Sword of a Saint
Chapter 4 - Part 2
Hugh Sinclair grimaced at the thick
layer of ash that now covered his riding leathers. It would take his
squires hours of cleaning and oiling to repair the damage. No doubt he
would have to stand over the lazy lout to make certain all was done to
A few steps behind him, Rolf spat loudly. "Looks like that idiot sheriff of the Earl's has gathered the survivors for us. Pathetic."
The villagers were indeed a sad looking lot. Lord Hugh scanned the crowd, searching for any who might show a spark of spirit, courage or intelligence. None would even meet his eyes.
"Well, so we won't have any challenges here, let's get this done and over with." He waved to the sheriff, a beefy man with not a single sign of hair anywhere on his head. He probably shaved it to hide a bald spot, Hugh thought with contempt.
He moved closer to the cluster of villagers and fixed each one with a superior glare. "I am Lord Hugh Sinclair, sent by writ of His Eminence Hubert, Archbishop of Valoret and your lord Manfred, Earl of Culdi. I will not leave until I discover exactly who was responsible for the unprovoked attack at the Black Stag Tavern. I mean to see punishment meted out for that act of treason." He paused to let his words sink in and watched the villagers blanch even whiter. "I would much prefer to see those guilty of the crime bear the punishment," Hugh continued after a moment's silence. "But, if necessary, I will be forced to make the village suffer for the wrongs done to the King's officers. Now, even such simple people can understand it is far better you tell me who the guilty ones are. Better for you, your neighbors, and better for those who need my help to find the justice they are due."
Not one of the quavering villagers made a sound. Hugh vented his frustration by stalking back and forth before them for a few minutes. Then, his patience gone, he seized the village priest by the collar of his rough wool robe. It took no effort at all to force the wizened priest to his knees before the crowd. Hugh drew a long breath and swore he could smell the man's fear. This was proving to be most pleasant after all.
"As you are having difficulty finding your tongues, I must ask my associate to assist you. Rolf," here he indicated the dark Deryni, "has very valuable abilities for this sort of work. He will sift through each of your minds, beginning with your good priest here, and find what we need. Of course, what he choses to do while he is in your heads is his own affair. Benefit of his job, you know."
Rolf stepped forward and laid his hands on the trembling priest's head.
The priest folded his hands. Sweat beaded his face in spite of the chill. His voice rose, shrill and quivering. "They use the Devil's spawn for their ends! Tell them nothing!"
"Bad advice." Rolf clamped the priest's jaw shut with a firm grip, the priest relaxed as he fell under control of a stronger, ruthless mind.
"By the way," Hugh added as a crimson light flared around Rolf's head. "If any of you wish your confessions to remain confidential, you'd best speak up now."
"Wait!" A tall man in a patched tunic and breeches shoved his way to the front of the crowd. "Wait! I'll tell you what you want to know."
Hugh nodded to the sheriff's deputies. They flanked the man to prevent him changing his mind. Then Hugh turned to Rolf. "What's this fellow done that he wants kept silent?"
Rolf smiled as he found the information. His reply came softly enough that only Hugh heard the answer. "It seems he's got some sheep. His neighbor has a ram he covets, so he has been slipping his ewes into his neighbor's pen. If his neighbor finds out, the fellow's dead."
Hugh felt a chuckle rumbling through his chest. The farmer was near to fainting from fear. "So what is it you can tell us?"
The man wrung his work roughened hands so hard his knuckles cracked loudly in the silence. "My lord, please understand. I don't know who burnt the inn. I wasn't there, I swear it. I was home with my sheep."
"Then what do you have to say that might have any value to me?"
The man fell to his knees in the muddy street. "There's someone who was in the inn and survived," he stammered, pointing to the crowd of villagers. "Ask Evie what she saw. She must know who did it. She worked in the Black Stag, she did."
Hugh waved to the deputies. "Fetch me this Evie. I'll question her, and if she can give me satisfaction your priest is spared."
It took some minutes before the deputies returned, dragging a plump brunette between them. The wench showed just the right combination of youth and lush womanhood to catch Hugh's attention. She might even have been pretty, in a coarse and lusty way, if only she wasn't crying her eyes out.
"You know what I want, wench. Let's have no more nonsense."
Evie trembled, still sobbing. She tried to find her tongue, but could not manage to form a single word. Rolf let the priest fall to the mud and approached Evie. She slowly looked up at him and finally stopped blubbering, though she still trembled. Hugh stared at her for a full minute. Then, as Rolf threaded his long fingers through her thick chestnut curls, he laid a restraining hand on his Deryni accomplice. Taking care to give the terrified girl his most charming smile he lowered his voice to a more comforting level.
"Just relax, Evie," he advised, stroking her cheek lightly. "We mean to find what you saw. If you do not fight Rolf, he will not be forced to damage you overmuch."
Whimpering, the girl nodded. Rolf drew a slow breath and released it as she relaxed against his hands. Apparently the wench had the sense to avoid battles she could not win.
A moment later he released her. "She saw it, my lord. She saw their faces."
Hugh felt a rush of excitement flood his veins with flames. Here was something that would gain him notice in the Privy Council. He could earn himself a better command, perhaps an estate. He would rise high.
"Bring a horse for her and let's be gone. It's a quick ride to Valoret. His Excellency will want to supervise this interrogation personally."
It took three men to heave the trembling wench onto the horse Hugh appropriated. Her sobs escalated from mere misery to exquisite terror as one of the deputies bound her hands to the saddle bow. Hugh suppressed a shudder of pleasure as he watched Evie being bound to the horse. It would be very entertaining teaching this woman to better control herself. That he had to wait until his uncles and the Archbishop were finished with her only added to his anticipation.
