Sword of a Saint
Chapter 6 - Part 3
The early morning
light woke Valerian slowly. She stretched and yawned, reluctant to leave
the bed. She felt too safe, too warm, too comfortable to be truly alert
as yet. Her fingers curled reflexively as she stretched. Crisp curling
hair and warm flesh over hard muscle met her touch. This was no dream!
She sat up, clutching the blanket to her breasts, and gaped at her
companion. It took every ounce of control she had not to cry out.
Michael's eyes opened. He gave her a sleepy smile and shifted, apparently getting more comfortable on the narrow cot. "Good morning."
"At least you have the decency to whisper!" Valerian scooted as far back as she could. "What are you doing here?"
"Sleeping. Or I was." Michael ran a hand through his dark curls.
Valerian tried to keep from noticing how his tangled hair and drowsy eyes enhanced his already too handsome features. "You were sleeping?" she repeated, not able to make herself believe the words. "And that was all? In my bed?"
"My bed, I believe. And I have every right to sleep in it if I choose." Michael raised himself up on his elbows, letting the blanket fall to his hips. "And I assure you, Sister, had I any designs on your virtue I would have removed my breeks."
His sleepy, somewhat disgruntled tone stole Valerian's breath. A sudden, wild urge to laugh at the ridiculousness of his comment swelled in her chest. At the same time the edges of memory nudged her thoughts. "This was not the first time you have slept beside me," she whispered as she relaxed against the wall.
Michael sat up slowly, stretching as he did. The play of dim light against his bronzed flesh, graceful limbs and powerful muscles set a flock of butterflies loose in her stomach.
When he turned his full attention to her, his dark eyes and slight smile held only honesty. "Valerian, you were having a nightmare. You quieted when I held you. It was a simple choice, really. I share your bed or invade your mind to still your dreams and let the rest of the camp get some sleep. Would you prefer I walk through your memories?"
Valerian closed her eyes and tightened her shields against that thought. "No. My mind is my own."
Michael's calloused hand caught both of hers and held them. His grip was light, but she could feel the leashed power in his fingers. These hands could kill, yet he stroked her as gently as if she were a beloved pet. Before she realized what she was doing, Valerian found she was returning his caress. The play between their fingers brought a warm flush to her skin. She knew this was wrong, so very wrong, but she had not the strength to push Michael away. At last she gathered herself and opened her eyes. Michael was staring at her in a way she had never seen before. His expression might have been one of pain, if only he were not smiling.
"Valerian . . . " Michael licked his lips. The silence stretched for an eternity before he continued. "Don't think I am not tempted. You're beautiful. But I'm no rapist." He released her hands and swung his feet to the floor before she could call him back. "Besides," he added as he pulled on a pair of thick linen stockings, "Fergus is the best friend I've ever had. If he is the man you want, I'd say you made a good choice. Far better than I'd ever be."
With that said, he seized his tunic and boots and left the wagon before Valerian could gather her breath to reply. She leaned against the wall, stared at the ceiling and tried to gather her thoughts into some coherent form. What was she going to do? How could she prevent Michael from sharing her bed and inspiring impure thoughts if she could not control her dreams? She should allow one of the Deryni near her now to set controls in her mind, possibly dim the memories. That would solve the issue easily. Except she could not bear for any other to manipulate her mind. She trusted none of them so far.
On the opposite cot, Brother Trystan rolled over and grunted. "Good morning, Sister. Did you sleep well?"
"Yes, very." The admission tore at her conscience.
Her companion's expression might have fit well were he instructing a room full of unlettered children. "Then you might think long as to why."
"What do you mean?"
Brother Trystan sat up and grimaced as his bare feet struck the chill floor. "Two nights now you suffered nightmares. Both times you would not quiet until Lord Michael came to you."
"You place too much importance in dreams." Valerian reached for the green wool gown that lay at the end of the cot. The sooner she put an end to this conversation the better for her state of mind.
