in the face. Michael found himself staring into a pair of eyes as blue as Arjenol sapphires. Jesu Maria! but she was a beauty, even covered in smoke and sweat.
"I beg you, my lord. For the sake of our souls and yours, do these men no harm. Surely we forgive them their wrongs against us, even as Our Lord did."
"And do you think that you are the only ones they have wronged?" Michael took her hand, intending to remove her from his arm. He felt lightning pass through his veins. The pain in his hip faded, along with the stink of smoke, burning flesh and death, the screaming horses, the crackling flames, the cold air.
She shook her head. The motion made her stumble.
He caught her against his chest before he could consider what he was doing. Once she was there, he did not release her. She fit against him so well he told himself it was only right. After all, his cloak was large enough to cover them both and she was all but unclothed.
"What do they call you?"
Her fingers tightened against his skin. "Please, my lord, do them no harm. They can only speak well of you for your mercy."
"Michael?" Fergus frowned.
Michael drew a long breath and tried to think of an answer. The solution came to him with the howl of a wolf, not so far distant in the forest. "Strip them naked. Take everything and burn it on the fire they've so conveniently lit for us."
The grin on Fergus's face matched those Michael saw on the rest of his men. Even the slaves chuckled as the Custodes soon stood shivering in the icy mud, watching their warm clothing and good boots burn. When the last weapon landed in the flaming bonfire one of Michael's men dispelled the magic circle that had bound their captives in place.
"What do you mean to do with us?" One of the Custodes spoke up at last, through chattering teeth. He might have been their leader, but now it was impossible to tell.
Michael favored him with a cold smile. "As the lady has begged for your lives, I will not kill you. Valoret is about twenty five miles straight down this road. If you run you might be able to make it before the wolves in this forest find you. I would suggest you start."
The fool gaped at Michael for the space of several heartbeats. At last he pulled one hand away from his pitiful attempt at modesty and motioned to the group of naked men. Stumbling over the chill mud and rocks in the road they started for Valoret with many curses thrown back at the victors.
The woman's shoulders shook against his chest. Michael glanced down. She was giggling, a merry light in her too wide eyes. From the way she snuggled against him Michael knew she was ready to drop.
His shout was unnecessary. A jingle of bells told him she was not far.
"Take her to the wagon. Get her cleaned up and find something for her to wear. Something warm, quiet and modest."
"As you wish, my lord." Yasmina took Valerian's hand and led her away from the chaos. At Michael's nod, Brother Trystan followed them.
"You must be smitten." Fergus held Michael's sword out to him. The smile on his friend's face set Michael's teeth on edge.
"What makes you say that?" Michael spent a moment examining the blade. There were a couple of nicks he would need to smooth out as soon as his injured hip was tended to.
"Well, you let her think you would allow those bastards to live. And you're giving her Yasmina's clothes. If you could have seen the look on your face --"
Michael cut him off with an oath that made Fergus chuckle even more. "Get one of the others to find a wolf pack close enough to do us some good. The rest of you get ready to move out. I want to be well away from here before we settle in for the night."
Fergus waved to Adrian de Courcy. A good choice, Michael knew, as the boy had a knack with animals that surpassed even the usual Deryni's abilities. It bordered on magic at times. A solution to one inconvenient problem. Now if only he could erase the disquiet of his senses as easily as he could bandage the wound in his hip and sleep off the merasha he would be doing just fine.