Sword of a Saint
Chapter 5 - Part 4
It was mid afternoon before the band
of travelers stopped again. By that time Valerian's muscles ached from
the hard wagon seat. She groaned as she helped Yasmina set out a wheel
of cheese and a basket of apples for their lunch. Even more troublesome
than her stiff muscles was the worry that nagged the back of her mind
without mercy. She had not seen Michael since he made the outrageous
suggestion that she ride with him into Valoret. Surely he would not have
gone into that city alone. He must know the danger. No man could be so
foolish. In her heart, Valerian knew he had done exactly that. His
reasons eluded her, but anxiety over his fate clouded her thoughts.
"You worry over nothing." Yasmina handed Valerian a slice of sharp, hard cheese.
"What makes you think I worry at all?" Valerian instantly regretted her sharp tone.
The other woman laughed, her dark curls bobbing. "You glance about as if you expected to see him ride out of the air. Your thoughts are open to all, girl."
"You do not care if he comes back safe?" Valerian frowned as she struggled to control her raging emotions. How could Yasmina speak so casually of the danger Michael put himself in? She seemed to regard this as a schoolboy prank, something to be laughed over later.
Yasmina pointed to the black R'Kassan stallion Michael usually rode. The horse lifted his head and tossed his mane as if he knew he was being watched. Bits of new grass clung to his soft muzzle. "My master is much like the horse he rides. Both know well how to take care of themselves without help from any of us." She fixed Valerian with a look that flashed a deadly warning. "You will only injure yourself if you try to restrain him."
Valerian stiffened. How dare Yasmina speak to her so? As if she were any threat to the woman's relationship with Michael, whatever that might be! She succeeded in controlling the sharp words that hovered on the tip of her tongue, gave Yasmina a cool nod and walked away with her dignity intact. A few minutes of solitude were all she needed to recover her self control. There was no reason, really, for her to be so tense. After all, these people were in God's good hands and she trusted Him above all else. Surely He would see to it that Michael survived his foolish bravado. And if it was not His plan that Michael live, Valerian knew He would never forsake one of His children in death. That thought should have comforted her. Instead a flood of tears threatened to spill down her cheeks. The image of Michael, dragged to his execution and no doubt fighting for his life with every futile step, choked her.
Valerian closed her eyes in a vain attempt to shut out the imagined scene and tightened her shields lest those around her catch some hint of her unseemly turmoil. Only when cool sticky moisture soaked her fingers did she realize that she had inadvertently dug her fingers into the apple she still held. Chagrin at her own foolishness brought a smile. Valerian loosened her hold on the mangled fruit and licked the sweet juice from her fingertips. The gesture was childish, but somehow relaxing. After all, she reasoned, she was unobserved.
Warm breath blew across the back of her neck. A soft whicker and the tickle of a velvet nose told her one of the horses had come close behind her while she stood lost in her own dark thoughts. Valerian turned and found herself face to face with Michael's black R'Kassan. The stallion snorted loudly and butted Valerian hard enough to send her staggering back three paces.
Valerian straightened and faced the horse. If she refused to show fear, surely he would not attack her before someone could restrain him. She opened her mouth to call for help, but no sound came out. Then she looked into the stallion's wide brown eyes and her fear dissolved. Intelligence, curiosity and a trace of humor that reminded her sharply of Michael glowed there. The horse did not want to harm her. He was, apparently, looking for company. Cautiously Valerian held out her hand. The stallion's whiskers tickled as he sucked the remnants of apple juice off her skin. He tossed his great head and blew softly against her hand.
"Would you like the rest?" Valerian held the slightly crushed apple out. The horse's huge teeth barely grazed her skin as he took the treat.
Feeling braver, Valerian stepped closer and ran a hand beneath his silky mane. The corded muscles of his neck bunched against her fingers as she rubbed him. His coat felt clean, soft and warm against her chilled hands. As she moved slowly down to his sides she encountered something strange. Ridges of hard flesh, covered by the thick winter coat the stallion still wore, rasped against her fingertips. Puzzled, Valerian relaxed her shields and reached out with her senses.
The hard ridges were scars. Deep, long healed, but scars nonetheless. The stallion's sides bore the marks of what must have been brutal floggings. With every movement of her fingers she found more signs of abuse. The stallion rubbed his nose against her wool tunic. Valerian scratched his forelock, wishing she could take the pain from his past. "Who did this to you?" That was silly. A horse was not likely to answer.
