Sword of a Saint
Chapter 5 - Part 1
The moon had risen
nearly to its apex before Michael heard footsteps in the sodden litter
of last autumn's leaves. He turned slightly and immediately recognized
one of his slaves. The man's bulky form seemed immense with a thick
blanket wrapped about his shoulders. The slave bowed low as soon as he
realized Michael knew he was there. "Your
pardon, Ya Muntaquim. I come to take your guard."
"My thanks." Michael scanned the sky again. Surely it was too soon for his relief to come. "Has something happened in the camp?"
"Indeed yes." The slave bowed again, but his gaze did not leave Michael's face. "The lady is having nightmares. Yasmina cannot soothe her, so she sent for you."
"And Yasmina thinks I can settle what she cannot?" Michael shook his head. He was a man to injure bodies, not soothe troubled minds. "Well, I'd best go and do what I can."
The dreams came in the darkness. Valerian tossed about, surrounded by grinning Custodes with groping hands. She tried to scream, but a dark haired Deryni slammed his mouth over hers in a bruising kiss. His companions laughed. She tried to raise her shields against his intruding mind, but could not. He savored her misery even as he took his pleasure on her unwilling body. She hated herself for the tears she could not stop, the weakness she could not hide. Suddenly the dream changed. A dark presence, warm and powerful, closed around her. Her tormentors were shoved back, their laughter fading into silence. She was alone with Michael then. He held her against his chest, wrapped in thick blankets. She recognized the bed in the gypsy wagon, the soft straw mattress and velvet covered feather pillow beneath her head. Michael stretched his long frame beside her on the bed and cradled her in his arms. His lips brushed her forehead so lightly she knew the kiss was not real, only dream kisses felt like that, barely there.
**Sleep, Valerian,** he whispered in her mind. **Sleep and do not dream. You've nothing to fear now. They can't hurt you any more.**
Valerian could not resist the comfort his body offered. Why should she? She was dreaming, and none would know her dreams save her confessor. This was not real. She might as well enjoy it, for it was very nice indeed. She pressed against Michael's bare chest. Her eyelashes brushed the soft mat of hair that covered his broad, flat breast. She swore she could hear the steady thrum of his heart beneath her cheek.
**If I weren't dreaming I'd shove you away.** Her thought was interrupted by a mighty yawn.
**I know, sweetheart.** His reply held a chuckle she was too sleepy to question.
As Valerian slipped back into sleep by his side, Michael blew out a long breath and forced his muscles to relax. What was he doing here, comforting nightmares? That was hardly his job. He was here because the wench's screams woke the camp. He had to see that she was quiet, or her next nightmare might well bring their enemies to their door as they slept, or so Yasmina reminded him as she led him to the sleeping nun and took her own bed to the other wagon.
If that were his worry he had best pay more attention to his sentries. No, Michael was honest enough to admit her dream had little to do with his presence in her bed now. She was asleep, and, with her shields in such a fragile condition there were easier ways to keep her quiet. Hellfire. He was here because he enjoyed it. She felt good lying beside him in a way no other woman ever had. Her trust drew him more quickly than the delicious curves of her body, her scent reached out to him, alluring and womanly. He vowed again he would get her some perfume of her own, something more suited to Valerian. She would need clothing, too. She could not keep wearing Yasmina's extras forever. Yasmina did not have much that was neither strewn with coins and bells nor cut tantalizingly low in the breast and slit to show a flash of ankle to an eager audience. Not that he'd mind seeing a flash of Valerian's ankles.
Of course, he could probably catch a glimpse of her breasts now. She was wearing no more than a sleeping shift, and he knew how Yasmina's nightclothes fit. She would never know if he lifted the blanket a bit and . . . acted like a green schoolboy! Michael drew another long breath and slowly released it, hating himself for his own imagination. What was happening to him?
He was laying in a narrow cot, with a beautiful woman pressing against him, fully aroused and not doing a thing about it. If that wasn't a sign of ineffectual madness what could it be? A soft knock at the door shoved away his unwelcome thoughts. Michael cast his mind out, recognized Fergus and bid his friend enter. Fergus's grin when he looked from the sleeping Brother Trystan to the bunk where Michael and Valerian lay was damning.
