Sword of a Saint
Chapter 4 - Part 3
The leader relaxed and straightened.
His hand dropped from the knife as he faced her. "Did
you need something from me, my lady?"
"I . . ." Sister Valerian drew a deep breath of icy air to steady her courage and focused her mind on her errand. "Your friends asked me to see to your wound, my lord." Why was her heart thundering in her chest as if she'd run the distance from her abbey to the village? "I am a trained Healer, and . . ."
"I have already tended to it." He turned away and began poking about the ground with the toe of his boot, obviously searching for the brush he had dropped. "There's no need to trouble yourself."
"It would be no trouble to me, my lord. And it would ease your friends' hearts, I think." Valerian fought her deepest desire to flee back to the wagon and lock the door by taking one step closer to the source of her problem.
The leader straightened, the curry brush caught in his long, graceful fingers. Firelight flashed as it caught the ghost of a smile on his face. "Do you think this is the first time I have been wounded, Madame?"
As he turned his head she noticed a thin scar running from the corner of one eye to the edge of his sensual upper lip. No doubt he had other scars. Every warrior carried at least a few.
Valerian licked her lips, suddenly dry despite the chill damp evening. "I know it is not. But your friends are concerned, and they should be. An arrow wound can fester quickly."
"I told you I have seen to it. Once was enough." He turned back to his horse and ran the brush over its shaggy coat.
Valerian almost laughed as the reason for his reluctance struck her. He hesitated because of the pain an examination would cause. No doubt the wound was bothersome, it being in a sensitive area. He was so concerned over her wish to un-bandage his wound and poke about it that he was brushing a part of the stallion's coat that was already smooth. Now she knew how to handle her patient. Feeling her courage renewed, Valerian moved close enough to touch him. "I understand your concerns, my lord. But really, what could it hurt to allow me to examine your efforts. If there is no danger of infection I will not interfere."
"Weren't you planning to Heal me?" There was a mocking thread in his voice. "Is that not why they sent you over?"
"If you would wish me to, I certainly can mend the wound now." Valerian licked her lips again and hoped she spoke true. Although the drug her captors had forced on her no longer disrupted her mind, her shields were as fragile as gossamer and she was not even certain she could manage to light a fire with what powers she had left. Could she heal what might be a deep, ugly wound? She would have to try.
"Now you're being ridiculous." The leader laid the brush on his stallion's rump. "You couldn't Heal a scalded cat."
"I think you underestimate my abilities." Valerian's stomach knotted at her own boldness. Blessed Gabriel, let her be able to back up this boast.
The leader faced her then. A smile tugged at the corners of his beautiful mouth. "You really want to try this, don't you, my lady?"
Unable to speak, Valerian nodded. His very nearness closed her throat.
He shook his head. "No you don't. You want to run back to that wagon and lock the rest of us out for the remainder of your natural life."
She must be more dazed from the lingering effects of the merasha than she'd realized. How else could he have read her thoughts so clearly and she not feel his presence? Valerian controlled her fear well. Only a slight shudder revealed her apprehension. "My feelings do not come into this, my lord. Your friends asked me to attend you, and it is my duty to do so." She forced herself to smile as serenely as she could manage. "And, in fact, I have seen many wounds of this sort. I am not at all concerned."
"Then why are you tying your fingers up in that cloak?"
Valerian realized she had knotted the heavy fabric of her cloak so tightly around her fingers they now tingled from lack of circulation. Ashamed that she revealed such emotional weakness to a stranger she released the fabric and smoothed her skirts. The gesture allowed her to place her attention somewhere other than on the man before her, which was an immense relief.
He caught her chin in long, calloused fingers and tipped her face up again. "Do you really want to do this, lady? Or do you hope I will protest, so you can run back and tell everyone you did your best and I would not allow you to attend me?"
"I wish you would let me look at it, at least." Valerian felt a feather-light touch against her mind. While the leader's probe did not break her fragile shields she knew he could sense any evasion of truth.
"I do not deny I am a bit nervous standing here with you. I am not accustomed to being so alone with a man, you see. Even when I cared for injuries there were other Sisters about." Now she was rambling, but she could not seem to control her tongue. "That wound needs better care than an amateur could give it."
