Sword of a Saint
Chapter 5 - Part 2
Yasmina tossed her
thick, dark hair. Golden earrings jangled musically as they struck the
thick jeweled collar she wore at the base of her throat. Her sultry
voice rose over the jingle of harness and the rattle of the wagons. "We
are stopping now, Ya Muntaquim? But it is early yet."
"Aye, it is." Michael pulled his stallion up beside their wagon. His smile sent flames through Valerian's already fragile nerves. "We are less than an hour from Valoret. If there is anything you need from the market, now would be the time to stop."
Valerian shook her head. Was he mad entirely? Surely he could not mean to ride into the city the Custodes had been heading for. Her heart pounding recklessly, Valerian realized that was exactly what Michael meant to do. His eyes fairly sparkled with the prospect of adventure. Aye, he was either mad or confident in the support of the Devil he had sold his soul to.
Sounding as calm as if this were simple marketing, Yasmina shook her head. "We have plenty of wine and flour, and my herbs are fine. Not that I would trust these Outlanders and their crude medicines in any case. We need not stop here."
Michael raised one dark eyebrow. The expression seemed to enhance the male attractiveness of his strong features. "And you, lady? Would you like to find a gown and slippers at the market? Valoret may be an Episcopal city, but they have fine clothiers and --"
"My lord, I beg you do not go near that city. Your life would surely be forfeit should you enter the gates."
Michael actually grinned. "I am in no more danger in the city walls than I would be on this road, Lady. Now, what color gown would you like? Or, better yet, will you come with me and choose it yourself?"
Valerian shook her head. The longing for a dress of her own, one that fit her well and complimented her coloring, struggled stubbornly to the surface of her thoughts. She shoved it down ruthlessly. Even if such things as fine gowns had a place in her life, now was not the time.
"Please, my lord, do not address me so. I am no lady, but common born." Perhaps voicing the words would remind her willful heart of her chosen place. "'Sister' is the only title I need or am entitled to."
"As you wish, Sister." The words seemed at once a mockery and a caress.
"As to my clothing, I will be fine until I am reunited with my sisters." Valerian shifted on the rough wooden seat. The poor fit of the borrowed tunic and shift, made her feel suddenly vulnerable. Her shorn hair, uncovered save for the loose hood of the cloak, magnified her discomfort. "Besides, my lord, I have no money to buy anything at market. I would not impose further on your generosity."
Michael's smile made her stomach turn over. "As you wish, Sister. We will be moving on again after a short rest. Feel free to stretch your legs, but do not go far alone. The woods are dangerous." His eyes fairly twinkled. "There are wolves about, after all."
Wolves. The word made Valerian shudder. The fate of her former captors still hung heavy on her mind. What must their final moments have been? Did they fall drowsy from the chill before the beasts found them, or were they eaten alive as wolves prey usually was? Whatever their final end, she had no doubt they would have had an easier time of it had they burned at the stake.
Yasmina stood, arched her back and groaned with the pleasure of it as Michael rode back toward the front of the group. "I would suggest you come with me into the bushes. It may be many hours before we stop again."
Valerian nodded. When she stood she nearly fell. Her legs seemed to have developed cramps in the moment or two it took to step down from the sturdy wagon.
The dark skinned woman took her hand and patted it in a motherly way as they walked toward a thick growth of underbrush. "Girl, if you do not choose to use the herbs that is all right. I know some women do not like to think about such things. But do not wait too long to decide. If you are pregnant, the longer the egg sits before you try to crack it, the harder the shell becomes."
Michael paused only a few moments to retrieve his flute and change his clothing. In place of the serviceable black tunic and trousers, he chose a richly embroidered shirt with loose sleeves, well fitting breeches of brilliant crimson velvet, a vest studded with pearls and coins and a pair of shining calf high boots. A velvet bonnet trimmed with coins and boasting three huge ostrich feathers completed his ensemble.
"Where in Hell do you think you are going?" Fergus was not smiling.
Michael knew he was in for an argument. "The market at Valoret, where else?"
"Are you completely out of what is left of your mind?" Fergus caught the R'Kassians bridle and started to lead the stallion away. The horse lipped Fergus's glove and whickered softly. He might have been laughing. "And what are we supposed to do? Hold here until you return with half the Episcopal guard riding your heels?"
"Of course not." Michael shoved two long bladed daggers into a wide silk sash at his waist. "You will follow the directions Lord Gregory gives you until dark. I'll have caught you by then." He gave Fergus a smile he knew well should provoke his friend. "By the way, I was about to ask if I might borrow your horse for the trip. Asmodious is far too fine a fellow to carry a poor gypsy."