**Sorry to disturb you, my friend.** Fergus' thought came between bouts of silent laughter. **We've caught some intruders sneaking around.**
**So why tell me?** Michael did not bother to shield the thought that he intended to teach Fergus to mind his own business as soon as they crossed swords in training again. **Silence them and dispose of the bodies.**
**Not this time, I think. They're Deryni. And they're looking for our friend here.** Fergus nodded toward a sleeping Brother Trystan.
With a mental groan, Michael pushed himself out of bed and reached for his shirt. Beside him, Valerian stirred and gave a soft moan. He touched her cheek lightly and sent a gentle command, pushing her further into dreamless sleep. The softness of her skin tempted him sorely to return to the bed and tell Fergus to deal with the intruders himself. Fergus waited until they were outside the wagon to broach the subject Michael dreaded. "I take it you found some advantages to being the benevolent rescuer?"
"Don't be ridiculous. She had a nightmare, and who could blame her."
Fergus's grin widened to the exact size of Michael's fist. "Of course. Who can blame her? And who would not just put her back to sleep with a simple command? No need to take your shirt off for that, my friend."
"The bed looked warm, and I was chilled."
Michael ignored Fergus' last words as he turned his attention to the intruders. He immediately saw why Fergus did not simply kill them. Even after years away from Gwynedd he recognized the blue cloaks, the cross enflamed badge and the white belts. At least two of the three Deryni now subdued by their fire were Michaelines.
The three bound Deryni glared at Michael, but could do nothing to free themselves. Michael let them stew for a long moment while he touched each of their shielded minds. He did no more than verify that all were indeed Deryni and completely shielded. Behind those mental barriers none of them could have used their powers to do more than twiddle their thumbs. At last, when he thought they'd stewed in their own worry enough, he untied them and motioned for a slave to fetch food and wine. "I hope none of you were injured when my men discovered you near our camp," he said as he settled himself on a stool near the fire. "We must take care lest we fall afoul of thieves and bandits."
"We are not thieves." The oldest of the captives, a burly man with a long gray beard and a thick border accent that reminded Michael of Fergus spoke as he accepted a cup of warm wine from a slave. "We stumbled on your camp by chance while searching for a lost comrade."
"You're lying." Michael leveled his gaze at his captive. "A foolish thing to do around our kind. Must I force the truth from you?"
"You couldn't. Not even if you tried." The older man seemed to be laughing.
Michael rose, set his wine on his stool and crossed the circle to stand before the older man. He placed one hand on the old man's temple, the same slave who had served them moved behind the captive to prevent his dodging away. Michael extended just enough power to threaten the older man's shields. There were ways of shattering the shields of an unwilling captive, and he knew them well. Michael did not often use such force, however. He found the feel of a terrified, helpless and exposed mind so distasteful he avoided it at all costs. His threat worked. The older man's shoulders sagged as he lowered his shields slightly. Michael withdrew immediately. The surprise on his stubborn captive's face was gratifying.
"I thought sure you were about to rip my mind to shreds." The older man was shaking like a terrified novice.
Michael shook his head. "Let's try again. You were looking for a friend and . . ."
The old man drained his cup of wine in a single swallow. "We thought you were Regents' men, possibly that you had our companion captive in your wagon. By the time we realized you could not be working for the Regents your sentries had us all subdued."
The door of the wagon opened, and the creak of the step told Michael the Healer monk had left his bed. A moment later Brother Trystan cried out in surprise. "Father Andrew? Sir Timothy? Lord Gregory? What are you doing here?"
One of the Michaelines stood, setting aside his cup and bowl. "Looking for you, Brother. And glad enough we are to have found you. Dom Queron has been fair out of his mind with worry."
"He need not have fretted so." Brother Trystan joined them at the fire. From the smile he wore Michael guessed these were indeed well known friends. "I was in God's hands while I traveled."