Brother Trystan picked up his breeks. He seemed to have slept in the loose linen shirt that reached nearly to his knees. "Do I?" he asked as he headed for the long curtain at the far end of the wagon that served as a dressing screen. He seemed to be waiting for her to confirm the last question.
"You do," Valerian assured him without pausing as she laced the gown loosely from chest to hip.
"Then why is he the only man who can lay hands on you without sending you into a paralyzing panic?"
For that Valerian had no answer.
When Brother Trystan emerged, fully dressed, he ignored the wash water and sat on his cot. "Sister, I do not say this to be unkind. You could do far worse than attract the attention of a man like Lord Michael."
Valerian was so surprised by these words that she dropped the slipper she'd been holding. "Think you I ought abandon my vocation?" she stammered when she could form a coherent thought again. "Or that I am the sort of woman who could live a double life? Brother, you do not know me that well if you can make such a judgment."
"I had no such thoughts of you, Sister. You seem a decent, pious woman but a very naive one." Brother Trystan paused to pull on his boots. In the intervening silence Valerian swore she could hear her own heart thundering against her ribs.
When he finished, Brother Trystan leaned his elbows on his knees and fixed her with a look that conveyed the wisdom of ages. "I was thirty years in the world and more before I joined the Gabrielites, Sister. For me, the religious life was an opportunity for respite, and perhaps a chance to atone for a life misspent. You, I think, have known nothing but the safety of the cloister. The world has many dangers, but also rewards aplenty for those with the courage to seize what chance throws before them."
"I beg you, Brother, concern yourself not with this. I have no desire to ---"
His smile deepened the wrinkles around the corners of his mouth. "Sister, you seem an intelligent woman. Remember that, whatever your upbringing, you are young and can make other choices. Not all are called to a life of sacrifice. Sample the stew before you toss away the pot."
Brother Trystan gave her clenched hands a reassuring pat and left the wagon before she could think of a reply to his last words. Valerian sat long in the silence, glaring at the rumpled bed opposite her as if it were responsible for the unsettling conversation. Merciful Mother of Christ! Could even the old Brother see her desire for that infuriating man? How ever would she resume her life as she had planned it if she could not distance herself from a devil's spawn with eyes like a midnight sky?
The sound of steel striking steel sliced through her thoughts. Her heart pounding with worry that their enemies had found them, Valerian hurried to see what was happening. The sight that met her stopped her breath. Michael stood surrounded by his men, the two male slaves, the Michaline brothers and Lord Gregory, all with weapons drawn. He was blindfolded, shirtless and armed only with leather gauntlets faced with steel plates.
One of the younger men lunged at Michael. Michael sidestepped the blow and brought his elbow down on his attacker's exposed back. This movement threw him into the pat of Father Andrew's sword, but he caught that threat on his other gauntlet and turned the blade. Michael spun wildly and met Fergus, who attacked him with both sword and dagger. Valerian's heart pounded in her throat. Surely this could not be a training exercise! She knew men who lived by the sword must keep their skills sharp, but never had she seen any such danger employed for sport.
She would have run to the circle and stopped this madness had Yasmina not caught her arm. "Do not bother them," the dark woman warned. "Just watch. There is no danger."
A dagger slid past Michael's throat. He whirled into the middle of the circle, breathing hard. His attackers closed in around him.
"No danger?" Valerian tried to pull free. "Yasmina, look! They're going to kill him?"
"No, Lady. Just pin him so he cannot move. And if they do, they win the game. If Ya Muntquam escapes, he is the winner."
The sound of blades striking the plates on Michael's bracers rang like bells. Then there was a flurry of activity. Michael caught the arm of one of the young men who served him, jerked the lad forward and brought his elbow down on the boy's exposed back. As the other man fell forward, Michael leapt through the opening and pulled off his blindfold, laughing like a lunatic.
Michael offered his hand to the young man who still lay on the ground. "Up with you, Devin. It's you in the middle now." The boy called Devin pushed himself to his feet. Valerian wondered if Michael noticed the dangerous glare in his eyes as he exchanged his sword and dagger for the blindfold and bracers.
