Sword of a Saint
Chapter 7 - Part 2
The Archangel Michael threw all the
power of his arm against the being standing before him. Uriel dodged,
and the blow went wide. Overbalanced, Michael stumbled but quickly
recovered himself and launched another attack.
"You planned this!" he snarled as Uriel danced out of his reach. "You put that wench in his way! You knew I have plans for him!"
"Take breath before you injure someone." Laughter filled Uriel's voice. "Yes, I might have done a little tweaking here and there to make their paths cross. What happened next was up to human nature, not me."
"Human nature? And who, pray, better knows the nature of each man than you who are charged with their souls?" Too winded to continue chasing the other, Michael leaned upon his knees, gasping. "That's as bad as Rafael claiming a hurricane had naught to do with him!"
Uriel leaned up against a tree. "In case you hadn't noticed, friend, your boy was not exactly bent for the celibate life before he met the lovely Valerian. If anything he's shown more self control in the past week than he has in the previous eight years."
"He is young yet, and needs guidance. Wild urges will pass." Michael straightened, his temper still on a tight leash. "When he is with the Michaelines ---"
"And where, pray tell, is he now?"
That was a valid point. "All right, so he's where I wanted him to be. But he's distracted, and ---"
"And if you think he could be guided with anything less than a battering ram if he chose not to, you are delusional."
Michael shook his head, unwilling to accept his friend's view. "He has had a hard road, I'll grant that. But he is needed. Do you think a man who is less than perfect can ever be the hero his people need to follow?"
Uriel's lips twitched in a wicked smile. Sometimes Michael found it hard to remember how close his friend had been to the great angel who had chosen the dark path. This wasn't one of them.
"I think you will find, my friend, that humans are a most perverse lot. They praise chastity and honor, constancy and humility. Then when they choose to elevate a man they pick one who has the least of those virtues. Michael Cameron is arrogant, self-willed, bitter and lacking in faith now. I doubt he even believes in our existence. Nor would he welcome our direct interference in his life if he knew of it."
Slowly Michael began to feel like a fool. Uriel had never been trying to mock him. The Angel of Death's meddling had been intended to aid his plan, not ruin it.
"And you think that a woman will turn him from destruction?" Michael shook out his hand. It ached from being clenched into a fist for far too long.
Uriel shrugged. "I know not. I merely have hope. Valerian has strength she does not know she possesses, but she will need someone to lean on herself as the months progress. And there are others who will need to draw upon your lad's service if they are to survive, even if they know him not."
"The Haldane?" Michael knew that answer before he asked the question.
Uriel nodded. "With the birth of his son, the net around Rhys Michael closes more tightly. I think I will soon be guiding him to his loved ones."
Michael let his anger show in a grimace that would terrify any mortals who saw it. "You could take the child instead. It's easy enough to do."
"I told you once I have not that power. I cannot decide who will follow me and when."
"Like you've never changed things when it suited you!" Michael suddenly felt very tired. Too many responsibilities, too many demands and not enough time to see to them all. Even for an angel. "We had best aid Gwynedd, if any good is to come of this."
Uriel actually laughed. "When Michael Cameron decides to save what remains of his race, I would say rather the Devil might take hindermost. This is going to be an interesting few months."
Father Andrew paced the hall before the small chapel. "I tell you, he is dangerous. I know what I saw."
"Sword spells are the province of high adepts, Father Andrew. I am not sure . . ." Bishop Niallan glanced at Joram MacRorie and frowned in obvious doubt.
"Then that is what they must be, powerful adepts and ruthless killers."
Joram MacRorie stared at the low ceiling. "That might fit with what we have been hearing," he said at last, choosing his words with great care. "Camlin and Ansel were recently in Rhemuth. They tell us the Regents are in an uproar over a band of Deryni rebels."
"I believe these might be the same men." Father Andrew nodded as if to emphasize his point. "They killed twice their own number in less time than it takes to change alter candles."
"If that is the case, then we must control them somehow." Niallan glanced at Joram. "For the good of what remains of our people. And, if rumors are right, for the lives of the remaining Haldanes."
Joram's stomach churned as Ansel's report filled his mind. If the killing of simple Deryni peasants was not bad enough, rumors picked up among the servants in Hubert's household carried even more sinister threads. At least some of the Regents, the MacInnis brothers and Rhun among them, believed Rhys Michael Haldane to be behind the rebel attacks. Already the King's limited mobility had been sharply curtailed.
