Sword of a Saint
Chapter 7 - Part 3
When he saw that the nuns, Valerian
included, were spreading wet washing on the clean grass and paying him
no attention at all humiliation burned through him. Never before had any
female dismissed him so easily. In the same heartbeat, shame stoked the
flames in his belly. What business had he thinking of the woman Fergus
wanted? Not that she seemed much interested in him, either. That thought
should have made Michael feel better. Perhaps he and Fergus would share
their problems over a bottle of good wine.
"That was quite an impressive demonstration." Intelligence flashed in the stranger's eyes. Despite the plain black robe he wore Michael sensed that this was no common priest, but a trained soldier. Every movement the man made was powerful, graceful and clean. He would be good with a sword.
Michael nodded in acknowledgment. More than anything he wanted the chance to work off his tumbling emotions in a good sweat. Unfortunately it seemed this stranger wanted to talk.
The priest extended his hand. "I don't believe we met last night. Father Joram MacRorie."
"Related to young Ansel?" Michael knew the answer before he asked. There was far too much similarity for them not to share blood.
Father Joram nodded. "He is my nephew. A good man."
Michael could think of no answer to that, so he said nothing. His men were regrouping, with Adrian in the middle of the circle now. The boy's stance radiated confidence.
Father Joram nodded toward the entrance to their underground stronghold. "Can we talk for a moment? I had heard tales of your skill, and after watching you practice I see the stories are true."
Michael followed the priest a distance from his men. When they stopped, he had a clear view of the Sisters laying out the wash. The gentle sway of Valerian's hips as she moved was more than enough to distract his attention.
"My lord?" Father Joram nudged his elbow.
Michael realized the priest must have asked him something. "My apologies. I fear my attention wandered."
"If it wanders that far often you are likely not to survive long in Gwynedd." Father Joram gave him a quizzical look.
Michael darted a quick probe toward the older man's mind. He met strong shields and well trained defenses.
"It has been a long time since I had the leisure to allow myself to be distracted."
Father Joram nodded. "I was wondering how long you had been in Gwynedd."
"Almost half a year." What was this priest-soldier getting at?
Father Joram pressed his fingertips to his lips for a moment. Michael sensed tension in his stance.
"Were you responsible for the deaths at the Valoret cathedral?"
Father Joram kept his gaze fixed on Michael's eyes. Michael guessed he was being Truth-read before he spoke. Of course, the priest probably had been doing that from the beginning of their conversation.
"And the recent rebellion in Caerrorie?"
Michael nodded. He allowed himself to smile, hoping to unseat the older man's unsettling composure. "Why do you ask, Father? Are you thinking of joining us?"
Father Joram shook his head. "I am more concerned with your intentions in the future, lad. You must realize those in power will not allow your disruption to continue."
"What can they do about it?" Michael shrugged.
Valerian chose that moment to stand and arch her back. Her veil slid off her head, and for a moment sunlight shone on her fiery hair. One of the Sisters, a plump woman whose gestures warned all that she would see things done her own way, pulled Valerian's veil back into place. Her voice did not carry far enough to hear what she said, but Michael guessed she was scolding Valerian for something.
The urge to stride over and toss the plump harridan on her arse was almost too tempting to resist. Father Joram's hand on his arm prevented him from acting on it. At the touch Michael realized he had doubled his hands into fists. "We were discussing your further intentions." The priest's expression warned that he would not be put off.
Michael shook off his hand. "My intentions, Father, are none of your business. Unless, of course, you intend to lend your sword to our ends."
Father Joram folded his hands inside his loose sleeves. When he spoke again Michael knew he was choosing his words with great care. "Have you considered what your rebellion might mean to innocents, my son? You know those in power will retaliate against those they believe are acting against them. If they cannot strike at you, they will lash out at any who might possibly benefit from what you have done."
Michael was sure the priest had not read his mind, but he heard the warning in the words. No doubt Father Joram referred to the larger action outside this oasis of peace, but his warning could also apply to the plain wench who's wrath seemed directed at Valerian.
He nodded. "If they strike against those under my protection, Father, they will wish their fathers and mothers had never become acquainted. I know well the game of intimidation and revenge."
"Then you mean to continue on as you have?" When Michael nodded, Father Joram shook his head. "You are being very foolish, lad. Innocents will die needlessly, and you will accomplish nothing."
"Would you suggest we allow tyrants to run roughshod?"
Father Joram shook his head again. "Of course not. We here are working even now to correct the situation, but it must be done with care. Rash action will lead to a river of blood, and may well defeat your purpose."
He hesitated, then added, "We could use your aid, if you would be willing to lend yourselves to our cause."
"And follow your orders?" Michael shook his head. "I think not."
"But will you think on what I have said?"
"I will." Laughter from the ring of horsemen and Adrian's cheers told him before he looked that this round was over. "If you will excuse me, Father, I wish to rejoin the fun." Without waiting for the priest's response, Michael left.
Manfred MacInnis slammed the wine bottle down on the table with such force the bottom shattered. The fine Fianna vintage splattered the table. The action did little to vent his fury.