A soft chuckle made both of them glance up. Fergus stood a few feet from them, a bridle dangling from his fingertips. The smile he wore made him look like a boy of twelve. "I've only seen Asmodious take to Michael like that. No one else can get near him without taking a good nip." Fergus closed the distance between them and rubbed the stallion's thick neck as he eased the bridle over his nose.
Valerian blinked in surprise. "His name is what?"
"Asmodious. The Creature of Judgment." Fergus tightened the bridle carefully. "He's earned it. He's a good judge of character, as you can see."
"But isn't that . . ." Valerian could not force herself to finish the thought.
"Yes, one of the names for the devil. You'd have to know the horse for a while to understand the jest." Fergus turned his attention from the horse for a moment. "He hasn't harmed you, has he?"
"No, of course not. He only wanted the apple I had."
"So he's flirting to get what he wants." Fergus laughed and gave the stallion an affectionate pat. "Typical male. Thinks the world is here for his benefit."
Much like his master. "I wonder that he hasn't been gelded," Valerian murmured. The thought fit both master and steed.
Fergus shook his head firmly. "Mick won't do it. He'd sooner cut his own ---. Well, never mind."
"Your face is as red as your hair."
"And you, my lady, are smiling. That's a good sign." Fergus gave her a short bow. "I shall have to report my success when Michael returns."
Fergus began leading Asmodious toward the other horses. Her curiosity thoroughly aroused, Valerian followed. "What happened to him?"
"You'll have to ask Michael that yourself, my lady."
"No, not Michael. The horse." Heat flooded Valerian's cheeks. To her shame she admitted Fergus's guess was more right than wrong. Her mind spun with questions about his enigmatic master.
"Oh." Fergus chuckled again. The stallion whickered again, as if he were laughing too.
"Mick took him from a trader in the Nur Hallaj. Offered the bas --- sorry." He paused and drew a breath before continuing. "Offered the fellow either a copper penny or six inches of steel."
"A copper penny for an R'Kassan of this quality? That's highway robbery!" Valerian shuddered as she imagined the frigid expression in Michael's eyes when he took what he wanted from an unresisting merchant.
"Don't feel too sorry for him, my lady. That trader had every intention of either breaking Asmodious' spirit or killing him in the process. Had him tied so he couldn't run or fight, whipped him bloody, starved him for water and set dogs on him. You felt some of the scars."
Valerian's sympathy for the trader evaporated. "Why would he do such a horrible thing?"
Fergus shrugged. "He said Asmodious could not be tamed. Wouldn't respond to spur or whip, but that's not the way to train a horse. Or a man, for that matter. Mick's had no trouble with him."
Unable to shove the image of the horrible horse trader from her mind, Valerian hugged Asmodious while Fergus fastened him to the long lead rein with the horses they had taken from the Custodes. "How could someone like that be left in charge of feeling animals?" she whispered, more to the stallion than to Fergus.
"He wasn't." Laughter threatened to break Fergus's voice. "For that copper penny, Mick took the whole string from him. Like most horse traders, he'd borrowed to buy the animals he was taking to market. He wound up on the slave block, unable to pay his debt."
Asmodious rubbed his head against Valerian's tunic again. When she tried to pull away, he lipped her arm.
"He's marked you," Fergus told her, his eyes sparkling with mirth. "Far as he's concerned, you're one of his mares now. Don't get too worried. He treats Mick the same way."
That had been entirely too close. Fortunately the other Deryni had been so confident of his success he'd risked a spell that surely left him an exhausted ball of jelly on the Archbishop's hallway floor. If he were here now, Michael knew, he would surely see through the thin disguise the gypsy clothing provided.
Michael bought himself a bun filled with cheese from a vendor and walked slowly, carefully nibbling the sticky meal. The filling was hot enough to burn his lips, even without the liberal doses of pepper, garlic and paprika the cook had added. He savored the warm, satisfying food as he scanned the stalls for women's clothing and kept his ears open for the sound of authorities searching the market.
The clothing was easy enough to find. Several booths and shops boasting everything from fabric to gowns, slippers, veils and belts lined a cul-de-sac. In consideration for the merchants, Michael finished his sausage before he went farther. He washed his hands and the blade of his knife in a small public fountain. As he was drying the blade on his sash a group of perhaps fifteen Custodes men at arms marched into the market square, their weapons drawn. People drew back, some making the sign of the cross, while the black clad soldiers shoved their way through stalls and shops searching every face. It was almost laughable. Michael knew these fools had no idea who they were looking for, save that the man was dressed as a priest. They seemed to think clothing could not be changed. Still he drew back when they approached and looked appropriately nervous to match the shoppers around him.