Beside Yasmina, Brother Trystan chuckled. "I must say, that looks like fun. If I were a bit younger, and a bit more fit, I might think of trying a round or two."
The blood drained from Valerian's cheeks so fast she felt faint. "Brother, you cannot be serious. That is no game. Those blades can kill."
"Of course they can. Where would be the amusement if they were blunted?" Yasmina laughed lightly. "But, you see, it is more than a game to them. The play hones their skills. If a man can emerge unscathed, he knows he can survive any danger."
"And do they ever injure each other?" Valerian dropped her voice as the game began again, with Michael standing in the circle and Devin spinning about, blindfolded.
"Of course. But those with the blades can see, and they take care not to cripple."
Yasmina handed Valerian an oatcake from a small sack on the wagon step. "Here. You must be hungry, though how you eat such tasteless and dry bread I will never know."
Valerian's attention focused on Michael as the contest continued. The early sunlight played over the sleek muscles of his back like a lover's caress. His skin was lightly tanned and crisscrossed with a pattern of lines that could only be old scars. It was surely expected that a warrior carried scars. Valerian knew they were marks of survival, the results of battles won. Something about these scars settled in her stomach like a lump of lead and sucked the moisture from her mouth. These were different, though she could not say how.
The game was over quickly. Devin slipped between the slaves and wrapped one forearm around each of their throats.
"That's it!" Fergus sheathed his swords and wiped his sweaty cheeks with one forearm. "I've done for it today."
"Agreed. We should be going." Michael pulled his tunic off the tongue of the other wagon and pulled it on.
Yasmina straightened at those words. "If you will bring them food, I will hitch up our horses," she said as she handed Valerian the sack of oatcakes, a bag of wooden cups and a pewter pitcher full of cider. "It will save much time later."
Valerian accepted the food and approached the men without replying. What could she say? That she would gladly hitch the horses to the wagon if it meant she could stay apart, but she had no idea how a harness fit together? At least serving the hungry was something familiar.
Fergus came to her and took the pitcher almost at once. "It's easier if there are two, even for so small a meal. I'll pour the cider if you pass around the cups."
"Of course. Thank you." Valerian turned her attention to the two slaves, who seemed to be first in line for their breakfast. So long as she focused on the food and cups, she could manage this without creating a scene.
"I saw you watching the game." Fergus's light tone made it sound as if they had been playing lawn bowls. "What did you think of it?"
"I worried you would be injured." As Valerian answered she placed a pair of oatcakes in the hand held out to her. When the fingers twitched she glanced up. Something she could not name flashed in Michael's eyes. The dark undercurrent of power at once excited and frightened her.
Michael smiled. Unlike Fergus's easy grin, this smile did not reach his eyes. "You need not have worried. Fergus has been playing this game long enough to know the rules."
"And does that mean he cannot make a mistake?" The wooden cup slipped out of Valerian's fingers twice before she managed to extract it from the sack.
"Of course not, every game has its risks." Michael seemed to be speaking more to Fergus than to her, though his eyes never left her face. "Even for the experts, and some are more dangerous than others."
"A man has to understand the risks before he begins the game." Fergus filled the cup with cider.
As the two men stared at each other, Valerian felt she was caught between two lightning storms.
Michael nodded. "And even an innocent should know the difference between a simple game and a truly dangerous gambit." Silver flecks flashed in his night-dark eyes.
Valerian seized her chance and escaped to the safety of the wagon. She dumped the bag of oatcakes and the sack of cups on the step, shut the door firmly behind her and sank onto the still unmade bed. Her legs trembled, her heart raced and her nerves felt as if they were made of over-tight lute strings. What was wrong with her? Nothing had happened out there, at least nothing of serious import. Michael and Fergus began talking about the foolish, dangerous game they were playing and suddenly she felt as if the conversation changed to something entirely different. Why did she want to throw herself on the bed and cry until there were no more tears left? Always, always Valerian prided herself on the absolute control she held over her emotions. She never became overwrought, since such displays interfered with the calm order maintained within the walls of Saint Cecelia's. Besides that, intense emotions interfered with the control a Healer must maintain over her powers.
