Sword of a Saint
Chapter 6 - Part 1
"I tell you
this is madness!"
Fergus's whisper sent a chill through Valerian. "He
should have been back hours past."
"He should never have gone in the first place. But Ya Muntquam will do as he pleases." Yasmina drained her cup of wine and shook her head, setting every piece of metal she wore jingling. "He has always had a wish for danger, that one."
"He loves a challenge, but I have never seen him like this." Fergus swallowed a huge chunk of bread and shook his head. "He's walked into a lion's den, he has."
Valerian shook herself. What was she doing? Eavesdropping! After all Mother Anne taught her about respecting the privacy of others, she should know better. In the cloister she had lived so close by the other sisters she learned to keep her ears under control. Words were few there, and precious. She turned her attention back to her meal of stew and bread. Despite the restrictions of Lent, there was a mixture of rabbit and venison in her bowl. Onions, turnips, apples and sage flavored the rich gravy that turned the hard bread into a taste of paradise.
The Michaeline knights and Sir Gregory had politely refused the stew. Brother Trystan sat with them, cleaning the remnants of gravy from his bowl with the last of his bread. His smile fairly radiated guilty pleasure. Valerian shared his feelings. While her heart ached for her lack of restraint and respect of the season, hunger made a stronger command. No doubt she would do penance for a month thanks to this indulgence.
Yasmina's voice penetrated her concentration again. "I think Ya Muntquam has found a reason to open his heart." A jingle of silver and copper indicted she moved sharply. "You know why he returned to Valoret, yes?"
"Yes, I do." Fergus sounded both angry and worried. "He's on a fool's errand at best."
"Perhaps not. If we tell ----"
What had Michael done? Valerian felt the chill of worry creep up her spine. Beneath her wool hood, her hair stood on end. She was, of course, concerned for his safety. After all, he had rescued both herself and Brother Trystan from a horrible fate. Naturally she wished him well as she would any other. She was too honest to allow herself the luxury of that lie. No, she cared more for Michael than was proper. The forest seemed larger with him gone, and more threatening. The camp more exposed.
Valerian jumped as one of the Michaelines left their group and approached her. Although the man wore both the white belt of a knight and the tonsure that proclaimed him a priest of Holy Church, her heart began to race. Sweat trickled down her spine as she fought to control an unreasoning fear. Valerian compensated for her fear by strengthening her shields into a wall of iron.
The knight stopped several paces from where she sat. "Your pardon, Sister. Might I sit with you?"
"Of course." Valerian indicated the available end of the log. "You are Father Andrew, are you not?"
"I am." The smile on his lips did not reach his eyes. "Brother Trystan suggested you felt troubled. Are you in need of a priest?"
No doubt she was, Valerian thought. But what would she say? That she feared all men save one? That she had enjoyed the touch of his hands and lips far more than was proper for a woman of her station and calling? That he haunted her dreams in a way most unchaste?
"I don't think so just now, Father. Thank you for the offer, but there is little privacy."
"We could remedy that." Father Andrew laid his hand on the empty space of log between them. "You know we can speak without the chance of any overhearing us, if you so wish. Or we could step into the wagon, which would be a bit more like the normal confessional."
Valerian eyed the space of log between them. Her conscience demanded she accept the offer. Always before, the act of contrition and penance brought peace to her soul. Why should now be different?
"All right, Father. And I thank you for your service." Valerian set her half finished bowl of stew aside and took the hand he offered. Her racing heart redoubled its pace as she felt the touch of another. Almost immediately she sensedhis mind against her shields. She bit her lip to keep from screaming. Lowering her shields took an act of will that left her trembling where she sat. Valerian closed her eyes to block out the camp and allowed the priest to establish a tenuous rapport.
**Are you not comfortable with this, Daughter?**
**I am fine, Father. Please let's begin.**
**As you wish.** His mental voice had the same understanding tone as his physical one. **In Nomine Pater, et Filis, et Spiritus Sancte.**
**Amen. Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been sixteen days since my last confession. Since that time . . .**
Valerian paused, shuddering. Sitting here with the priest was taking all the effort she could manage. Precious little will was left to consider the past days and catalogue her errors.
**Perhaps if you simply showed me what was bothering you it would be easier?**
Father Andrew's suggestion made sense. Valerian shoved aside the fear that he might see more than was necessary. After all, he was a priest. He would not violate this sacred trust. But some of the others also were priests, that terrible voice reminded her. She pushed the thought away with all the resolution she had left and focused on her willful disrespect of the Prioress in the last days before Mother Anne's death. The memory came quickly into focus. Watching her own past like an outsider, Valerian wondered why she had not recognized the triumph in Sister Walburga's eyes for what it was.
