Sword of a Saint
Chapter 8 - Part 3
Michael set his heels
to Asmodious's flanks. The big horse trotted up the line, apparently as
sick of riding the rear as Michael was. Perhaps he was bored with the
Michael chuckled at that. If he was worrying about whether his stallion was bored, he was in bad shape. Why had he agreed to escort Lord Gregory to their safe haven, which just happened to be on the other side of the Connaitt border?
Because the man had attempted to save Michael from imprisonment. That bit of honesty deserved some reciprocal loyalty on Michael's part.
A cluster of gray skirts caught Michael's attention. His shoulders tensed as he saw that, again, Valerian was walking. Why the Sisters refused even the small luxury of the wagons he could not understand. They seemed to think that any accommodation for comfort put their souls in jeopardy.
That might be fine for the three older nuns. They looked healthy enough, strong and stern though they kept their eyes fixed on the road before them. Valerian, in contrast, was as pale as a corpse. Her shoulders slumped, her head hung, her feet stumbled on the muddy road. She did not even bother to lift her skirts out of the clinging muck, and the added weight seemed to drag at her.
The shortest and squarest of the nuns said something to Valerian. Valerian straightened her shoulders and walked more quickly for a minute or two. Then she slumped back into her normal pace.
Fergus, who was riding near the nuns, leaned over and spoke to the smallest Sister. The nun did not raise her eyes from the roadway as she answered. Fergus nodded, straightened and turned his attention elsewhere.
What a fool! Michael was torn between the need to rescue Valerian and the urge to beat his friend senseless. How could Fergus do nothing, when the woman he cared for clearly needed his help?
It would be so easy to sweep her up before him and carry her for the rest of the day. Asmodious was certainly strong enough to hold both of them on his back at the easy pace they were forced to keep. Fergus's gelding was no less fine a horse.
No doubt the other Sisters would be incensed. What of it? They could do nothing more serious than shout and demand without the power to compel obedience.
Unwilling to overstep Fergus's claim on Valerian and yet unable to do nothing, Michael settled for a middle course. If she would not speak with him, at least she could not ignore him. He urged Asmodious forward, stroked the stallion's neck and sent a command to the horse. The stallion whickered and shook his head. Michael took this for agreement.
As they trotted past the cluster of nuns, Asmodious reached out and plucked the veil from Valerian's head with his large front teeth. The horse pranced a bit and tossed his head as he continued up the line, his prize clutched in his teeth.
Michael did not look back until he passed the first wagon. The sight of Valerian's beautiful copper curls dancing in the slight breeze raised his spirits considerably.
"So there you are, lad." Lord Gregory pulled back to ride beside Michael. "I wondered how long it would be before you tired of riding the rear."
"One can only look at a horse's ass for so long." Michael was not certain if he directed that comment at Fergus, who was trying not to laugh out loud, or at the cluster of nuns. Their scowls could have curdled new milk.
"Now, lad, keep your temper. They've a different way they've chosen for themselves. We should respect their choices, even if we don't agree with them."
Michael glared at Lord Gregory. "Did you have something to say or are you passing time?"
The older man shook his head. "You've been in a temper this past week and more, lad. Is something bothering you?"
"No!" Michael forced himself to release the reins and guide Asmodious with his knees. It was the only way to keep the tension in his hands from startling his horse.
Lord Gregory nodded, but from his expression Michael realized he did not believe the denial.
"Wait until you see Trevalga." Pride shone in Lord Gregory's eyes. "It's a fine place, where a man can live happily forever without being bothered by the rest of the world."
"How much farther have we to travel?"
"Three more days." Lord Gregory glanced at the sky. "That is if the weather holds. We've been damn lucky, with the rain letting up as it did."
Michael vowed to make certain the weather held true. Devin had a good mind for weather spells. No doubt he'd be glad to help hurry their trip along.
Lord Gregory shifted in his saddle and gave Michael a slight smile. "I knew your parents, lad, when they were at court."
If anything could have increased Michael's already irritated temper, this was the topic to do it. Not knowing what sort of a response Lord Gregory was looking for, he nodded and hoped the old man would drop the subject.
