Sword of a Saint
Chapter 6 - Part 2
Much later, when the Michaelines,
Brother Trystan, Valerian and Yasmina and the slaves were well asleep
Michael gathered his men at the fire. No one kept watch, as the
conversation would not take long.
"Our situation may be getting more difficult." Michael glanced from face to face, reading their reactions as he spoke. Tension fairly radiated from Adrian and Devin. Fergus looked barely interested and a bit tired.
"While I was in Valoret, I visited the good Archbishop. He's set one of his best hounds on us. Now we have a fellow who will do nothing but dog our tails wherever we ride. More important, this hound carries a sniffer with him. That could cause us problems."
Devin snorted loudly. "We've dealt with sniffers before. They are pathetic, but not dangerous."
"This fellow isn't being forced to do the Custodes dirty work." Michael suppressed a shudder as memories came flooding back. "He enjoys fear and pain as no other man could. I've seen him rip a man's mind to shreds for the pure sport of it."
"So we kill him." Adrian de Courcy sounded almost bored.
Michael nodded. "We do indeed, and at the first opportunity. But it won't be easy. We were dealing with local garrisons before, and surprise was on our side. Now we must make doubly certain that particular weapon does not slip into he hands of our enemies. If anyone wants to leave, now would be a good time. Travel light, travel quiet and you can slip into Torenth or Meara, where you can live a peaceful life."
Devin and Adrian actually laughed at this suggestion. Fergus stroked his chin thoughtfully. "You're offering us an out? You must think this is serious."
"I want every man with me to know the risks involved. That's all."
Fergus nodded. "I'm still in. I think the rest can say the same."
Michael examined the other two men. They nodded, smiling a bit. Feeling certain they would agree to the next part of his plan, he continued. "Yesterday's rescue will not be the last. I intend to begin liberating our people. We still kill our enemies," he added when Devin flashed him a rebellious glare. "From now on our targets will be focused on executions, arrests, anyone terrorizing innocents. That should give us more than enough work to do, and may draw support from those who do not agree with what Church and Crown are doing."
"So we're playing nursemaid?" Adrian sent a wave of disdain with his words.
Michael shook his head. "We don't protect those we rescue once the immediate danger is over. If they're strong enough, smart enough, they'll find safety on their own. Thus far we have made the people fear and distrust the Custodes. Now we make them love us, and help us when we need it."
"Do you truly think the peasants will support us?" Devin shook his head, his lips thinned into oblivion as he spoke. "I watched as Royal guards sliced my mother open and left her to die in the street. Our neighbors did nothing."
"Of course they didn't. They're terrified. And well they should be." Michael licked his lips, suddenly dry from his own uncertainty. "Any overt resistance to the tyrants in power will be crushed ruthlessly. We would do the same, were our positions reversed."
"Then what do you think we will gain?" Devin rose to his feet, his expression twisted by pure hatred. "Will the Regents fall because we save a few of their victims? Or has your plan changed with a glance at a soft cheek?"
Michael allowed his aura to flare in response to the unspoken challenge. "Try to hold a handful of sand. The more you tighten your grasp, the more grains slip through your fingers until there is nothing left but the foolish look on your face. Don't worry. We still take their wealth, destroy the loyalty of their people, kill their men. The only difference is that now we may be seen as saviors instead of monsters."
Devin glared at Michael in the silence that followed. Michael counted his heartbeats and braced himself for the attack that was sure to come. Perhaps he had erred when he chose this man for his plans. Devin's hatred for all humans went beyond anything that might be considered normal. After five thundering heartbeats, Devin sat down and nodded. His shoulders relaxed but rebellion simmered deep in his eyes. "I'm with you, for now."
"Good enough. Just don't change your mind half way through something and endanger the rest of us." Michael made a show of stretching the tension from his shoulders. "Any questions? Then I'm for bed."