What was wrong with her?
Several minutes later Valerian regained some measure of composure and set to putting herself to rights. She had run out of the wagon barefoot, with her hair unbound. When at last she contemplated her appearance in the small silver mirror, shame burned her cheeks. She looked in every respect like a madwoman. She washed her face and feet, tidied her hair and fastened a modest veil over the short copper curls, and made her bed. By that time the wagon was moving. Valerian gave a brief prayer of thanks that their journey would soon be over. She was quite ready to find herself a place with a community of religious sisters and never see the likes of Michael Cameron again.
Michael's bad mood did not abate as they rode. Lord Gregory tried to start an easy conversation, but gave up and retreated after several piercing looks. After nearly two hours, the sound of approaching hoofbeats warned of another would-be companion. To Michael's surprise, it was Fergus.
"What's gotten into you?" Fergus did not waste time with useless pleasantries.
"Nothing." Michael tried not to snap. He knew he had no reason for anger. Unfortunately all his thoughts involved beating his best friend senseless.
He tightened his shields to prevent Fergus suspecting his irrational jealousy. "We're back on the main road. I thought someone ought to keep an eye out."
"Good enough. That wasn't what I was asking." Fergus drew his gelding up beside Asmodious. "You were practically shooting fire-bolts back there. I think you scared the little Sister."
"She'll get used to it. Or she'll be away from us by this evening and no longer our problem."
"She'll be your problem for a while yet, I'm thinking."
Michael turned to face his friend. His hand loosened over the reins. "Make yourself plain."
"Then I will." Fergus returned Michael's glare with steady calm. Either he was too secure in his own right to fear what Michael might do or he was too stupid to realize his danger.
"You're acting like someone's stepped in on your woman. It's damned annoying, especially since ----"
The sound of iron shod horses just beyond a blind turn in the road stopped his words instantly. Fergus eased his gelding to one side of the road even as Michael kneed Asmodious onto the opposite shoulder. A quick hand signal passed between them. Michael forgot their argument as he watched Fergus focus his mind on whoever was coming around the bend. He dropped his shields, knowing his friend would revert to silent communication at least at first.
**It's armed men. Six, I think, with a lord.** Fergus gave a mental whistle and an oath that made Michael fight a chuckle. **Mick, the saints are with us! It's MacInnis himself, I'm thinking.**
**Which one?** Not that it mattered. All three of the MacInnis males were worthy targets, and Michael's over-tight nerves ached for action.
Fergus's reply carried a note of disappointment. **Not the Archbishop, worse luck. It's his brother, the one that's taken Culdi. At least I think it is. And he looks fit to spit nails.**
**So what are they doing out here?**
**Looking for something. Us, probably.** Fergus was silent for a moment. **I'm not detecting a sniffer with them.**
**Fatal stupidity.** Michael listened intently. They were well ahead of the creak of wagon and saddle leather, so the rest of their party was still far back.
**We can take them alone, if you want.** Tension laced Fergus's thought.
Michael shook his head. **Just keep out of sight and keep track of them. I'm sending back for Adrian and Devin. It was MacInnis' men who killed Dev's family. He'll want in on this.**
Fergus nodded and eased farther into the woods. Michael headed back up the road. It took a few minutes to reach the rest of the party, but less time to tell them what was coming. The two Michaelines immediately shook their heads. Lord Gregory's face paled a couple of shades. "We're too close to the Haven for trouble. We can hide the wagons in the woods if we work quickly."
"You would let them escape? After what that bastard's done to our people?" Devin glared at Gregory before turning to Michael. "I'm with you."
"I agree." Adrian nodded firmly, his lips pale as death. "Let's send them to Hell."