"You much resemble your father."
Apparently Lord Gregory was not about to leave the topic. Michael pressed his lips against his teeth to control his agitation. "Only in looks, I think."
"That's true. You far outstrip Robert in height." The buckles on Lord Gregory's leather tunic jingled as he chuckled. "But then so do my sons stand above me. I think you lads are all growing tall.
"He was a good man, your father. Healed me once from a nasty hunting accident that could have cost me my good arm."
Michael's temper snapped. "My father was a coward! And as for my mother, I could have found better in an alley cat!" He spat the words through clenched teeth, kicked Asmodious into a trot and left Lord Gregory in his wake.
Michael's mood was still black at dusk, when the group stopped to camp for the night. He tethered Asmodious beneath the makeshift stable's roof and began to brush him, taking as long with the job as he could.
He was furious with himself for his loss of control. Had a party of Custodes been near, he might have gotten them all killed. On the other hand, it would have done no good to slice Lord Gregory's head off in the middle of the road. No doubt that would have upset those idiot nuns even more.
He had not thought about his parents in years. What made the border lord unknowingly open that scarred wound?
Asmodious whickered impatiently. Michael realized he was putting his fury into the brush, and lightened his strokes.
"My lord?" The squat little nun stood a few feet away, her hands folded into the loose sleeves of her robe. The set of her shoulders and the way her jaw jutted out over her wimple reminded Michael of a displeased slave dealer.
He gave the Sister a slight nod by way of recognition and continued brushing Asmodious. If she thought to intimidate him she was much mistaken.
She moved a pair of steps closer. "I have come for Sister Valerian's veil."
"Stay where you are." Michael did not divert his attention from Asmodious's front leg. The coat here was particularly sensitive, and Michael knew well his horse would toss his head and appear restless while he worked. "He does not like strangers."
The little nun's jowls shook as she sucked air. "It is not fit that Sister Valerian appear out of habit before so many men. I will have her veil."
Her demanding tone raked over Michael's already irritated temper in exactly the wrong way. "If it's so bloody important, she can come ask for it herself."
"I beg your pardon?"
Michael straightened, knowing he towered over the little nun by nearly a foot and a half. "If Valerian wants that rag, she can track me down and ask for it. If she's got the courage, that is."
The little nun's lips disappeared. "Sister Valerian has been far too long in unsuitable company. She prefers to remain secluded among her sisters."
**More likely you're keeping her prisoner.** Another point that set his temper wrong. "Then she can find another scarf. Excuse me, Sister." He tossed the curry brush into the leather bag full of tack and toggle for the horses and reached for the halter. "He needs water, and there's a stream nearby."
As he led Asmodious toward the stream, Michael glanced back at the camp. The little nun was scuttling across the camp toward the cluster of Sisters, looking like a puffed up blowfish. Even with distance between them the color of her face was clearly visible; furious scarlet.
No doubt it would do her good to be thwarted occasionally. He had the feeling that particular tyrant in a habit got her way entirely too often.
Asmodious planted his front feet in the swift moving stream and drank noisily. Michael ran his hand over the horse's now smooth coat and tried to calm his emotions. He felt so tense he wanted to provoke a battle just to release his confusion and irritation on something.
He realized most of his tension came from Valerian. The memory of his parents, while uncomfortable, was something in his past. Valerian was here, in his life and yet not a part of it.
If she preferred Fergus, as she certainly seemed to, why did she stay with the Sisters? Had his friend been such a fool as to turn her away?
If Fergus refused her attention, no doubt it was because he felt their life had no place for any woman who was not accustomed to living rough. Michael knew his friend was usually the sensible thinker. Still, how could he leave the woman he cared for with companions who seemed to go out of their way to make her life as hard as it could possibly be?
As if his thoughts summoned her, Michael sensed Valerian approaching. She moved slowly, barely lifting her skirts to avoid the fallen branches and bracken.
His heart began to pound in his chest as he turned toward her. Firmly he controlled his reaction by reminding himself that she preferred Fergus. As he dropped his gaze to the river bank a splash of color caught his eye. Wild violets bloomed near the water. The stream must have startled them awake before the rest of their kind.