Michael entered the wagon as silently as he could. Brother Trystan lay snoring on one bunk. On the other, Valerian slept lightly. From the frown creasing her brow, he guessed she suffered another nightmare. There was no sign of Yasmina. Probably she decided to share someone else's pallet this night. He spread his bedding on the floor beside Valerian's bunk, washed in the basin and slipped into a clean pair of breeches. Before he sought his own blankets he decided to put Valerian's mind at ease. She would get no rest with nightmares crowding her mind, and neither would he. Thinking only to quiet her, Michael sat on the bed. A stray curl hovered on her cheek. He brushed it away, savoring the softness against his fingertips.
She turned toward his hand and whimpered. The lines eased from her face as she snuggled against his thigh. What the hell. Michael eased back the blanket. The bed was wide enough for two people, if they slept close. And since she was so willing to have him, why should he sleep on the floor?
Doubt nagged at him as he tried to force his tense muscles to relax. If Valerian felt herself attracted to Fergus, why was she curled against him so readily? In her dreams, did she mistake him for his best friend? That idea drove a poisoned dirk through Michael's heart. It would be easy enough to put to rest, he knew. In sleep Valerian's shields were gossamer thin. If he chose to spy on her dreams she would likely never know.
No! Michael recoiled from that thought as soon as it entered his mind. He was not the sort of a man who peeped through windows, either glazed or mental, without permission or a damn good reason. Questions of personal involvement with a woman who seemed to have little use for him clearly did not qualify as a good reason.
Valerian stirred as she slipped into some deeper stage of sleep. One soft hand glided over his chest to rest on his shoulder. Her lips parted slightly, moist and begging for a kiss. Feeling like a thief, Michael kissed her as lightly as he could manage. If indeed she was dreaming of Fergus, he knew he hurt only himself. A few midnight fantasies were worth whatever price he might later pay.
"So you could not find that renegade Deryni." Father Paulin's voice rang as flat and cold as steel.
Hugh Sinclair glared at his uncle. "No, we could not. We lost him in the market."
Archbishop Hubert slammed a fat fist onto the carved arm of his chair. "How could one of THEM find his way into my house?! Have you found out who helped him?"
Hugh nodded. "It seems he brought in the tax money. A pair of stable boys allowed him to assist them. They have been given thirty lashes as an example to the rest of the servants."
"And my clerk?"
"Found in locked in his office, quite asleep. The idiot allowed the Deryni to get behind him." Hugh grimaced in disgust. The little clerk's whining sickened him.
"Before you ask, his mind was wiped as clean as the wench's."
"Well, it has been an eventful morning!" Hubert glared at Hugh and Paulin as if the false priest's escape were their fault. "A full night of searching and you found nothing! Then, before I can so much as attend Mass, I am told the remains of your men are not twenty miles from this city. Can you explain that?"
Fighting his desire to shout at the fat fool, Hugh forced himself to sound contrite. "Well, they were on the correct road. I assume they found some trouble between our last campsite and Caerrorie."
"Found some trouble?" Paulin laughed bitterly. "What they found, boy, was wolves. From the report we got this morning they were torn to pieces and eaten. What is left of them should be in the city by nightfall for Christian burial, though that is small consolation."
"There is no reason to believe wolves alone were responsible for the loss of more than twenty armed men." Hubert's breath wheezed as he spoke. He sounded to Hugh as if he had just run through the city in full chain mail rather than spent his morning sitting at a desk.
Father Paulin filled a silver goblet with light red wine that waited on a corner table. After setting the cup before Hubert, he filled another for himself. Hugh was offered none, nor did he expect any. Clearly he was meant to take the blame for this debacle, wherever the true fault lay.
"Where were the bodies of their horses?" Hubert asked when at last he caught some breath. "Where were their swords? Their bows? Their lances? And where was the baggage such men would carry? Did the wolves eat cloth, metal and wagon too?"
Hugh sank his teeth into his lip to keep from shouting. His nails bit into his palms from the force it took to control the rage building inside him. "It seems obvious, Your Grace, that they met the same outlaws you would have me seek. I am sorry for their loss, but you did yourself order me to Caerrorie immediately. What was I to do?"