"You cannot ---"
Michael cut off Father Andrew's protest with a glare. He turned to the two slaves, ignoring the knights pointedly. "Stay here with the women. If any of our enemies get past us, they are your responsibility."
Adrian and Devin flanked Michael as they trotted up the road. Michael's senses tingled, eager for the confrontation. Leaving aside the justice about to be administered to one deserving sot, a bit of violence would relieve his own frustration. With no need for secrecy they traveled more quickly. The MacInnis party halted just past the blind curve in the road, staring at Michael and his companions as if they were too common to even think about walking the same earth.
Michael smiled as Adrian and Devin moved to the edge of the trees on either side of the road. He fastened Asmodious' reins to his saddle, laid one hand on the hilt of his sword and raised the other in token of parley. The Earl and his men took a moment to discuss the matter before one luckless fellow spurred his horse straight at Michael. Behind them, Fergus slipped from the trees and eased into the road, blocking their retreat.
The soldier glared at Michael from the shadows of his coif. "What business do you have blocking my lord's path?" he asked in a deliberately superior tone. "My lord Earl demands you identify yourselves immediately and clear his way."
"I am most glad to clear the road for you. As for my name, it hardly seems to matter." Michael smiled as the soldier opened his mouth to retort. "Your road, you see, leads you not to Caerrorie, nor Valoret, but to your final judgment." Michael dropped his free hand and let a slim blade drop into his palm. The steel whistled as it flew through the air to its target, the luckless soldier's exposed throat.
At the same instant, both Adrian and Devin hurled throwing stars at the soldiers clustered in the road. Three fell from their horses, screaming in agony. Behind them, Fergus leveled his sword at the rear guard. A blast of power brighter than a thousand candles followed the blade of Fergus's sword into the stunned soldier. The man crumpled without a sound, his body smoking slightly. The one remaining mounted man spurred his horse mercilessly. The animal bolted forward even as Devin and Adrian moved to close the road. Devin caught the horse's reins and sliced the leather with his dagger, while Adrian disarmed the blustering brute easily.
"Well, well. Look what we have here, my lord!" Devin's eyes glowed with demonic light. "It's Himself, the Earl of Culdi. The great butcher."
"Easy, Dev." Michael kneed Asmodious until he was knee to knee with the fuming MacInnis. Up close, the man resembled a furious pig. His small eyes and hard jaw covered by at least a day's growth of stubble warned of a cruel nature that needed subduing. Studying the brute, Michael found the perfect way to humble such a man. The plan that came to him made Michael smile. Yes, it was a fitting end and a good way to send the message he wanted all the nobles of Gwynedd to feel.
"Fergus." Michael waved to his friend. "You and Adrian deal with the wounded. I want none of them telling any tales, by any means."
"What do we do with him?" Devin ran a thumb over the dagger still in his hand. "I say we gut him like a hog."
"You have no right!" The prisoner's hands opened and closed on useless air. "I serve the King of Gwynedd! You are nothing more than rabble. Deryni monsters!" he sputtered as Fergus used the blackened blade of his sword to dispatch a wounded man.
"If we're monsters, my lord, you made us so. Don't kill him, Devin," Michael ordered as the younger man leaned forward. "He's going to take a message to his masters in Rhemuth for us."
"I'll take no message!" The prisoner puffed himself up as he blustered. "I am an Earl, not a page boy!"
"Then the message will still be delivered." Michael nodded as Fergus and Adrian joined them. Then he added a last threat calculated to terrify the bloated bully. "And we will write it on your innards. Only, as a special treat for you, Your Excellency, we will slit your belly open while you breathe. Get him off his horse."
When MacInnis lay prostrate in the road, Michael motioned to Devin. "Care to confirm his identity? We can't be sending the wrong man."
Devin nodded, then grimaced as he entered the struggling prisoner's mind. "He's Manfred, all right."
"Good. Control him. I don't want him resisting until he delivers our message."