Fergus rubbed the stallion's nose and grumbled under his breath. When at last he spoke he sounded like an annoyed schoolmaster. "At least you think to take some precaution. Might I ask why you are going into that vipers' nest?"
"You might, but I wish you wouldn't." Michael lifted a slim leather case from the back of the wagon. "Let's hope they find my music entertaining."
"Let's hope they don't find your death more entertaining." Fergus frowned. "Mick, this isn't like you. What's going on?"
"Mischief. Nothing more." Michael patted his friend's shoulder and sent a reassuring thought with the touch. "After all, were you not telling me just days past that we needed to start taking care of our own people? Perhaps I want to replace the clothing Yasmina has lent these past days."
"And perhaps you want to get your neck stretched."
Michael laughed aloud at Fergus's tart reply. "I'll meet up with you by tomorrow night. Don't worry so much. You're becoming an old woman." Then, before Fergus could grumble any more, Michael caught his horse. He took the road to Valoret without a backward glance.
While he would not have admitted it even to Fergus, Michael sought more than a gown or two within Valoretís walls. All that day Valerian's presence had driven him near to madness. To know she sat on the wagon, in plain view and yet inaccessible, sent a fire through his blood. He had to divert himself from thinking of her for a few hours or become a virtual idiot. It wasn't as if there were not chances aplenty to be with her. For some reason she seemed not to feel the attraction between them.
The guards glared at Michael as he approached the open city gates. There were twice as many of the surly fellows as there had been when he had last entered the city, all wearing tabards of Episcopal purple. Michael watched as two of the guards rifled through a peddler's cartload of painted crockery. Several delicate openwork lamps shattered at the rough handling. The peddler swore and shook his fist, but got only laughter for his trouble.
When they were finished with the peddler, one of the guards looked Michael up and down, fingering the polished handle of his pole-arm all the while. "That's a fine horse for a piece of gypsy dung to be riding." His words carried a threat none could mistake.
Michael concentrated on keeping his shoulders relaxed as he smiled at the guard. "He is indeed," he replied, stroking the brown gelding's glossy neck. "But then, I'm a fine gypsy, so should my steed not match me?"
All four of the guards were now concentrating on Michael. One laid a gloved hand on the tooled leather bridle. "Where'd ye get him?" The guard's eyes narrowed.
Out the corner of his eye, Michael noticed several people slip out of line and scurry around the inattentive guards. He let his pleasure at cheating them of some sport show as he widened his grin. "He was gifted to me by a lady, m'lords. She swore I played upon my flute so sweetly the music transported her to Heaven for a night."
"And I'd say ye're either a thief or a liar. Perhaps both." The guard tightened his grip on the bridle.
Michael shrugged. "Am I not allowed a chance to prove my skill, m'lord? I'll play you a short tune, and if you don't agree with the lady I'll give you the horse."
The four guardsmen all leaned closer, grinning with anticipation. Behind them, a well dressed merchant shepherded a cart loaded with casks bearing the Fianna mark through the gates. Michael retrieved his flute, licked his lips and blew a soft, low note. The clean tone pleased him. He cleared his mind and began to play a delicate love tune he had learned from a skilled slave.
A crowd gathered as Michael played, drawn by the music. Though he dared not show his relief, Michael prolonged the tune to draw as many as he could. The final part of his plan would not work without a large audience. When at last he lowered the flute, the guards were smiling. The man with the pole-arm shook his head. "Ye play a pretty tune, gypsy. I'll not deny it's the best I've heard in some long years. But ye didn't show me Heaven, so I'll be takin' yer horse."
Michael schooled his face into wide eyed surprise. "Oh, m'lord, but 'twas not my skill with this flute that sent the lady to paradise. Though, if you'd like me to show you the other I'd be proud to oblige." As he spoke, he tucked the flute back into its leather case and reached for the string that fastened his breeches.
The guards realized the meaning of his joke a heartbeat before the gathered crowd did. Laughter rang out on all sides, mingled with ribald suggestions. The guard with the pole-arm flushed as red as a ripe apple and waved Michael through the gate, sputtering outrage. Michael joined the laughing crowd as they surged back to the market streets. Not a bad bit of business really, embarrassing an officious thief in a uniform. The narrow streets were so crowded with carts and barrows it was nearly impossible to get through. Michael paid two pennies to stable the gelding at an inn and give him a measure of oats and a bucket of water. Then, tucking his flute into his vest, he headed for the market square.