She switched to another memory, this time in the dusty herbal where the seeds were stored for spring planting. She was sorting through a small sack of precious dill, picking out those seeds that had shriveled or gone dark over the winter. The clean seeds she carefully separated into a new linen sack so they would not be contaminated by the old bag.
One of the younger sisters called her away from the task to tend a woman with a badly burned leg. The wench was the village whore, and was so drunk she did not realize her skirt had caught fire. Only when the flames became visible had two patrons in the tavern thought to smother the burning cloth and bring her to the abbey. The woman shouted obscenities at Valerian, demanding all the while that she be allowed to go about her business. Valerian endured the abuse and dressed the burns as quickly as she could. The task was virtually pointless, she knew. There was little chance the whore would stay clean and sober long enough to prevent the raw flesh from taking a fatal infection.
By the time she returned to the herbal, only to find one of the other sisters must have been there while she was gone. All the dill seed had been poured into the clean bag. No doubt one of the younger novices believed she was helping, but Valerian saw only hours of painstaking work undone. Seething with frustration, her hand fell upon a small ceramic bowl used for weighing medicinal herbs. Without thinking, she flung the bowl at the wall. The sound of shattering crockery released some of her anger, but regret over the wasted bowl quickly filled the gap.
Valerian searched for another sin. Father Andrew chose the moment to investigate that part of her mind she had no wish to show him. Before she could protest, the priest opened the memory she had so carefully sealed. The images seared her senses. Her captors putting their hands on her, hurting her and laughing. The drug that stripped her mind as bare as their rough touch stripped her body. The one who invaded her denuded mind to savor her fear at a level the humans could only observe.
As the litany of horror threatened to overwhelm her, another image forced the attack from her thoughts. Michael's hand against her cheek, the taste of his breath as he leaned close. His assurance that she was safe so long as he was near her. The way he kissed her --- with a cry, Valerian broke the rapport and bolted from the log. Shoving her fist into her mouth to stifle the sobs of humiliation threatening to burst forth, she fled for the trees as fast as her slippers could carry her.
After a time that might have been measured in minutes or hours, Valerian leaned against the rough bark of a huge tree and forced herself to breathe deeply. She had cried so long she was now dizzy from lack of breath. How could she lose control so completely? Never in her life, no matter how wonderful or terrible the situation, had she allowed her emotions to disturb the calm reserve she so valued. Protecting that measure of equilibrium was vital, as its attainment had come at high cost.
What must Father Andrew be thinking of her? And the rest of the camp, if any noticed her flight, must believe her a lunatic who should be confined for her own safety. Valerian closed her burning eyes and rubbed them. Tears soothed the irritation, but not the reason behind it. That problem remained, like a draft horse in a chapel, silent and motionless but impossible to ignore.
Why, God in Heaven!, why could she tolerate only the touch of the one man she dared not let anywhere near her? With all her innocence shattered, why did she dream of Michael's touch? Why could she not control her desires with an act of will? Her attraction to Michael was the source of the rest of her tension, Valerian knew. Mother Anne's voice persisted even now in the back of her mind. Lessons learned at the knee of that good Abbess reverberated through her soul, damning her every moment.
"You must put aside desires of the flesh, child, if you would reach for the greater glory in the Kingdom of Heaven." Mother Anne had patted her hand when Valerian, at the age of nine, had asked whom she might marry. "You are called to service as Our Lord's own bride. It is great responsibility, and great sacrifice."
"With diligence, prayer and fasting one can conquer the baser desires of the mortal body," Mother Anne had instructed later. "You must not allow yourself a moment of weakness, for in even the smallest laxity temptation can find entrance. Disaster will follow as surely as night follows day."
Holy Mother of God help her! Valerian knew she had allowed herself far more than a moment of weakness. She fairly wallowed in it. A twig snapped loudly in the silent forest. Valerian froze, her breath caught in her throat as she searched for the source of the sound. For the space of a heartbeat she felt fear. Then reason took over. There might well be wolves in this forest, and brigands, and any number of things that could do her harm. Given the turns her life had taken did she truly care if she survived? Might death not be better? But could her lack of caution be construed as suicide? Valerian's conscience pricked her then. How could she have considered a mortal sin, even for a moment?
