Sword of a Saint
Chapter 5 - Part 3
Thus disguised Michael
left the clerk's office, locking the door behind him. Moments later he
was back in the main part of the house. Now he had to find the priests
he had followed from the cathedral. Michael folded his hands inside the
flowing sleeves of his robe, bowed his head and started down a corridor
lined with closed doors. If he looked like he knew where he was going,
he had a good chance of finding his quarry before he was disturbed.
The first corridor he searched proved empty, as did the second. Michael decided to augment his senses with a bit of Deryni probing on the third. The risk of discovery was, after all, slight and he was getting nowhere otherwise. Luck found him immediately. It seemed an argument raged in a room at the far end of the third corridor. Michael paused outside the door to listen. The first voice he heard he knew well, for it had haunted his dreams since his childhood.
"It's hardly my fault if those stupid villagers didn't bother to see past the ends of their own noses!" Lord Hugh Sinclair's boots beat a staccato tempo as he paced the chamber. "We returned as soon as we had anything of value to report."
"And the tax money," a man with a voice like a bear demanded. "You returned with that as well, did you not?"
"Of course, though I notice you don't ask how we found that sum again in that pig's wallow of a village."
"That's hardly important." This speaker carried a note of authority, though he did not raise his voice. Robes rustled as he stood, telling Michael the man was either a priest or very well placed in the government. "I am far more concerned with the information you brought us. You say this girl saw the rebels, and spoke with one of them?"
"That is what Rolf tells me." Leather creaked as Hugh Sinclair leaned against something. "He read it directly from her mind."
For a heartbeat's space, Michael froze. He remembered the dark Deryni they spoke of, one who often accompanied Hugh Sinclair. Although Rolf did not have the same foul appetites as his master, his love for pain brought a sheen of sweat to Michael's brow. Michael realized he was shaking and sweating like a novice in the training yard. Disgusted, he forced himself to better control. He was no helpless boy to be used, not anymore. If Rolf was nearby, let him come. Michael was certain he could match the dark Deryni stroke for stroke. With that assurance he focused on the conversation again.
"Are you certain this Deryni of yours can be trusted?"
Hugh Sinclair shifted his position. Leather creaked again. "More than I trust you, Uncle."
The priest grunted. "Then let us discover what the wench knows."
"One difficulty there, Father Paulin." The disapproving tone of Brother Serafin's voice grated on Michael's nerves. "The wench is asking to confess herself before she will answer any questions."
"What's the problem?" The gravel voiced man sounded impatient. "We hardly need to worry about her wishes at this point. I want to make certain the money's all as it should be. If there's a groat missing . . ."
"Have a bit of patience, Your Excellency. We often have more luck if the hook is properly baited. And your clerk is at this moment tallying up the tax money. You will know the totals before the day is out."
"You are right, of course, Father Paulin." Gravel voice gasped for breath as if he'd been running up hill all morning. "So, we find a priest to confess the wench and then question him. One of our own."
"Naturally. I merely wanted to apprise you of the situation." Father Paulin paused, then continued as if talking to himself. "This will take a particular touch, I should think. A very gentle hand. After all, the poor girl has just lost her family and she is, no doubt, upset."
Hugh Sinclair snorted. "A damned watering pot all the way from Caerrorie, that's what she was. And not two words to say between the sobbing, mind you."
"Let's hope she will be worth the trouble it takes to extract the information from her." Brother Serafin's robes rustled as he shook his head. "Eight attacks in less than six months. And not so much as ---"
"Eight?" Hugh Sinclair interrupted. "I thought your missive said seven."
"Your men make it eight. That party you led when you went hunting renegades never returned." Father Paulin's voice dripped disapproval.
"That does not mean anything more than that they are a bit late." Lord Hugh was plainly angry. "After all, I traveled fast."
"And, no doubt, they would have taken the time to entertain themselves with that little Deryni nun you say you were bringing back."
The rage Michael felt at hearing the cold voiced priest speak of Valerian's assault in such casual and dismissive tones made the polished door rattle in its frame. Inside the room, the conversation halted. Michael schooled his appearance to a more composed image. If worse came to worst, he knew he could bolt into the room. There was, no doubt, a window leading to the outside though he dared not expend enough energy to find out for certain. Once he was through the window it would be an easy sprint to the street or the alley and from there straight to the safety of the crowded market.
Hugh Sinclair's boots struck the floor with a loud smack. "My men may be sworn to your Custodes, Uncle, but they are men none the less. They would be no good to you otherwise. You cannot expect men not to sample a pretty morsel if she is at their disposal."
"And did you sample the wench you brought from Caerrorie?" Father Paulin matched the sneering tone of Lord Hugh's voice. "If so, it's no wonder she wants a confessor."
"I did not. Not yet, at least." Lord Hugh snickered loudly. "Now, if she'd have stopped that damned wailing long enough for me to talk to her . . ."