He laughed, low and soft. The sound set a wonderful tingle through her nerves. "True, I am more skilled in creating wounds than in mending them. As you wish, lady. You may attend me. I'll warn you, though, the injury is not in a place easy to expose."
Valerian lifted her chin. "I have seen men's hips before, my lord. And I doubt it is the first time in your life you have dropped your breeks." She settled the cloak on her shoulders to free her hands for the work.
His smile widened to a rakish grin. "But never for a woman who's name I do not even know."
"Would introductions make you feel better?" If she did not know better she would swear he was telling the truth. Valerian knew well that men such as this leader of vagabonds often tumbled wenches they barely knew long enough to accomplish the deed. Still, his words lightened her heart.
"If you like." He straightened, holding his breeks with one hand to prevent their sliding off his hips. "I am called Avenger by most."
"Hardly a usual name."
His eyes darkened to midnight shades as she stared at them. "My given name is Michael."
"Michael . . . the defender angel." Valerian felt her cheeks heat at her own foolishness. "When I saw you first I thought you were a rescue sent from Heaven. Then I believed you might in fact be a living demon, the way you fought."
He shook his head, chuckling. "I fear I am no more than a man, lady. And you are . . .?"
"Valerian. Sister Valerian."
He stiffened as if she had struck him. His dark eyes narrowed slightly, but a moment later he relaxed and pulled the left side of his tunic up in one long fingered hand. "Well, Sister, there is the offending wound. You may have a go at it."
Valerian carefully lowered his breeches until his left hip was exposed. When she pulled the dressing away Michael sucked in a sharp breath, but he did not flinch. The wound was deep, but looked clean. Someone had trimmed the rough edges of flesh away. From the odor of the bandage he had dosed the dressing liberally with strong whiskey.
"It does not seem to have hit anything vital," she told him as she laid her hand over the affected area. "Give me a moment to close it."
Valerian ignored Michael's protest. Her patient's shields remained fixed, cold and unyielding. Not that his shields presented an impediment to healing this simple injury, but she found his suspicion irksome. She drew a deep breath and focused on the wound. It should have been an easy task, but the softly pulsing core of energy she knew as her own healing talents seemed to hover just out of her reach. She struggled against her own weakness. The fear of failure drew tears to the corners of her eyes. What if she had lost her Healing forever? It was certainly possible, given the trauma she had been through.
Just as she was about to surrender, Michael lowered his shields and his strong male presence joined her. She felt a rush of energy as the Healing came to her hands from some source other than her own talents. A moment of power pulsed through her hands, the flesh melding together, muscles joining, blood flowing to cleanse the damaged tissue. And then it was done.
Valerian looked into the eyes of her patient. A confused rush of gratitude, anger and another emotion she had never before experienced washed over her. She counted her own heartbeats, trying in vain to gain some control over her conflicting feelings. Finally she regained herself. Her question was asked before she could consider the results. "You are a Healer?"
Michael's smile widened a bit and turned bitter. His eyes reflected a suppressed rage that frightened Valerian. "I'm no Healer, Sister. I am as far from that calling as a man can be."
"But you have the talent. You should not shun the gift God has given you."
His next words came to her mind in a sibilant whisper. **You're beautiful, and yet you're a nun. Is that not the same thing?**
Hot color rose in her cheeks. Before she could measure her reaction her hand flashed up to slap the arrogant smile from his lips. He caught her wrist in a grip of steel. Their eyes locked, neither willing to surrender what had suddenly become a moment they could not recover.
Valerian switched to mind-speech. No need for the whole camp to hear her dress their leader down. **I use my gift in service to others, my lord. My life is a full, rich one. It is what I was meant to do. How dare you suggest --**
**I only said that you are a beautiful woman. Most would take that as a compliment.** Michael's eyes darkened to a shade resembling midnight skies. **But now that I feel the fire in your spirit I find I want to kiss you.**
**Will you deny me?** His hand slid beneath her cloak to pull her against him. The grip was firm but gentle, full of controlled power. With his lips a finger's width from her own he whispered, "Tell me to stop and I will."