Footsteps approached before she could decide whether to run or remain where she was. Fergus paused several feet from where Valerian stood. The faint moon outlined his burly shoulders and curly hair in threads of silver. He regarded her with an even, almost bland expression.
"You should not be so far from camp, Sister."
"I fear I did not pay much attention to where I ran."
"So I guessed." Fergus stepped a bit closer. He froze when Valerian tensed. "Would you care to talk about it? I'm a good listener."
Valerian fought against the urge to flee deeper into the forest. The sensible corner of her mind knew Fergus was not a threat. He had not thus far offered so much as a threatening expression to her. He was a different sort of man than the Custodes had been. But most of her mind did not listen to reason. Her heart raced, her muscles tensed and a scream hovered at the back of her throat.
"I think not." Valerian compensated for her irrational fear by taking one step away from Fergus. "The problem is my own."
He gave her a slight smile. "You're about to crumble into a jelly, you know. I could blur your memories; even block some of that fear for you. Let you deal with it when you're ready."
She stepped back again, her heart hammering. "No. I thank you, but no."
"As you wish, from where I'm standing, though, you need some help dealing with this whole situation." Fergus stepped back and shook out his long dark cloak. With his arms covered he seemed somehow less threatening.
"I would never go into your mind without your permission. I don't think any of us would." The tone of his voice softened to a more comforting level.
Valerian realized this man was trying to reassure her. And not just about himself, which would make sense in their immediate situation, but about the entire party. "Do I seem that skittish?"
His smile widened a bit. "Like a cornered sparrow, and you've good reason, Sister. There's no shame in a bit of distress after what you've been through."
"What know you of my experiences?" The idea that these men might have speculated on her defilement brought a flicker of anger slicing through Valerian's nervousness. "You saw only the end."
"But we're all men, Sister. Yasmina excepted, of course. And while none of us would force a woman, we've all known the type that will."
"You seem quite confident in the character of your companions."
Fergus nodded. "Mick chose each of us, including the slaves. He wouldn't include anyone who did not have sufficient self control to refrain from hurting a woman."
Valerian caught herself before she could smile. Fergus was trying to paint an image she knew could not be true. "You would have me believe your leader is a walking saint?"
Fergus shook his head. Droplets of mist fell from his damp curls. "No, he's not at all. But a man without self discipline could endanger the rest of us. Mick would never allow that."
"So the women of Gwynedd must thank his lust for violence, if that provides their safety?"
"It sounds a bit ludicrous, but it's the truth. Or at least part of it." Fergus's grin widened for the space of a heartbeat. Then he sobered. "There's that, of course. And Mick lost his mother and sister to men like that. He gets a bit irrational at times."
This tidbit of information replaced the remainder of Valerian's fear with curiosity. "I did not know he came from Gwynedd. He seemed a bit foreign."
Fergus nodded. "He was born in Tarleton, I think. His father came from Torenth. Gives him a bit of an exotic look, but he's as native as I am."
A tidal flood of questions filled Valerian's mind. "And was he ---" she began before she could control her tongue.
Fergus silenced her with a raised hand. "We had best return to camp, Sister. And if you want to know more about Mick, I'd suggest you ask him."
Valerian followed quietly as Fergus led her toward the fire. Her mind spun wildly now, tantalized by a bit of information. How could a boy from a prosperous holding become a gypsy? Michael had obviously been well educated, though it could not have been in Gwynedd. Where had he gotten his training? Why was she so interested in what was none of her business? Valerian wiped the questions from her mind with an effort of will and vowed not to pay more attention to them.
In another day they would reach the Haven the Michaelines spoke of. She could be joined with a small religious community, and the confusion named Michael would forever be out of her life.
Michael ran the heavy brush over the gelding's back one final time. The horse had eaten well in Valoret, so all he needed upon their return to camp was a good cleaning, a blanket, and a bucket of water. That was just as well, since Michael was eager to see his purchases on Valerian. His packs bulged with two gowns, two shifts and a good wool cloak. After his adventure with the young thief he had added a pair of gloves, slippers, stockings, and a veil and roll to his purchases. The coin spent was well worth the trouble, he was certain.
Michael took a moment to separate Yasmina's gift from the rest of his purchases and tuck the scarf into his sash. Whistling softly, he gathered his bags and headed for the wagons. As he left the stable, two figured emerged from the trees. At the sight of them Michael froze, his stomach twisting into a coil of fury and betrayal.