On the other hand, Father Andrew's agitated state left Joram wondering if the normally reserved priest was not letting his dislike of the newcomers color his judgment. Skilled fighters they might be, but could so few men manage so many attacks in less than six months? That was beyond belief.
Should he be wrong, Joram hated the thought of confronting a man he had never met and discovering his error only after what would no doubt be seen as an accusation. At best, he would be laughed at and no doubt their new friends would leave, insulted. At worst, the offended gypsies might lead Manfred MacInnis straight to their Haven.
"I think I will spend tomorrow getting to know this Michael." Joram nodded, settling his plan in his mind with the gesture. "If I see cause for alarm, I will speak with their leader."
Father Andrew's chest lifted sharply. "Do you doubt my report, my lord? I assure you I speak true. I even participated in one of their training games, and I assure you it was the most deadly exercise I have ever seen."
"I do not doubt you believe what you tell us," Joram hastened to reassure his priest-brother. "I merely wish to assess for myself what their abilities might be."
"And perhaps they can be useful to us," Bishop Niallan added. From the way his eyes brightened, Joram suspected he would be eager to recruit skilled swordsmen.
"Useful, Your Excellency?" Father Andrew shook his head. "They are the most degenerate, impious reprobates that could be imagined. I do not think you would wish their assistance in any venture."
Bishop Niallan nodded slowly. "I have prayed diligently for aid ever since I arrived here, my son. Perhaps God, in his infinite wisdom, has sent the help I asked for. Even if the container is a bit rough I will gladly accept what He offers."
"Well, we'll know tomorrow. I will contact you as soon as I have seen enough of them to decide." Joram nodded to the tense priest. "Father Andrew, I thank you for your prompt attention to this matter. You are dismissed."
As soon as the Michaeline priest had shut the door behind him, Joram turned to Niallan. "Do you think we should inform the rest of the Council now, Your Excellency?"
Bishop Niallan shook his head. "No, not yet. For two reasons. First, we don't know anything yet beyond what Father Andrew has told us. I want to talk with Gregory and Brother Timothy before I decide anything, and I think you should watch them for a day or so. There may be no danger."
"And second?" Joram felt certain he knew the other reason. He was not disappointed.
"Think what hotheads Ansel and Jesse can be. Assuming, of course, that Father Andrew's report is correct and these men are as skilled as he claims, what's to say what some of our less restrained members would do? The addition of such a force might convince them to attempt an overthrow of the King's current council."
"And with reports of unrest coming from Tolan, we cannot afford such disruption right now." Joram sighed, tired of the endless choices between bad and worse. "As much as I hate to admit it, the security of Gwynedd must come even before the safety of the remaining Haldanes. And, of course, the safety of the King and his family must take precedence over the lives of any of us, our new friends included."
Bishop Niallan nodded. "Then I will conduct my inquires and leave you to yours. Good luck, should you decide you must reason with this Michael. He sounds as if he has a head of stone."
How long Valerian lay on her cot she did not know. Only when someone knocked at the closed door to her chamber did she rise. It took a moment to brush the wrinkles from her plain gown. She hated appearing rumpled
Three women, all in plain gray wool and un-dyed linen, stood in the hall. From the way their hands remained clasped in their voluminous sleeves and the heavy wimples and veils they wore Valerian guessed they were the nuns Dom Queron had spoken of earlier.
The smallest, a plump woman of perhaps forty if the wrinkles around her eyes and lips were any indication, gave a nod of greeting. "Forgive us for disturbing you, Sister. Dom Queron told us you had arrived, and we thought you might attend evening Mass with us."
"Of course, you must still be exhausted from your journey." The second Sister's very thin lips had an odd, bluish tinge. "We will certainly understand if you wish to rest this evening."
"I would love to come with you." Valerian glanced around the chamber. Why had she so quickly turned back Michael's gifts? Now she had no head covering, not even the delicate silk veil.
She sighed. "I fear I cannot cover my head. I've nothing more than what I'm wearing now."
"That's not a problem." The blue lipped Sister produced a wimple and veil from her sleeve. "Dom Queron thought you might be lacking a few necessities. We've brought you all you will need."
The Mass was shorter than Valerian would have liked. Bishop Niallan performed the service beautifully. Valerian let the peace of the chapel sink into her troubled spirit and wash away the persistent worries for just a little while.