With Devin firmly controlling MacInnis's mind it was easy enough to strip the earl of his armor, fine tunic and boots. Then Michael bound the unresisting man's hands with a strip of the reins Devin had cut short. As a final insult, Michael drew the blade of his dagger across MacInnis’s throat. Blood trickled from the shallow wound. With Adrian and Fergus controlling the horse, Michael and Devin pulled MacInnis into his saddle, backwards. They bound him with his clothing and the remaining bits of leather. At Michael's instructions, Adrian imprinted the directions to Rhemuth firmly in the horse's mind.
"You take this back to your king. Tell him that for every drop of Deryni blood spilled from here on, we will exact ten times the penalty from him and his nobles. Tell him justice has returned to Gwynedd. Tell him The Avenger gives only one warning.” Michael forced the message into his captive's mind as he spoke. The hatred and rage he felt in the now subdued human MacInnis made him laugh. "Now get him off. We want to make sure this message gets through."
When the frantic horse was released it bolted through the trees in the general direction of Rhemuth. Michael glanced at Fergus, who looked as if he were about to burst apart from suppressed laughter. "Think you we made an impression?"
"I think the fool will need a change of breeks." Fergus chuckled, gagged, and shoved Adrian to the side of the road. "If you're going to be sick, lad, now's the time." Michael studied the carnage on the road. They had five bodies to hide, as well as several loose horses to deal with. Not that it bothered him one bit to leave the lot of them where they were, but he knew the sight would upset Valerian.
As if he read his friend's mind, Fergus waived Devin over. "We've too many horses as it is. Strip what you can catch and send them into the woods. They'll either wind up feeding wolves or some farmer will find a use for them."
"Adrian, if you're back on your feet go find the rest of our party and bring them along." Michael forcibly stilled his concern for the boy. DeCourcy looked as if he still wanted to be ill, even after emptying his stomach.
"Don't hurry to fetch them," he added as Adrian nodded and headed for his horse. "Give us some time to neaten the place up." Adrian's relieved expression as he rode back toward the wagons spoke volumes.
Fergus seized the nearest soldier by the legs. "I keep forgetting just how young that boy is," he remarked as he dragged the corpse across the road.
Devin shook his head. "None of us were ever young. Even before we returned to Gwynedd." He sounded almost regretful.
Michael frowned at the bloody trail Fergus's burden left. "Hold, there, Fergus. Let's levitate this dead weight. With three of us it should not take long."
Together they stretched their minds to lift the corpses and hide them in the woods. Moving the dead was harder than killing them had been. By the time the last body was carefully stowed away the wagons were rounding the turn in the road and Michael was wiping sweat from his cheeks.
The Michaeline knights and Lord Gregory dismounted to examine the scene of conflict as soon as they reached the disturbed ground. Now little remained save the scattered weapons, a few trails of blood and hoofprints.
Father Andrew picked up Fergus's blackened sword before Michael could stop him. "What caused this?" The priest frowned as he examined the dark steel and still warm hilt.
"Nothing to concern you." Michael snatched the blade away. "If you are curious you should have come with us."
"From the look of you it was hardly necessary."
At that moment, Valerian emerged from the nearest wagon. The color drained from her cheeks. "Are you injured?"
Despite her proper appearance, the concern in her eyes set Michael's blood aflame. He briefly debated the wisdom of assuring her they were all whole with a sound kiss. Then he realized Fergus stood beside him. The pleasant idea vanished in a cloud of jealousy.
"None of us." Fergus sheathed his sword and wiped his hands on his tunic, though the gesture was futile. "Only in need of clean clothes, but there are a few less to threaten helpless women now."
"Praise be." Lord Gregory nodded, but still looked worried. "This was too close to our Haven, lad. It is sure to bring unwelcome attention."
"Then let's not stand here talking about it." Unwilling to allow the look Valerian was giving Fergus to restart his emotional turmoil, Michael brushed past her and headed for the wagon. He needed a dose of cold water, and a good wash would give him just that.