Those words were so ridiculous Michael snorted into his wine. "In God's hands, Brother? When we found you I think you were about to meet Him personally, courtesy of the Custodes."
"Custodes, Brother?" The oldest of the captives, the one called Gregory, blanched. "Ye did not lead them tae us, did ye?"
Michael drained his wine cup and stretched his legs toward the fire. He felt comfortable enough to relax a bit, as there was no doubt these new companions were no threat. With a casual gesture he waived the slaves and Fergus back to bed. "I doubt it," he answered as Brother Trystan was looking nervous. "They're dead."
Brother Trystan's face turned the color of sour milk. The Michaelines and Lord Gregory began to talk at once. Behind him, Michael heard a soft gasp and the creak of the wagon step. He turned. Sister Valerian stood on the steps of the wagon, the same crimson wool gown she had worn earlier hastily thrown over her sleeping shift. One slim bare foot hung poised between one step and the next. From the shock evident in her wide, violet eyes he realized she had heard his last words. Ignoring the surprised exclamations of his companions, Michael went to the wagon and caught her in his arms. "If you were coming out you might at least have put on some shoes. The ground's near frozen."
She did not relax as he carried her to the fire. "I heard you talking. You lied to us."
Her surprise both amazed and angered Michael. What kind of a fool was she to think he would leave deadly enemies alive to track them? He glanced at Brother Trystan and saw the same shock and revulsion on his face. Well, best have it out now. There was no point in putting off the confrontation. And, from the expression on the newcomers faces Michael realized he might have some support from them.
Valerian shifted off his lap as he returned to his seat on the bench. "You swore you would spare them," she insisted. "You took their horses, but you left them alive. I remember that, at least."
"You asked for their lives. I gave them a fighting chance, though I doubt they could make good on it. Not unless they could travel more than twenty five miles, barefoot, before a wolf pack or two found them."
Brother Trystan blanched. Valerian closed her eyes and shuddered. Lord Gregory chuckled loudly, but he was the only one who seemed to appreciate the humor in the situation. The Healer monk began mumbling to himself. Michael ignored him and gave Valerian his whole attention. He took her hand and Sent his next words. **You remember seeing them sent away? I know you were drugged.**
**I remember seeing them stripped.** From the feel of her response Michael knew she had not thought out the natural consequences of her captors' predicament. **I thought it was funny, seeing them so helpless. But I never realized . . .**
**I could not leave them alive, even had I felt any mercy for them in my heart.** Michael steeled himself against her mental shudder. **They would have been too dangerous. They could have tracked us, attacked when we were least prepared.**
Lord Gregory was still chuckling. "So you sent them off without so much as a stitch or a sword to defend them from the forest? Lad, I like your sense of humor."
Valerian shuddered again. Her face might have been carved of stone. "I think I shall return to bed," she whispered to no one in particular.
Michael felt as if someone had laid a lance in his belly. She looked right through him, as if he were not there. Could it have been such a shock to her, knowing that her tormentors were dead? Yes, he realized with a sick turn of his stomach. It could. Valerian was a nun, not an experienced woman. She believed in the basic goodness of the world. Education came harsh, as he well knew. She slipped around his arm and walked toward the wagon. From all the reaction she showed her bare feet might have been treading warm woven carpets. Steeling his resolve against the ache in his chest, Michael resumed his seat by the fire. Lord Gregory was still chuckling. Sir Timothy and Father Andrew were staring at the fire, as if trying to decide whether or not they disapproved of Michael's tale. Brother Trystan sat wringing his hands.
At last Lord Gregory drew a deep breath and managed to control his mirth. "Enough of this sitting about, lads. The least we can do for our new friends is to show them the way to our Haven. I've no doubt they could use a few days under a roof, not to mention some supplies."
"That's true enough." Father Andrew nodded, his face relaxing as a solution to whatever dilemma he wrestled with presented itself. "And, no doubt, Father Joram will wish to speak with them, as will Dom Queron." His attention turned to Brother Trystan, and his brows lowered. "Dom Queron was most distressed when you turned up missing, Brother."