The words were on Valerian's tongue. She could not find the breath to speak them. Then, an endless moment later, when Michael's lips brushed hers with a velvet feather touch she realized in her soul she did not want him to stop. He pulled her close against the hard muscled shape of his chest. His arms seemed to surround her, blocking out the rest of the camp and the world beyond. The tip of his tongue brushed her lips, and Valerian shivered, suddenly chilled as flames hotter than summer sunlight flashed through her veins. Even as Michael swept away her senses, Valerian thought she heard someone moving in the low brush near the makeshift stable. Then the madness of the moment swept the thought from her mind and she surrendered to the immediate.
Michael broke the kiss, his heart racing. As his vision focused on the woman in his arms he recognized the stunned expression in her wide eyes. It mirrored his own. What was he doing? Standing here in a stable, his breeks held up only by happy chance, and his senses completely captured by a woman could make him easy prey for any who might stumble on their camp. No dalliance with a wench had ever overwhelmed him like this untried beauty could. He drew a steadying breath. Delicate woman and the jasmine perfume Yasmina favored washed over him. Jasmine just was not right for Valerian, he realized. She needed something softer, with rich deep tones in it. Sandalwood perhaps, or a blended Lily. Her bruised lips, moist and swollen, turned up in a soft, self depreciating smile. "I cannot fault you for your presumption, my lord," she whispered aloud. "But I ask that you do not do that again. Whatever it may seem from current circumstances, I am not a woman of easy virtue."
Michael shoved away the loss he felt as she withdrew from his mind and his arms. "I never thought you were, lady. And I do thank you for Healing me." He tugged his breeches back into place and tied them closed with more force than was needed. "Consider that a partial repayment." Her cheeks flooded with color again. She pulled her cloak around her, as if she were trying to bury herself in the thick folds. With a barely mumbled "Excuse me," she fled around the fire for the safety of the wagon.
Michael's stallion blew loudly and whickered as he refastened his belt. He glared at the horse. If he did not know better it was mocking him. "What are you looking at?" Exactly what everyone else was going to be looking at, he guessed. His face was flushed, his body corded tighter than it had been since he was first given to the harem as a youth. As soon as he left the seclusion of the stable he would find himself the object of curiosity, possible speculation and no doubt a flood of teasing. He did not want to deal with any of it.
Adrian de Courcy stepped around the fire at that moment and headed toward Michael. From the thick cloak the younger man wore and the loaf of bread in his hand Michael guessed he had drawn the first watch at the perimeter of the camp. Here was his chance to escape most of the unpleasant consequences he'd just been dreading. Michael stepped into Adrian's path and held up his hand. "Go on back to the fire, lad. I'll take the watch for you. I'm feeling the need of some air."
Adrian handed over the bread with a grateful smile and practically ran back toward the group. Michael bit back a chuckle. It was sometimes hard to remember how young the lad actually was. The forest closed about Michael with insulating darkness. He cast his senses out as far as he could, searching for anything that ought not be there. A vague impression of a presence touched his mind, something as real as a shadow and entirely too near the camp. Michael lowered his shields slightly and focused himself on the ethereal thread of thought he'd sensed. If it were threat he'd better know immediately. His quarry vanished, not even a memory to lend hints that it had ever been. Michael spent several minutes in the fruitless search before finally correcting his shields and turning his attention elsewhere.
It might have been no more than a lingering ghost, after all. With all the death in recent years ghosts were bound to remain in Gwynedd, haunting the places they had once called home. Or it might be one of the forest spirits the old religions worshiped and the Church claimed did not exist. Given how often the bishops diverted themselves from their oft-mouthed doctrines of love and humility Michael was ready to believe them wrong about elves and gnomes, too. Or it might have been one of the Deryni who kept their living by hunting down their own kind. If that were the case there ought to be some humans with him, ready to pounce on whatever he turned up.
If they bothered to investigate what appeared to be a gypsy camp, Michael knew the others standing watch would be as ready as he for the fight. He found a comfortable tree to lean against, loosened his sword in its scabbard and settled in for the night. The moon would be turning down in the sky before his relief arrived. Unfortunately the quiet, dark forest gave him entirely too much time to let his mind wander. A sweet face, eyes like forest pools and lips that desperately needed more experience in kissing danced in his mind. Hellfire! If he was going to be infatuated by a woman, why did it have to be one who was, almost certainly, unavailable? Even were she not sworn to God he doubted anyone would be looking for intimacy after the attack she had survived. Then again, she hadn't felt reluctant in his arms, at least not while he was kissing her. He might just have a chance after all.