Confident that the men-at-arms would blunder about until they finally got tired of finding nothing but hostility, Michael began his shopping. He found a tambour sash for Yasmina and, with a little persuasion, bought it for one third the asking price. He then directed his attention to Valerian and her need for a gown or two. The market stalls seemed to cater more to working men's wives and daughters. The gowns they had ready made were of good, serviceable linen and wool tweed, simply cut. Valerian's delicate form and sweet face needed something a bit more colorful, so Michael headed for the permanent shops.
The first and second shop he entered showed gowns obviously made for ladies, sewn of tapestried silk and rich velvet embroidered with silver and gold. He would not have purchased one of these even if the shopkeeper had given him notice. Fortunately they ignored him, obviously hoping he would go away. The third shop was a bit different. As soon as Michael walked in he spied the dress he wanted, dark emerald wool that seemed to shimmer as it hung from the peg. Thick dark fur, probably rabbit, covered the narrow cuffs and scooped neckline. Beneath the fur, a wide band of embroidered trim in red and yellow decorated the gown.
A plump woman in a tunic of the same shiny wool and a plain linen apron approached as Michael examined the gown. "Can I help you?" she asked in a friendly tone that clearly said she had no objection to taking a gypsy's coin.
Michael nodded and gave her a smile calculated to win her heart. "I am looking for a dress for a very special woman."
The shop matron's plump cheeks swelled as she smiled and nodded. "If you know the fit of the lady, it should be easy enough. Our gowns are not as ornate as some, but you will find them well made and flattering. It would be best, of course, if you could bring her here so we can make certain the fit is right."
Michael shook his head. "This is a surprise."
The shop matron chuckled. "Well, that one you are looking at would be a nice choice. The fabric is a blend of fine wool and silk. The silk makes it stronger, and gives it a bit of a shine that women like. The fur lining continues all the way up the sleeves, so she will want a sleeveless shift with it."
As she spoke, the matron took the gown from its peg and spread it on a nearby table. Now the details were more apparent. Michael noticed the gown laced up both sides from hip to breast, no doubt to better fit the wearer's figure. The sleeves laced also, from wrist to elbow. He placed his hands on the gown and imagined Valerian's supple curves wrapped in it. The soft, slightly slippery texture of the fabric and his own overly active imagination created a burst of desire that made him sweat.
He controlled his thoughts and nodded to the matron. "This gown will do nicely. You said you had a shift for it?"
"We have several that would suit it already made up." She smiled a bit more, plumping her cheeks as she walked to a chest shoved against the far wall. "The lady must be very special to you."
"She has courage. I admire that."
The matron's chuckle annoyed Michael. A moment later she laid three sleeveless garments over the open lid of the trunk. All were cut in the same style, with long openings at the shoulder, low scooped necklines and wide strips of embroidered trim around the hem. The only difference in the shifts lay in their fabrics. One was linen, well woven and dyed the clear gold color of buttercups. One was silk the color of red wine, slick and soft. The third and clearly the more expensive was made of cotton with a paisley pattern woven into it.
Michael's attention was immediately riveted on the cotton shift. Valerian would no doubt love it. Cotton was a luxury only royalty could afford. She would never accept it. Her pride and her vow of poverty would not permit her to wear such a decadent pleasure as cotton. But, God's teeth! He would love to see her in it.
The matron dimpled as she watched him. "Your lady would like the cotton, yes?"
"She would." Michael made his decision then and there. "But can I afford it? I am not a king."
"You are a gypsy?" The matron nodded before he could answer. "Yes, I see by your clothing and the way you move. You would hold a sword or a lute with the same skill, only the gypsies do such things, and you always have money about you."
Michael nodded. The woman was perceptive, almost dangerously so. "Money I have, Mistress. But not an infinite amount."
This was the hardest part of his disguise, Michael reflected as he selected the other two shifts and watched the matron fold the patterned cotton back in the trunk. He could afford the cotton easily, but if he spent too much coin questions could start. Questions he would not want to have to answer later.
"Have you another gown of the same style?" Michael wanted this business concluded quickly. The peace he worked so hard to achieve earlier had evaporated, driven away with thoughts of Valerian. More important, he was nearly spent. Yesterday's exhaustion, a night with little sleep, and the power he'd used to wipe a mind and blow a door apart were all taking their toll. "And a cloak to match them?"
The matron complied quickly. Michael chose a second gown, this one a deep purple trimmed and lined with parti-colored velvet. A dark blue cloak lined in fox fur completed his purchases. As the matron was wrapping the clothing a commotion in the street outside drew Michael's attention. The Custodes men at arms were searching the clothiers' stalls now, with much the same care and courtesy they had shown earlier. The cloth merchants were a different sort of men than the peddlers in the main market, and not used to being shoved aside.