Valerian stopped several feet from Michael and hesitated, gathering her words. She needed to collect her veil and return to camp quickly. There was much to be done before evening prayers. Her sisters would expect her to help them.
Some of her exhaustion fell away as she studied Michael standing beside his horse. They were indeed well matched, handsome and powerful. And, she reminded herself, very, very dangerous.
She bit her lips to bolster her courage. "My lord?"
He dropped the lead rope over his stallion's back as he turned. "Sister Valerian. To what do I owe this pleasure?"
The smile turning up the corners of his lips seemed to mock her. "You know full well while I am here. You commanded it."
"I did no such thing." He walked around the stallion's hindquarters and faced her, his feet planted firmly on the bank. "I merely set a condition. It was up to you to accept it or not."
"I hardly had the choice." Valerian felt exasperation battling her exhaustion. At least she found some energy in the unpleasant emotion. "Sister informed me I must retrieve my veil myself. That's exactly what you intended when you took it, is it not?"
"I did." Michael nodded.
"Why would you do this? You know it only makes things more difficult for both of us."
"Does it, Sister?" Michael dropped to the damp grassy bank. "Sit for a bit, won't you?"
Valerian shook her head. "I cannot. I must return to camp and ---"
"Without this?" He pulled the veil from his tunic and dangled it from his fingertips.
Valerian reached for the length of gray linen. Michael jerked it back at the last instant. Overbalanced, Valerian tumbled to the bank beside him. She landed on her rump with a grunt.
Michael chuckled. "Now that wasn't so hard, was it?" He dropped the veil in her lap.
Now that she was sitting, Valerian found it impossible to rise. Her aching legs and feet screamed for a rest. Her head pounded from the pace they had kept all day.
Surely it would do no harm to relax for just a minute. She stretched her legs toward the river and pointed her toes to relax her aching muscles. It felt so good she repeated the process with her arms, arching her back, feeling shamefully decadent.
"Why do you let yourself get so tired?" Michael's voice seemed to come from far away. The concern she hears surprised Valerian.
She shrugged. "Fatigue banishing only works for so long. I've done too much of it lately."
"That's not what I meant." Michael ran a hand through his thick dark hair. The silky curls called to her fingers. "Why not ride in the wagons?"
His concern touched Valerian in a way nothing else could have. She folded her hands in her lap and tried to put his mind at ease. "I know it seems silly to you, but Sister Agnes is firm in her belief that ease of body opens the door to temptation of the soul. The more we work, the less we have time for impure thoughts, let alone actions."
Was he smiling again? Valerian tried to decide, but was mesmerized by the silver and gold lights dancing in his dark eyes.
"And do you suffer from impure thoughts, Sister?" Michael's hand rested lightly on hers.
He was so tense she could have snapped him like a twig. Before she considered what she was doing, Valerian covered his hand with one of hers. As she stroked the taut tendons, she tried to put his mind at ease.
"I chose this life of service, my lord. I do not mind the hardship if only I am permitted to fulfill my calling. If I were not able to accomplish His purpose for me, I would be far more miserable than any discomfort can ---"
Michael caught her hand and turned it palm up. "What in hell's name is this?" No longer smiling, his eyes snapped fire.
Startled, Valerian tried to pull away. Michael kept too firm a grip on her hands. When she did not answer, he pulled them up before her face.
Angry blisters marked both her fingers and palms. Most were healing, save those she irritated daily as she went about the chores assigned her.
"They're only a few blisters. Nothing serious."
Michael relaxed his grip. Valerian pulled her hands away and folded them, but remained where she was. Something was very wrong, and she meant to set his mind at ease. Later she resolved she would consider why his burst of temper had not terrified her.
"I am not yet accustomed to so much physical work," she explained, choosing her words with care. "It will take time for my hands to develop calluses."
"Why haven't you Healed yourself?" He sounded as tired as she felt."
**Because I haven't had the energy,** Valerian thought, but she kept it to herself. "If I don't let the skin thicken I'll be tending blisters for the rest of my life."
Before he could respond, she took control of the conversation. "What's bothering you? You seem upset."
"It's nothing. Just an old memory."