"Use your head for once in your life!" Paulin's eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. "If you had set a proper guard, trained your men as you should, instilled discipline, perhaps your men would still be alive."
"They were your men, Uncle. Your Custodes, trained to your specifications. If there is fault with their behavior it seems for you to take some blame." Hugh's jaw ached as he spoke through clenched teeth, but he could not have relaxed it had he tried. "Watches were set, guards were alert, and still they were bested."
"This is ridiculous!" Paulin's lips pulled tight over his teeth as he fought to control his temper. "They can be no more than a ragtag band of rebels. We defeated a Deryni king, cleansed Gwynedd of far larger and better organized armies of the Devil's spawn. Why can you not seem to find them?"
Hubert smothered a cough. "Perhaps we are being a bit hard on your nephew," the Archbishop offered in a more conciliatory tone that put Hugh on guard instantly. "After all, we did not actually face the Michaelines. They simply disappeared, to our benefit. The Gabrielites were unarmed, and cannot be counted as capable of serious resistance. Manfred is at this moment combing the mountains near his estates for any sign of Deryni mischief. He has long suspected that most of our troubles came from that quarter. Indeed, it is the territory once well known by the MacRorie family, and we know they must be leading the remaining resistance. He should be back within a week, and if he does not have news I cannot trust my dear brother well."
"For my part, Your Grace, I wish him luck." Hugh leaned over the Archbishop's desk, his hands gripping the polished wood until his knuckles whitened. "These rebels are like smoke on the wind. They seem to have no ties, no families, no base to operate from." Hugh shook his head, wishing he could as easily shake the awful feeling of lost opportunity slipping from his grasp. "They might as well be gypsies."
For several minutes the only sounds in the room were the echoes of Paulin's footsteps and the wheeze of Hubert's labored breathing. Then, without warning, the footsteps stopped just behind Hugh.
"Gypsies, you said?" Paulin's voice was no longer accusing. "I saw a gypsy on the steps of the cathedral yesterday. A tall fellow, dark and swarthy as they all are."
"So there was a gypsy in the market." Hubert shrugged. "I imagine there were a hundred. Perhaps someday we shall deal with them."
"No. The boy may have something." Paulin resumed his pacing, his steps more measured. "Serafin might remember him better, this gypsy. I fear I paid more attention to the news of Hugh's arrival with the wench than I did to a piece of filth."
"Or he could have been a fair man who has spent much time in the sun." Hugh's eyes narrowed. "That priest we took to attend the wench from Caerrorie was a tall, fit man. Though he kept his head bowed I believe his hands were weathered."
"And if he overheard any part of our conversation as we left the cathedral he could have followed us." Paulin's cheeks reddened. "Why did none of us see the danger before?"
"Because we were too sure of ourselves." Hubert's chair grated loudly over the polished floor. "Since we purged the Deryni from Holy Orders, we trusted this house safe. Never did I think they would stoop to impersonating a priest."
"It does give us a bit of an advantage." Hugh allowed himself a smile when both of the older men looked at him, their confusion obvious.
"The wench must have seen the priest when she thought to give her confession. And since he was not a priest in truth, we have no reason not to demand she allow Rolf to read her memory. We'll know his face before lunchtime."
"That will certainly help should you ever encounter him again." Hubert pushed himself to his feet. "Meanwhile, we must take steps to corner these rats before they can spread. The King will publish writ of attainder against the lot of them, and any who give them aid will be included. To make the package round, I decree all who should give comfort to these men shall fall under immediate excommunication."
"Convincing the King will be far easier than carrying any of this through." Paulin shook his head as Hugh opened the door and stood back to allow the older men to pass. "We still have not so much as laid hands on any one of them."
"I leave that to you and your Custodes. You have never failed us before." Hubert folded his hands over his belly as he called for his servants. "I trust you will not do so now."