He heard the market before he saw it. A jumble of voices, clattering metal and animal cries echoed off the timbered workshops and cobbled streets. Merchants demanded peddlers move their carts from in front of the permanent shops. Peddlers hawked their wares in strident voices. Chickens and geese squawked, pigs squealed, dogs barked.
The market spread through the large open square before the cathedral and flowed into the narrow streets with names like Clothiers', Butchers' and Goldsmiths'. Colorful ladies gowned in velvet and silk mingled with tradesmen's wives in wool and linen. Children dashed about, dodging horses, carts and legs as they raced through the crowds on business of their masters or games of their own.
As Michael made his way to the steps of the cathedral, where the traveling players congregated seeking coin for entertainment, he extended his senses slightly. Snatches of thought and conversation came to him in a confused jumble.
"Three shillings for a cock? You must be mad! I'll not ---"
**It's far too expensive, but I deserve it. After all, I ---**
"If the silk will not suit, my lady, let me show you this patterned cotton. Just in from ---"
"I know he's wanting to join the Custodes, but I won't have it. I've felt uneasy about them ever since they began, and after what happened here I'm sure there's more going on than the rest of us know."
The comment, made by a fat merchant wrapped from head to foot in a crimson wool cloak lined with lambskin, caught Michael's attention. He pretended to examine the wares in a cart full of leather pouches, belts and caps while he concentrated on the conversation.
The merchant's companion, a man of similar age and dress, shook his head and frowned. "I know how you feel. That bit at the Paraclete gave a good many of us a turn. But the bishops have re-consecrated the chapel."
"You must have your head in a hole. Surely you've heard the rumors? Blue flames rising from the earth to engulf the King's tax men? Sworn knights vanish into thin air? I don't want my son anywhere near this. He can forget the sword and earn a living as I have." The merchant patted his round belly. "There's adventure enough in selling spices."
Gratified, Michael left the peddler's cart and found a place on the cathedral steps. He relaxed his mind and let the music flow as it would for some time. As if his flute had its own mind, the haunting tunes painted a portrait in his mind of a slim woman with curling copper hair and eyes the color of indigo. God's teeth! He had to get his mind off that provoking woman. Michael stopped improvising and began playing tunes he knew well, songs of the tavern and dances that forced him to pay attention to the notes and ignore his wayward thoughts. Passers-by stopped to listen and many tossed coins at his feet in appreciation.
He was well into a complicated dance tune he had learned from a Torenthi sailor when the hairs on the back of his neck rose sharply. His heightened senses caught the tread of booted feet and the swish of cloth exiting the cathedral. Michael pulled his shields in close and kept playing as if he had not noticed. The other performers ceased their dancing and playing as the cathedral doors opened. Three priests robed in black cassocks and cloaks lined with scarlet wool started down the steps, scowling at the players. From the military precision of their movements and the way all near them shrank back and bowed their heads, Michael guessed these were no meek brothers.
He tucked his flute into his tunic and began gathering the coins scattered near his feet. Just as Michael picked up the last silver penny the cassocks and boots stopped a scant inch from his fingers. Michael drew a slow breath and willed himself to be calm as he stood, bowing his head respectfully. Should it come to a fight, he knew his chances were not good. The dagger strapped to his belt might serve to insure he was not taken alive, but that was all it would give him.
A priest with a face that reminded Michael of a honed razor glared at him as he stood. "Out of the way!"
One of his companions shook his head as Michael jumped up the cathedral steps to clear their path. "Patience, Brother Serafin. We don't even know if the party from Caerrorie has arrived."
"I'll have patience when this matter is settled." The thin faced priest drew his cloak around his shoulders with a gesture that screamed his impatience to the world. "These rebels must be dealt with immediately, before they undermine the stability of our kingdom."
The priests headed for the street, ignoring Michael's presence. His heart racing, Michael tucked the coins into a pouch inside his vest and followed them at a discrete distance. Good fortune must have drawn him to Valoret cathedral today. Obviously the incident at the inn had finally provoked a serious response. Now he wanted to find out all he could of his enemies' plans. But how to hear what would no doubt be a confidential meeting without being spotted immediately? Michael grimaced at his brilliant, jingling clothing. While it might keep suspicion from him here in the street, he could never sneak into the offices of churchmen wearing gypsy garb. His answer came so quickly he felt a fool for not seeing it immediately. Priests surely had to wash their robes somehow, all he needed to do was find the laundry and borrow suitable clothing.