"Damn you!" Tammeron sputtered as he made futile swipes at the splatters now staining his tunic. "That was expensive!"
Rhun chuckled. The sound did not suit him.
Still feeling the need to rip someone's throat out, Manfred swallowed his wine and hurled the silver cup at the wall. It clattered harmlessly, echoing the laughter that had so recently filled his ears.
"Have you quite finished with your display of temper?" Hubert frowned from his chair, though he did not bother to get up.
"No, I haven't!" Manfred gripped the table to steady himself, his muscles shaking with rage. "Do you realize what has happened? Did you hear them in the streets as I was hauled in here by a horse I could not control?"
"I think we all did." Tammaron raised his hand to his mouth, pretending to cover a cough. It had to be a smile, from the catch in his voice.
"I was humiliated!" Manfred shook the table with all his strength. "I am the Earl of Culdi! No common outlaw humiliates me!"
"Sit down!" Hubert's frown deepened until his eyes were hidden by rolls of fat. "You are making a spectacle of yourself."
"No doubt any of us would feel the same, were we forced to ride through the streets of our capitol tied backwards on our horse." Tammaron leaned back in his chair, mirth dancing in his eyes.
Manfred fought the urge to strangle the arrogant Chancellor.
"Well, if it is any comfort, not much persuasion was needed to get our beloved King to outlaw the miscreant." Hubert crossed his pudgy hands over his belly, looking very satisfied. "He signed and sealed the documents this morning. I also have some sketches drawn from the memory of that unfortunate wench we had brought to Valoret."
"What happened to her once Sinclair's pet Deryni was done with her?" Tammaron asked, setting down his goblet. He kept his hand on the cup as if he feared Manfred might have another burst of temper locked away for the proper moment.
"Oh, I've got her safe enough." Hubert smiled. "She's working in my kitchens. Keeps her busy and close at hand should we need her again."
"I want to see those sketches." Manfred glared at his brother before Hubert could protest. "That face had better be recognizable or they won't do us a lick of good."
"Of course, of course." Hubert nodded and waved absently at Rhun. "Go have one of your squires fetch them. I have them in a leather satchel in my quarters."
In the time it took to bring the sketches, Manfred paced the chamber and let his temper cool. Once he cleared his mind he began to think more effectively. "It isn't just Deryni we have to worry about, you know," he said, staring out the window without seeing anything. "There are plenty of humans who benefit from this outlaw's mayhem. We should make an example of a few of them, I think."
"You mean you want to execute our own kind?" Tammaron shook his head.
"Of course not!" Manfred glared at the stupid fellow. "I mean peasants. I'd start with half of Caerrorie. Make an example of them."
"You never liked those people anyway." The corners of Rhun's lips lifted.
"No, I don't like them. And the feeling is mutual, if you've noticed."
A knock at the door ended their conversation. One of the squires entered with a long leather case. Hubert dismissed the squire, opened the case and spread a sketch on the table.
Manfred glared at the portrait. The man was dressed in a priest's robe, but the eyes that stared back from the parchment were unmistakable. "That's him. It's almost perfect."
Rhun's eyes narrowed as he examined the picture.
Tammaron glanced at Manfred. "What color were this man's eyes?"
Manfred frowned. "I don't remember. Light, I think."
"And his hair?"
"Black. Black as pitch."
The words hung in the suddenly silent room. At last Tammaron spoke, sounding as if he were choosing his words carefully. "I know we're all thinking it. How much do we know about Cinhill's private life?"
"You're saying this bastard's a royal by-blow?" Rhun shook his head. "I'd never believe it."
"Yes you would. You were seeing the same thing the rest of us are looking at." Light danced in the jewels on Hubert's rings as he traced the portrait with one fat finger. "The same jaw, the same set in the eyes. Both dark haired and light eyed."
"There have to be a thousand tall dark young men in Gwynedd." Manfred felt a tingle of apprehension.
"And how many of them swing a sword as if the Devil guided his arm?" Rhun shook his head. "Our King shows great skill at martial exercises."
"More important, how many men could command others so confidently?" Tammaron straightened, obviously no longer needing to look at the portrait to reinforce his conclusion. "There is, after all, something in the manner of those royal born."
"If we are dealing with a stray Haldane he would have to be older than Alroy and Javan were." Hubert studied his crucifix. Perhaps he thought the answer would appear in the intricate goldwork. "Could Cinhill have had a mistress without our knowing about it?"
"Anything's possible." Rhun's shoulders slumped. "He wasn't all that interested in his queen, at least at first. We never thought to check, what with him having been a Religious."
"More than one Holy Brother has become a father." Leather groaned as Hubert sank into a chair. "I think we have to assume the worst; that we are dealing with a Haldane who may possibly want the crown."
"Or he may be trying to undermine us and free his half-brother." Tammaron sounded as if this thought depressed him far more than an attempted coup. "Not all those born royal want the crown. If he is assisting Rhys . . ."