The chapel was sparsely attended. She recognized Fiona, and the girl standing beside her must be Jerusha, the young female Healer. A slightly older lad might be Jerusha's brother, if she had any. Then there were a pair of tow headed youths and the unmistakable Jesse MacGregor. Valerian dared not turn to see who else might be attending Mass, but her heart told her Michael was not present. This sent a stab of longing through her, though she knew she should not expect him. When the service finished, Valerian remained in the darkened chapel. She began to whisper the normal rote prayers, but her thoughts pushed her forward without preamble.
"Blessed Mother of God, tell me what to do." The statue gazed down on her without response. "Show me what Your Son's will might be. What is best for the innocent child I never wanted in my care."
That was not true, Valerian admitted as she knelt in the darkness. She had once wanted children, though surely not this way. It had taken weeks of prayer, fasting and penance before she mastered the craving for a husband and a family. Her calling, Mother Anne assured her, allowed no time for such things.
Unbidden, anger flared in her. Michael never allowed his life to be dictated by others. He determined his own course and held to it with courage and conviction. Could she not do the same? She could! Resolve strengthened with every moment that passed. There was no reason she could not continue as she had planned. She simply had to convince whatever priest or bishop took charge of the order she joined that her pregnancy was not the result of sin. If she took care that no hint of lust entered her life in the future, she should not be held guilty. Helplessness fled, replaced by a new sense of purpose. Valerian smiled up at the Blessed Mother. The world was not such a terrible place, not when she controlled at least a small part of it.
The morning was barely beyond dawn when Michael and his men gathered for their exercise. All looked well rested. Clearly a night in a bed beneath a permanent roof, and without the worry of attack, was badly needed. For himself, Michael could not have felt less restored. His sleep had been fitful, broken by restless dreams revolving around a temptress with endearing copper curls. This morning his mood was such that he would welcome the chance to rip someone limb from limb.
Maybe he'd better take Yasmina's offer, before he drove himself and his men to insanity.
Fergus, damn him, looked downright cheerful. "What shall we play at today?" he asked, swinging his sword in a casual circle as he warmed up his muscles.
"Not the ring again." Adrian laughed as he spoke. "We've played at that one so often I've begun to memorize your moves."
"But you still can't stop me, lad." Michael admitted the boy had a point. Should the exercise become a mere repetition of the same tactics, it lost not only its entertainment value but its true purpose. They needed a break. "Dev, you and Adrian get the horses. Time to take the game a step farther."
In what seemed like no time they reassembled, this time with horses and swords. Michael stripped off his shirt and slipped on the leather gauntlets. "This time it's a bit different. I am afoot, with the rest of you mounted. The game goes until I clear the circle or one of you draws blood, as before."
As he spoke, Michael caught movement at the edge of his vision. Four women in gray habits left the underground shelter, carrying large baskets. From the way one slim form moved he knew she had to be Valerian, though he could not see her face beneath the heavy veil and wimple.
The nuns paused and eyed the half naked men. Feeling reckless, Michael turned to Fergus. "Blindfold me. And bind my hands."
"What?" Fergus hesitated, the blindfold held before him as if it could ward off madness. "Bind your hands? You're out of your mind."
"No, I'm not. We may, all of us, have to escape from capture sometime. We cannot allow ourselves to be questioned, and I don't wish to have to kill myself." Michael held out his wrists as soon as Fergus fastened the blindfold. "Tie them soundly."
Fergus did as he was bidden, and the game was on. Michael felt himself tense as a shout from one of the slaves signaled the start of the exercise. He stretched his senses, seeking for a weak spot in the ring of steel and horses.
This time the game was faster and harder to predict. The horses stamped and whinnied, interfering with his concentration and making it twice as hard to guess what the individual riders would do. With his arms bound, Michael found it harder to defend against the blades and sharp teeth slashing at his bare skin.
Blades rang against the steel strips on his vambraces. One sliced a thin line across his cheek, another grazed his shoulder. This was getting too close. Michael lunged at the line, threw himself forward and rolled. His shoulders struck the ground hard, and the momentum carried him forward onto his feet. Cheers and curses greeted his acrobatics. Michael struggled to pull off the blindfold. Fergus had been too efficient when he tied it. The stubborn piece of silk refused to budge.
A strong hand rested on Michael's shoulder. At the same time Michael felt the brush of a cleanly trained mind against his shields. "Allow me, my lord." Sensing no threat from the newcomer, Michael nodded. A moment later the blindfold slipped off. He blinked to clear the loose hair from his eyes. Immediately he looked for Valerian. Had she seen his bit of bravado? Feeling like a callow youth, he hoped she had been impressed. After all, it had been a rather good piece of work.