A particularly pompous fellow who had turned Michael away from his fine tapestry silks threw his great belly in the path of the Custodes and ordered them from his shop. As he thrust out a gloved hand covered in rings and the Custodes sergeant blustered, hands on his hips, Michael noticed trouble brewing.
A ragged, dirty boy of perhaps ten years set a younger child down near a cart full of leather goods. With a pat on the head he left his companion and approached the Custodes. His stealthy step and the curve of his right hand told Michael this boy must be a cut-purse, an incredibly brave and foolish one. The boy slipped behind the sergeant, who was so engrossed in bullying the merchant he did not notice. A flash of a blade and the lad stepped back, something clutched in his other hand.
The remainder of the Custodes were occupied searching the shop, despite the merchant's demands. As one of the men at arms straightened from exploring beneath a table he spotted the thief. His shout sent the boy darting through the crowd, the Custodes in pursuit. The shouting startled the thief's young companion, who began to cry piteously. Michael knew the boy had little chance of getting clear. He had not nearly enough head start on the men at arms to make his escape.
The fate of thieves, even ones so young, was hideous to contemplate. At best, the boy would lose his hand. Should he survive that he might be reduced to begging, if the other beggars would allow a marked thief to join them. Most probably he would meet his end starving at the side of a road, or find work in one of the brothels that sold boys to those with enough coin to indulge their unnatural tastes. The younger child he cared for faced much the same end, though without the maiming.
In that instant Michael made up his mind to save the children. He left the shop and headed toward the main market square, following the chase from a distance. The boy was surrounded, but not yet captured. He dodged between carts and stalls with the nimbleness of a goat. The Custodes snatched at him, swearing at his quickness and at the reluctance of the vendors and shoppers to aid them.
A cart piled with casks and painted pottery jars stood blocking a narrow dark alley. Michael guessed the alley would provide a nice escape route if the boy could only see it. He focused his mind on the wheels of the cart and willed it to move, just a little.
Fortunately the merchant who owned the cart kept it in fine condition. Its wheels were well greased and set to move smoothly. Unfortunately the cart rested at the bottom of an incline so slight Michael had not noticed it until he tried to move the weight uphill. Sweat beaded on his forehead as Michael focused more of his scant energy on moving the cart. At last it rolled a few feet.
The lad saw the movement and dashed for the alley with all the speed of a cornered mouse to a hole. The Custodes shoved through the crowd after him. Curses and shrieks followed them as they knocked more than one person to the muddy street in their haste. No sooner had the boy dodged into the alley than Michael released the cart. It rolled gently back to its natural place. The Custodes, running at full speed, had no hope of stopping.
The first Custodes caught the side of the cart in a desperate attempt to keep from crashing into it. Unfortunately the cart was still rolling when they caught it. Slightly off balance, the cart tumbled sideways. Casks broke open. Jars shattered. As the Custodes fell, cursing and flailing, the scent of olive oil filled the air.
The people in the marketplace laughed at the Custodes plight. Clearly their hatred of the Episcopal enforcers was greater than their dislike of thieves. Now that the men at arms were helpless, unable even to rise because of the slick oil on their gloves, boots, armor and the street beneath them, the citizens of Valoret took their revenge. A shower of vegetables, trash, rocks and offal pelted the Custodes.
Michael turned his back on the excitement. He was still struggling to hide a smile and wiping his sweaty face on his sleeve as he stepped into the dress shop. The shop matron sat on a chest, a bundle wrapped in canvass and bound with string beside her.
"I have your purchases, lad." The matron's smile warned Michael that something was not as it should be. He risked a finger of thought to read her honesty as he asked, "How much do I owe you?"
"How much have you in your purse?"
Michael counted the coins by feel and named a total of two thirds the actual amount. "Twenty silver, Mistress."
"Five will do."
Michael must have shown his surprise. He'd expected four times that amount.
The matron laughed. "Oh, lad, you must understand me. My husband and I lived in Dhassa until a few years past. We used to be of the cursed race, you see, but we were fortunate enough to be cleansed by Master Revan. Not all of our people have been so blessed."
"You mean that little thief is . . ."
She nodded. "Yes, he and his brother. Their parents were good people, by all accounts. Three years past they were orphaned, and none dare take them in for fear of the Archbishop's laws."
She patted Michael's hand as he took the package. "I saw how you helped him, though I doubt any other did. You showed the kind of courage I only wish I possessed. Enjoy the gowns on your lady, and may God be with you. You are going to need him.”