"Then we had best disillusion His Highness immediately." Rhun cracked his knuckles. "Throw a bit of fear into him. It won't hurt."
"And the same for those who might just support a rebellion." Hubert nodded to Manfred. "Don't execute your whole village, brother. Just five or six of the most important members. And you might burn a few buildings, just to make sure your point sinks in."
"As if I needed your permission." Manfred clenched his fists, then thought better of it. No good could come of knocking his fat brother flat on the ground. "I'm only sorry I'll miss Rhys's education."
The pain between Valerian's shoulder blades became a thing alive. She did the best she could to ease her aching muscles, straightening and flexing her shoulders. It wasn't enough, but she dared not allow herself a full stretch.
"When one's heart is with the Lord it is easier to ignore the weakness of one's body." Sister Agnes's voice carried a strong chastising note.
Valerian lowered her head and bit her lip. The plump little nun was no doubt used to lifting baskets of soaked cloth all day long. Valerian's duties as a Healer and mistress of the herb garden had prevented her from doing much heavy physical work. She drew a deep breath and reminded herself that this was, after all, what she wanted. She meant to make a place for herself with these Holy Sisters, and she had to pull her own weight. That might well mean working harder than she ever had in her life. If only one of the others would suggest a rest. Valerian bent over the steaming tub again, grabbed a wool tunic and scrubbed it against the washboard. Despite the coolness of the spring afternoon, sweat stung her eyes.
"You must take care, Sister," Sister Agnes continued as if she had no need for breath. "If you give your body too much comfort you may well fall into temptation. You are young, and far more subject to the lure of the world than those of us more mature."
"Yes, Sister." Valerian thought she should acknowledge what Sister Agnes was saying, even if she had not taken in a word of it.
Sister Agnes continued without a pause. "And don't think I did not notice you eyeing those men as they trained. They are well formed, and you have been in their company for some days without chaperone. You should cast them from your mind and heart, and remember where your calling lies."
Agnes continued in the same vein, not waiting for Valerian to say more. The other two Sisters made sounds of agreement, but clearly they were not listening to her rant any more clearly than Valerian was. Valerian allowed herself a sideways glance. Michael and his men had at last finished their games. She knew she should thank God for that mercy, and for the apparent safety of all who played.
After the madness with their horses, they had gone to an archery bout that involved shooting several arrows at a single man. The human target deflected the shafts apparently without effort. Valerian could not believe their foolishness. She knew how difficult it was to turn the flight of even a single arrow, let alone three or more. Yet Michael and his men seemed to feel this was a fine diversion for a quiet afternoon. Did they enjoy risking their lives? And why was she so worried? Had she not vowed to put the memory of that disturbingly attractive man from her heart?
"Sister? Are you listening?" Sister Agnes did not bother to hide her irritation.
"Of course," Valerian answered quickly, wondering what the talkative little busybody had said.
"You looked as if you had drifted from us." Sister Therese's thin, bluish lips pursed in disapproval. "You must attend, Sister."
"Of course." Valerian wrung the tunic out and laid it on the side of the tub. "I just have not done laundry for a while. I fear I was concentrating on my work."
"Indeed." Sister Therese did not sound convinced.
Music drifted from somewhere, not loud enough to interrupt their conversation but clearly heard none the less. All paused to listen to the enticing tune.
"I wonder who is playing? And what instrument?" Sister Agnes's eyes brightened for a moment.
Valerian bit her lip again and resolutely returned to the washing. She recognized the musician immediately. He had played the same tune two nights before, sitting before a campfire. A faint breeze stirred the pale grasses. Even nature seemed to be dancing in time to the notes of Michael's sitar. Although others listened, Valerian felt somehow that he played just for her. The aches drained from her muscles as the music continued. To her own surprise, Valerian found herself swaying in time to the tune as she worked.
As she wrung out a toweling cloth, Valerian glanced toward the wagons. Michael sat with his back to one of the ancient trees, an instrument that resembled a long necked lute on his lap. Fergus reclined beside him, sucking on a slim ivory pipe.
"I think this is the last of it." Sister Therese gathered an armful of the washed laundry. "We should be able to have it folded by evening Mass, I think."
"Of course." Valerian picked up the rest of the wet cloths and followed the older nun. She knew she was being selfish, and probably risking temptation. After all, if she were rolling the emptied washtubs into the shelter instead of spreading out wet laundry she would no longer be able to hear Michael's music. She pushed the guilt away. None could complain that she was not doing her share. Besides, the washtubs were heavy and she was not used to such physical work. She needed time to get accustomed to her new life. But, no doubt she would have more to get used to in the months to come. That thought, coupled with the uncertainty the thought of the child brought, raised a fear in her she could not control.
How could she be mother to any child? She knew something of infants, but the prospect of continuing her religious life while tending to a constantly demanding child left her shaking with anxiety. Why had it seemed so simple in the chapel the night before? Valerian steeled herself against the doubts. Certainly she could manage a child. Other women did it, and made it look simple. Far simpler, in fact, than putting the memory of Michael out of her mind.