Michael heard the unmistakable racket of chairs scraping, boots hitting the floor and clothing being straightened. The men were about to leave. His mind raced with possibilities for what was to come. The temptation to end Hugh Sinclair's miserable life hung before him like a lodestone. For the space of a breath he was tempted to throw all other concerns to the winds and take his revenge. Common sense stopped him. He could surely kill Hugh Sinclair, and probably his Deryni companion. He might well even escape with his life if he did. Unfortunately, his luck would not extend to the rest of his companions, and if Sinclair had a witness from Caerrorie who could identify any of them the witness was too dangerous to leave.
Better to wait and make certain the loose end from Caerrorie was tied up. He needed to silence the woman before she could be questioned. It would be easiest to simply kill her. Michael knew he could end her life quickly, without pain. Before any realized what he had done, he would be gone. Unbidden, the face of the girl in the tavern came to his mind. It had to be her Sinclair had captive in some locked chamber. No other woman still living could describe what had happened to that inn.
She lived yet because of him. Guilt followed that thought like water through a burst dam. It made no sense to kill her now, not when her death was not necessary. It would take but little more time to erase her memory. All he needed to do was find her, and for that he had the perfect plan.
His decision made, Michael hurried down the corridor and turned half a heartbeat before the door opened. He assumed the pose of a humble priest intent on some mundane business, head down, hands folded, steps measured. Keeping to his disguise he drew his shields in so close that only the deepest, most private parts of his mind were guarded. He stood aside as the four men started down the corridor. Two black robed priests followed a fat lump of a man Michael assumed must be Hubert, Archbishop of Valoret. Hugh Sinclair, still in riding leathers spattered with mud, followed them. His silver spurs cut narrow scratches in the polished floorboards with every step.
Michael concentrated his attention on a heavy jeweled cross hanging from a serpent link chain on the Archbishop's fat neck. One of the links weakened, then, just as Hubert lumbered past Michael, the link snapped. The cross slid to the floor and skidded to a stop at Michael's feet. Michael picked it up and held it out, bowing his head in apparent reverence for the officious Hubert. The Archbishop's smile reminded him of the expressions often seen on dolls made from dried apples.
"Forgive me, Excellency. You dropped this." Michael kept his voice soft and spoke slowly, as if he were, perhaps, a bit simple.
"Thank you, Father." Hubert touched Michael's fingers briefly as he took the cross.
The brush of flesh on flesh was all Michael needed. In the space of half a heartbeat he sent a powerful suggestion. Who better to hear a captive's confession than a simple priest with a friendly face?
Hubert's smile broadened. "Tell me, Father, are you here on business of your own Parish?"
"Oh no, Excellency." Michael shook his head and gave the Primate of Gwynedd his most vacant smile. "I fear I am but newly ordained. My superiors often use me to run their errands, my legs being young."
"I see." Hubert glanced at his companions. Both of the priests smiled and nodded. "Come with us, Father. A young woman has come to us in need of a confessor. You seem most suitable."
Best not to sound as if he'd been loitering in the corridor. Michael nodded and glanced down toward one of the closed doors. "Of course, Your Eminence. May I just finish --"
"Time for whatever errand you were about later, Father . . ."
"Father Jude, Your Eminence."
"Come with us, Father Jude." Hubert tucked the cross into the wide leather belt that cinched his robe and continued on, his heavy footsteps echoing in the silent corridor. Michael found himself flanked by the two priests, Paulin and Serafin, with Lord Hugh following close on his heels.
Hubert led them down into the cellars. Two armed guards flanked a door, their pikes crossed as if they needed to keep whoever was in the room from bolting. The damp, chill air of the basement made Michael realize how much he was sweating. If he were nervous, what must the prisoner be feeling? Pity for the poor woman's condition overwhelmed him. He knew too well what it felt like to be helpless.
Father Paulin stepped aside to allow Michael a path to the door. "Your penitent waits, Father. As soon as you are done we will want to question you. The wench has important information we must have. Make certain you pay good attention and leave nothing out when we speak later."
"As you wish, Father. Your Eminence." Michael gave Hubert another deferential nod and waited for one of the guards to open the door. He was glad the hood his his face, for he knew his lips were twitching from the effort not to smile.
The room was windowless, lit only by a single candle set on a battered table. A woman slumped on a low stool, clearly exhausted. There was no sign of a cup or bowl Clearly none had thought enough of the prisoner's comfort to provide so much as a loaf and water. She glanced up when the door closed. Freckles stood out sharply against the pallor of her cheeks, visible through the strands of lank hair that plastered themselves to her face. In the flickering light she might have been a ghost.
Her knuckles whitened as she twined her fingers in the skirt of her tunic. "Have ye come to hear me sins, Father?"