Fergus led Valerian out of the woods. They were talking softly, and from the flushed look of her cheeks and the sparkle in her eyes Michael could only guess what had been going on. Hell, she had not even bothered to wipe the sweat from her cheeks. Firelight flashed off the dampness. For a fraction of a heartbeat Michael fought the urge to blast Fergus into eternity on the spot. Then, with hard won control, he restrained the desire. After all, it wasn't as if Valerian was his woman. In fact, she seemed indifferent to him. He should be glad for her. Fergus was a gentle, understanding man who could care for a woman in a way he, Michael, could not. He was glad for her, and for his best friend. Then why did he feel as if he'd been kicked in the guts by a Conatti mule? Michael schooled his expression to blandness, tightened his shields and approached Valerian as she made for the fire. Even he could feel the tightness of his lips as he made himself smile.
"I've brought you some things that may fit you better." He thrust the bags at her, careful to keep his attention on Fergus. "I hope you like them."
"Thank you, my lord." Valerian's voice trembled a bit. No doubt she was a bit flustered yet. Many women were after passion.
The urge to incinerate Fergus pressed against his controls again.
"Think nothing of it, Sister."
Once Valerian stepped around him and headed for the wagon with his bags, Michael turned to Fergus. His friend's mind brushed his shields, but Michael did not lower them. The last thing he needed now was for Fergus to realize how jealous he was. That kind of dissention could doom their entire enterprise.
"We need to talk, once our guests are asleep."
Fergus nodded. The wrinkles at the corners of his eyes deepened. That slight show of tension told Michael that Fergus had noted his feelings, and likely expected a confrontation.
"I agree. And the sooner the better."
"Tonight then." Michael forced his shoulders to relax. "Fetch my sitar, will you? I've a gift for Yasmina, and I'd like to see it in action."
Yasmina accepted the tambour scarf with a reserved thank-you and a sultry glance that would enflame any normal man. Michael settled himself on a log, checked the tuning on his sitar, and began to pluck a sensuous line of music. The feel of the strings beneath his fingers drained the tension from Michael, absorbing it and releasing it with a change in tone. The rhythm grew more forceful, powerful and lusty.
Yasmina stepped into the open circle around the fire. Bells sang at her ankles and wrists as she shook out the new scarf and waved it, circling her hips all the while. Then she began to dance, working with the music as if the tune were a partner, leading her movements. Dimly Michael realized one of the slaves must have fetched a drum. The rhythm matched his melody and Yasmina's movements perfectly.
How long they played Michael could not say. His concentration on the music kept his mind from other things, so he focused on it intensely. At last the fire burned to glowing embers and a sheen of sweat shone on Yasmina's flesh. The music slowed. Yasmina moved around the fire with a slow shimmy that set every coin and bell she wore singing. When she dropped to her knees at his feet, Michael silenced the strings of his sitar.
The tip of Yasmina's tongue slipped over her lips as she sat waiting for him to make a decision. Michael willed himself to feel some interest in the offer. Yasmina was beautiful, experienced, lusty and devoid of emotional attachment. Normally she would be exactly what he was looking for. Unfortunately she was not what he wanted now. Michael could not bring himself to accept her offer, bed her and all the while wish she were someone else. Fergus solved the dilemma for him. When his friend lifted Yasmina off the ground, carried her to the second wagon and shut the door firmly Michael felt only relief. Michael stretched the ache from his neck and shoulders as he stood. His gaze wandered to the first wagon. He blinked, then stared openly for an endless moment.
Valerian stood on the wagon step. The green gown hugged her figure in soft, shimmering elegance. A hint of embroidered saffron linen peeked over the furred collar and just above her slippers. She stood with the hem slightly raised, as if she were about to step down and join them. The look on her face tore at Michael's heart. She was staring at the wagon Fergus had carried Yasmina into a scant moment earlier. Her soft lips parted in distress she fought bravely to conceal.
Michael battled the urge to drag Fergus from that wagon and force him to his knees before Valerian for several minutes. Then, vowing he would settle the matter with his friend later, he returned to his seat and picked up the sitar again. This time the music was soft, sensual, usually reserved for the harem.
Michael played for Valerian alone, though the others sat and listened. He ignored them. His gaze remained fixed on her where she stayed standing on the wagon step. Her mental voice brushed his shields. Michael opened his mind so quickly he nearly lost the thread of the music.
Valerian's touch came as light as the brush of a lily. A single thought and she was gone. **Thank you.**