"He would have done the same thing." The Healer monk replied.
Michael stared at the bottom of his empty wine cup. For the first time since he was a captive boy he wished he could drink more than was prudent. He wanted to finish the bottle, open another and find oblivion in its depths. This was ridiculous. If he were so concerned with a woman's reaction he needed to spend a bit of time with Yasmina. She had a way of making a man forget his problems for at least a little while. But, for some horrible reason, Yasmina's dark charms no longer held any appeal for him. When he stared at the fire it was the slim form and riotous curls of a young nun he dreamed of.
Valerian sat on the hard seat beneath the cover of the wagon, holding the reins and letting the horse follow its own path. Fortunately the beast seemed to wish to go along with the rest of the party. She knew less than nothing about driving a cart, but the position gave her time alone. She had slept little after her return to the wagon, but could not rest now if she had wished to. Her mind spun with far too many issues to give her any piece. Unfortunately the source of her conflict rode a large black R'Kassi stallion and wore a cloak as dark as his soul.
How could she have felt so safe with him? Of all the men in their party, it was only near Michael that she did not fight the screams swelling inside her. In fact, though it shamed her to admit it even to herself, she had enjoyed his kiss more than anything in her life. Now the shards of truth fell into place. Michael was handsome, charming as only a demon could be. How else could he attract a woman who had long ago forsaken the attentions of men for a life of service? It was not as if she had been closeted away from handsome swains in her role as nurse and Healer. None ever affected her like this.
If only she could deny she felt anything other than gratitude toward him she would be most thankful. If only she were not so honest with herself, she might deny the lingering longing to feel his arms around her just one more time. If only she could believe the safety she enjoyed in the darkness of the wagon the night before had been a dream. If only she could not recognize his clean male scent that lingered yet on the pillow. If only she were a free woman who could make a choice to remain with such a man. That last thought, all unbidden, made Valerian shudder. She closed her eyes, chastised her wayward thoughts and schooled her mind to better control.
The narrow door in the front of the wagon creaked on leather hinges as it opened. Coins jingled and heavy cloth swished as Yasmina slid onto the seat beside Valerian. "Do you need a rest?"
Valerian shook her head, relieved to have someone to talk to. Surely her mind would not wander down forbidden paths when she was not alone. "I am fine. The horse seems to follow the others on his own."
Yasmina gave a rich, sultry laugh. Her eyes sparkled behind thick lines of kohl. "He does at that, but you have sat here all the morning. Let me take the reins at least, and we can talk."
She took the reins before she finished speaking and fastened them around the thick post that braced the seat against the side of the wagon. The horse kept walking as if he were used to this treatment.
Yasmina's smile disappeared as she turned to Valerian. "Your companion sleeps in the back. He will not hear us. I bring you a gift. It will calm your nerves."
"Thank you." Valerian's response was automatic as Yasmina pressed a small pouch into her hand. Icy fingers crept up her spine as she realized the dark skinned woman was not smiling. Cautiously Valerian opened the pouch and sniffed the contents. A jumble of odors met her nose; thyme and rue mingled with peppermint and chamomile. She knew the properties of these herbs well. Indeed, the peppermint and chamomile were most effective at calming strained nerves and easing the mind. Thyme and rue, however, were known abortifactents.
Yasmina gave her a soft smile. "If you mix the contents of this pouch into a cup of warm wine you will know your womb is clean by morning. The women of my land learned long ago that we could not control the actions of our men, but we can prevent the consequences of those actions from ruining our lives."
For a long moment Valerian could not find the words to answer. She sat on the bouncing wagon seat, the pouch of herbs in her hand. No. She could not be pregnant. That was simply impossible. Valerian set the pouch of herbs on the seat and tried to compose herself. "Thank you for thinking of me, but I doubt they will be necessary. In any case, I . . ."
The wagons slowed. Michael rode toward them, his dark cloak flowing over his broad shoulders like the wings of a giant bat. Valerian shivered, all thought fleeing her mind as she watched the sinuous movements of man and stallion.