Michael slipped out of his ornamented vest and rolled it carefully beneath his arm. The crush of cloth silenced the jingling coins. Once he tucked the ends of his sash into the folds of cloth around his waist he could move as silently as he wished. With his attention focused on the now distant black robes he slipped down a side street and then up another. The Archbishop's palace sat at the end of a short row of tall, narrow houses. Clearly this street housed only the wealthiest and most important of Valoret's citizens, for each house was surrounded by walled gardens and the streets were clear of dung.
Once he was certain which of the residences the priests were heading for, Michael checked to see if the garden nearest him was empty. Fortunately it was. He dodged through the unlocked gate and slipped over the wall and into an alley, out of sight of the street. As he had expected, the alley crossed behind the Archbishop's residence. Michael paused behind the nearest outbuilding, which proved to be the stable. It appeared the party from Caerrorie had only just arrived, for two horse boys were struggling to unload several sweating and blowing chargers.
Here might be his chance to get inside the house. Michael stepped around the stable and gave the servants an easy smile. "Got your hands full there, have you?"
"Ye've no idea!" One of the horse boys spared a glance at Michael as he rubbed one of the chargers with a thick length of linen toweling. "His Grace wants everything done at once, he does. And not a thought as to who's to do it, mind!"
"Shut yer gob," another servant snapped.
From the expression on the youth's face Michael guessed he shared his companion's feelings but dared not voice them.
"Well, I tells it like it is," the first horse boy retorted. "Here we be, wipin' down five horses before they catch a chill. Meantime one of us is supposed to haul them heavy satchels full o' coin up to the house and give 'em to some Father what's-his-name so's they can be counted. An' stick about until the counting's done, no less, without a bite or a cup to tide us over!"
Michael leaned against the door of the stable as if he had all the time in the world to spare. "I'll help you out if I can, lads. Why don't you let me take over that bit with the horses?"
The horse boys exchanged dubious looks. "I don't know," the second lad said after a moment's consideration. "If he damaged one o' these beauties we'd be in for the flogging of our lives."
"True enough. These beasts are worth more than we are." The first boy sighed and went back to toweling the blowing gelding.
Michael nodded. "I understand. In your place I'd say the same thing. But how about if I take the satchels up for you instead? You can see me all the way to the door, and I'll be happy to stay until everything's counted out and all satisfied."
Both horse boys gaped as if he were a madman. The first whistled softly. "Ye'd do that for us?"
"I'd be most happy to."
"Have at it then, man. And may all the Saints bless ye for it." The horse boy nodded toward the swollen bags draped over a rail just inside the open stable door. "Tell old Brother Otto in the kitchens I said to give ye a plate when ye're done. Ye deserve it, an' the kitchen's a good one."
Michael hefted the heavy satchels onto his shoulder and made a show of walking slowly across the yard to the great house. Barely had he reached the door when a tall, sour looking priest in a black cassock belted with a twisted cord of scarlet and gold threw it open. "I see they found someone to do their work for them," he snapped as Michael stepped inside. "What did they promise you? A free meal?"
"As a matter of fact, yes." Michael estimated the priest to be about an inch shorter than he himself, but possibly thirty pounds heavier. The man's clothes should do nicely for a disguise. Now the only matter left was how to get him alone.
The priest's already thin lips drew into a barely visible line as his mouth puckered with disapproval. "Well, you'll not be fed here. We don't tend to beggars and vagrants. Bring those satchels to my office and there you'll stay until I've made certain they're correct to the silver penny."
Michael followed the priest down a narrow hall. At the end was a door of solid oak, banded with iron. The priest opened the door and stood back to allow Michael inside. The office had no windows. The walls were lined with shelves of books and large chests. A tall cabinet banded with iron and fastened with a thick lock dominated one wall entirely. The priest was tidy, Michael noted. The only sign of disorder was a long black cloak hanging from the corner of the tall cabinet.
"Put the bags on my desk." The priest busied himself opening a bottle of ink. For just the space of two heartbeats he turned his back to Michael.
It was all the time Michael needed. Without setting down the satchels he laid his hand against the back of the priest's exposed neck and sent a command for sleep. The priest dropped without a sound. Michael lowered the satchels to the floor as quietly as he could. It took a moment to send his mind into the lock on the door and fasten it securely. Then he commanded his victim to sleep the rest of the night and stripped off the man's robe and cincture. The clothing fit well over Michael's own garb, covering him to the ankles. He fastened the cloak over his robe and pulled up the hood to hide his lack of tonsure. He'd die before he'd try to shave his own head without a mirror.