Valerian woke only when the wagon stopped moving. From the fading light filtering around the roughly fitting door she guessed it was nearly nightfall. Her head felt as if a thousand demons were pounding on it with flaming hammers and her stomach rumbled loudly.
Brother Trystan grunted as he rolled out of the bundle of blankets he was wrapped in. "I think our rescuers have stopped for the night."
"Who are they, do you think?" Valerian swung her legs over the edge of the single cot she lay on. A pair of sheepskin boots waited beside the cot, evidently for her. She slid them on gratefully and took a moment to appreciate the welcome warmth.
Brother Trystan ran a hand over the leather jerkin he now wore. From the ends of wool curling up at the wrists and neck it too was sheepskin. "I've no idea, really. Not that it matters much." His eyes sparkled beneath the wrinkles at their corners. "I must say I'm most grateful to be alive despite all odds. That they've seen to our comfort is more than I would have hoped from a band of gypsies."
"Yes, it is."
"I think I will see if I can be of any assistance." Brother Trystan paused as he passed Valerian. After a moment's hesitation he laid a hand on her shoulder. "Are you all right, Sister?"
Valerian flinched away, unreasoned panic sending her heart racing. She fastened her teeth into her lips to contain a shriek that would have wakened the entire forest. After a long moment she gained control of her racing heart and trembling limbs. Brother Trystan gaped at her, his shock and distress readable without extending her mind. "I meant no harm, Sister. Truly, I did not."
"Forgive me, Brother. I don't know what came over me." Valerian forced herself to straighten, though every muscle in her body ached from the movements. "I was not thinking reasonably. I lost control for a moment. I fear . . ."
"And with reason you should. Worry not, Sister." Brother Trystan walked to the door before he spoke again. Perhaps he thought a bit of distance between them would ease her anxiety. "Your fear will pass, with God's help and good time."
Once she was alone Valerian returned to the cot and struggled to regain control of her shattered mind. She remembered bathing before the dark haired woman gave her the soft shift and tunic she now wore. Her hair was still a bit damp from that washing, yet she was certain she could smell the scent of the men who had ravaged her on her skin.
A basin waited, set into a washstand. On the floor beside it she found a heavy ceramic jar of water. The tingling touch of the icy water cleared her mind and erased the foolish memories. After she indulged in the unnecessary washing Valerian left the wagon. The camp was set already, with a shelter for the horses spread between the two wagons and a blazing fire in the center of the small circle. Steam rose from the makeshift stable of canvass and leather, where the horses ate from nosebags. An iron pot hung over the fire, sending off delicious smells of spiced meat and gravy.
Brother Trystan stood near one of their rescuers and the dark haired woman, shaking his head. He wrung his hands in a manner that suggested frustration more than despair.
"He won't let me near him!" The good brother's words reached Valerian from halfway across the camp. "I can see he needs attention, but he insists he is not injured."
"Oopha!" The dark haired woman stamped her foot, setting silver bells jangling all over her clothing. " Ya Muntaquim is as stubborn as a camel. I will make him see reason."
"Yasmina, don't make this worse than it is." Valerian caught a glimpse of freckles in the firelight as the red haired man shook his head. "It's just Mick's way. He'll not reveal his own weakness to friend or stranger. And he's certainly had worse in his time."
"What has happened?" Unwilling to stand idly by if someone needed help, Valerian approached the group. She stopped between Brother Trystan and the woman called Yasmina and directed her questions carefully to them. "Is someone hurt?"
"You could say that." Yasmina's gaze raked Valerian, making her feel as if the older woman stripped her of the concealing cloak and warm clothing with a single look. "My master was shot rescuing you from the fire. Now he will let none of us care for him."
The image of a tall, powerfully built man with eyes like a summer storm flashed through Valerian's mind unbidden. Instantly she could feel the pressure of his arms surrounding her, pressing her against his muscled form. Even with an arrow protruding from his hip he stood like a god among lesser beings. She shivered, pulled the cloak closer about her and closed her eyes to dispel the memory. No. Her breath was already coming in short gasps and she could not afford to lose control of herself again. Not so soon. Not now.
"Perhaps you might have better luck, Sister." Brother Trystan's faint smile asked her to try even before his words could. "He might be more willing to allow you to help him, you being a woman. Will you try?"
Every fiber of her being screamed denial. Valerian counted her own heartbeats and fought for calm. Examine a man, any man? Lay her hands upon him? Heal him, while her mind still felt useless from days of a horrible drug?
"Even if all you could do is bandage him for now it would be a help." Brother Trystan reached out to her, then hesitated. His hand hovered scant inches from hers. "Please, Sister. Try."
Valerian knew she really had no choice. Her Healer's oath and the vows she made when she confirmed her Calling combined to force her into this situation. "Where is he?"
"On the other side of the fire, near the horses." Yasmina nodded toward the makeshift stable. "He cares for his own stallion, and will let no other touch him."
Valerian made her way around the fire. Not until the flames were at her back did she see the tall, well muscled leader of their rescuers. He stood, his cloak thrown back over his broad shoulders, running a hand over the shaggy coat of a magnificent black horse. The stallion rubbed its nose against his side and whickered softly, clearly accustomed to such treatment. What a matched pair they made; both dark and handsome. The thought came so quickly Valerian could not silence it. She halted, shuddering at her own wayward mind. She had long ago wedded her life to His service as surely as other women wedded theirs to a man. What kind of a wanton creature was she if she could admire the physical beauty of this dark stranger?
At that moment the leader dropped the curry brush he held and spun toward her, his hand flying to the leather covered hilt of the dagger at his waist. Firelight cast his face in stark bronze, his dark eyes lit with shards of silver. Valerian bit her lip as she fought to keep from trembling. This man was dangerous, powerful and violent. He was the same type of man as the Custodes, and had she not learned from them just what men could be?