What in God's name was she called? Michael could not recall. He gave her a slow nod and decided it wasn't important. "His Eminence has sent me to you, Daughter."
She immediately fell to her knees and looked up at him expectantly.
After a moment, Michael signed the cross in the air over her head. "In nomne de Patris, et Filis, et Spiritus Sancti."
"Amen." She crossed herself again. If she didn't stop that she was likely to wear a hole in her forehead.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been near five days since my last confession." A sob shuddered her breathing. "God help me, Father, I ain't done nothin' to die for!"
Michael knelt facing her. His lips lifted in a gentle smile he hoped would ease her intense emotions. "Take breath, Daughter. I swear to you I am not here to prepare you for execution."
The girl shook her head. "That may be what ye say, Father. I ain't callin' ye a liar. But I know them nobles don't take a poor girl from her home with soldiers an' all, not if they ain't thinkin' she's done something wrong. An' if they ain't goin' to kill me ---" She gave a small sob. "I ain't that kind of a girl, Father. I swear as God be my witness I ain't."
Michael folded her hands in his. "I assure you, Daughter, you have nothing to fear. His Eminence believes you may have some information regarding the outlaws that were in your village not long ago. He only wants you to tell him the truth."
While he spoke, Michael eased into her mind. She fell easily under he control, owing no doubt to both physical and mental exhaustion. Once he held her mind, he searched for the memories Rolf would want to pull up. His own face came clearly to her mind, along with the crowded tavern, her own aching feet, and the weight of the pitcher and cups she carried. Yes, she had seen the end of the tavern. On her way to the privy she happened to glance over her shoulder to make certain none of the guards thought to follow her. She saw the gathered Deryni near the stable, and clearly remembered both Adrian's face and Fergus's.
Michael wiped the memories clear with a ruthlessness that would have pleased his Grand Master. Nothing remained from the time the wench last filled her pitcher of cider to the night she spent in the village church, assuring the blacksmith's son that she, at least, was still alive. As he finished clearing her memory, but before he could fill in the gap, Michael felt the brush of another mind sensing his. Immediately he pulled away from the girl and released her. It was time to go.
The wench blinked, clearly at a loss. Michael gave her hands a light squeeze. "Is there anything else, Daughter?" Best let her think she had finished telling her sins.
She shook her head. "I can't remember what I said to ye, Father."
He patted her shoulder as he rose. "You are exhausted, Daughter. I assure you, lust is no great sin. Nor is acting upon that desire, providing the one you desire is willing."
The wench frowned up at him as he turned to leave. "Aren't ye goin' to give me penance, Father?"
"Three Aves should cover it." Michael headed for the door. The other Deryni was approaching rapidly. His escape might already be blocked.
"But, Father, aren't ye goin' to absolve me?"
Michael hesitated. What did the priests say when they ended a confession? Te Absolvo . . . and that was all he could remember. Before he had the chance to do more than lift his hand over the trembling wench, the door burst open with a crash that shook the battered table. The candle teetered in its stand and the wench seized it, giving Michael his chance to draw back.
Paulin, Serafin, Lord Hugh and the dark haired Deryni he had been feeling for the past few minutes shoved past him as if he were no more than an inconvenient piece of furniture. They immediately shoved the wench onto the stool. Father Serafin pinned her head in place while the Deryni grasped her forehead and extended his power without bothering over a by-your-leave.
Michael slipped out the still open door and hurried down the corridor with the best speed he could manage in the long priests robe. Barely did he turn the corner when the raised voices from the room he'd just left reached him.
"That priest! Find him!"
Michael threw caution to the wind. The corridor he was in now ended with a large, ornately carved door. His sense of direction told him this was the way out. He sprinted for the door. Booted feet thundered behind him. He was ten steps from the door when the dark Deryni rounded the corner. Michael sensed the other gathering power into a spell.
No time for niceties. Michael sent a blast of power at the beautiful doors. They burst apart, shards of polished wood flying everywhere. Behind him he felt the deadly spell erupt from the other Deryni, aimed at his back. Michael threw himself into a tight roll. The spell passed over his head, through the door and struck one of the massive oak trees that stood before the Archbishop's palace. The tree groaned as it absorbed the malevolent energy. With a sound like falling rain its' budding leaves fell from rapidly drying branches.
Michael regained his feet and raced away from the palace. Pursuit came hot behind him, Fathers Paulin and Serafin in the lead. Lord Hugh came next, shouting for any within hearing distance to stop Michael's flight for freedom. Michael dodged down a narrow alley between two houses. It took only a moment to shed the black robe, wad it up and shove it behind a pile of trash. He slipped the vest and sash back on, checked his dagger, pouch and flute. All were as they should be. A moment more and his pursuers passed the alley, wheezing like old bellows. Michael counted ten, then returned to the street. He forced himself to saunter into the market square as if he had not a care in the world, but his heart threatened to burst from his throat.