Sword of a Saint
Chapter 8 - Part 4
He was holding
something back. Valerian decided to be more forward, and hopefully make
him expose the problem.
**For it being nothing, it has you tied in knots.** She brushed the thought against his shields.
Michael's mind immediately opened to her. A moment later, his shields closed around hers as he shifted a bit closer on the bank. Clearly whatever the problem was he did not want it to be overheard.
**I was forced to remember someone I had nearly forgotten.** Beneath Michael's irritation Valerian sensed a deep, aching wound. **My parents.**
**No doubt you miss them.**
A wave of bitterness assaulted her. **I hate them. I've despised them for nearly ten years!**
Unable to respond to such an unfitting sentiment, Valerian gently caressed his hands. Silent comfort seemed her best option.
At last she ventured an innocuous thought. **I know you must have had reason.**
Michael's mental nod was brief and firm. **They were weak. When we needed them, they abandoned us.**
The image of a little girl, perhaps four years old, came to Michael's mind. Her shining eyes and soft curls neatly restrained by silk ribbons spoke to Valerian of a child well tended.
**My sister, Jhenna She was six when she died.** The image abruptly vanished, but the pain and helplessness that followed made Valerian want to retch. **I loved her more than anything, but I couldn't save her.**
**How old were you?**
Michael's mental voice sounded tired. **Fourteen, when she died. We'd been imprisoned by our father's lord for nearly two years.**
**Where were your parents?** She wished she could call the question back, but once spoken the words hung between them.
**Mother threw herself out a window when she couldn't take it any more.** Michael's laugh was bitter. **She never loved us enough to stay with us, not after Father's master turned his attention on her. Father was alive, but he didn't come to us after she died. He never even tried. He could have blasted them all to Hell, as powerful as he was. He didn't want to hurt anyone, no matter what they were doing to us.**
More than anything, Valerian wanted to end this conversation. The anger and pain in Michael's mind felt like a festering wound. She steeled herself, knowing that it had to be cleansed. Now that it was finally open, the poisons must drain before any healing could begin.
**What happened to you and your sister after your mother died?**
Michael shuddered. **They left Jhenna alone, mostly. There wasn't much food, but I was always a good thief. I used to slip out our window and steal from the kitchens. Food, wine, sweets, whatever I could carry. Once I even managed to bring back a sleeping fur to keep her warm. They caught me that time.**
**You say they left Jhenna alone. What did they do to you?**
**You don't want to know.**
**I wouldn't have asked if I did not want the answer.**
His arm slid around her shoulders. He pulled her against his chest. Valerian could feel his heart racing as he fought to control the memories rising in his mind.
**Lord Sinclair and his uncles were trying to find ways to control Deryni. At least that's what they said. They started with merasha, and then used other methods of interrogation. Never asked me questions, though. They just wanted to see how much pain they could cause.**
Michael closed his eyes as if he could shut out the images in his mind so easily. **That wasn't the worst of it. Father's lord enjoyed both women and boys, if you know what I mean. He told me if I resisted, he would happily turn his attentions on Jhenna. His and his companion's. That bastard loved pain the way most men love sex.**
Tears filled Valerian's eyes. Her heart ached for the brave and lonely child Michael had been. Better than most, she knew what he had suffered. It was bad enough to endure that horror as an adult, but he had been too young to comprehend the evil some people were capable of.
Unable to wrap her arms around the frightened boy his story conjured, she hugged the man. He rested his chin on her head and stroked her tangled hair. She hoped he found some comfort in her presence.
**So that's why you rescue others.** Admiration filled her thought. **It takes great courage to get involved when most are only trying to keep themselves safe.**
**Don't put a noble face on it.** Michael's bitter laugh tickled her as his lips brushed her head. **After Jhenna died, I escaped my prison. I jumped into a portal, thinking I would join the Michaelines. Instead I wound up in an Assassins guild and decided I would rather join them than let them kill me.**
**A semi-secret society based in the Anvil of the Lord. They kill for hire, and they are very, very good at it.”
Valerian shuddered at what he was saying. **Then are you a . . .** She could not finish the thought.
Michael nodded. **Yes. Do you want to know how many people I've killed in their beds?”
She didn't, but before she could stop herself Valerian nodded.
**None.** Michael's hand tightened on her shoulders. **All my targets knew from where the blade fell. But before you start thinking I'm some noble hero, I've killed over fifty men and women. In cold blood.**
**And if you had not?**
**You don't want to know. The Guild has ways of disposing of those they deem no longer useful. Most of their endings would make a vulture sick.
**Besides, the life is a good one. Every target rewarded me well. Food, wine, wealth, all to be had for the reaching out.**
**Then why did you come back?**
Michael's hand shifted off her shoulders. Valerian closed her eyes as his warm, strong palm slid slowly down to rest on the curve of her hip. A warm and wonderful sensation made every muscle quiver. She savored the sensation, at once relishing the pleasure and denying the guilt that accompanied it.
**Revenge.** Michael's thought carried no strong emotion of any kind. He might have been discussing the stream they sat beside. **We all wanted to see those who had hurt us suffer.**
**And your Grand Master agreed to this?**
**Our client's plan was to destabilize the Crown. By harassing the Council and the King's troops, we're doing that. Possibly he won't realize we're not coming back until none of us show up when this is all over. Even then, he very well may not care.**
**And if he does?**
This time Michael's chuckle was genuine. With her head against his chest, Valerian felt she were snuggling against a giant, purring cat.
**That's the beauty of a secret society, Valerian. It's only good so long as it remains a secret. The Grand Master can't send enough men against us to be any kind of a threat, not so long as we stick together. He won't want to teach us a lesson badly enough to endanger the entire order.**
**And if you're wrong?** Valerian realized she had tightened her hold on Michael's chest. She relaxed her grip. Her palms molded around the corded muscles beneath his tunic.
Those same muscles rippled as Michael shrugged. **No one lives forever. None of us had anything worth living for, anyway. We survived to avenge those we loved. Once that's done, it doesn't matter what happens.**
Valerian drew a deep breath and fought not to let her aching heart slip into the link between them. The idea of a world without Michael in it seemed too bleak to contemplate. **Could there be nothing worth your living?** she whispered, shifting a bit closer.
His lips moved against her hair. **Until recently, I did not think so. Not that it matters, since ---**
He froze. His hold on her tightened for an instant. Then, distantly, Valerian heard the sound of harness, the thud of horses' feet and the voices of men.
Michael leapt to his feet, pulling her up with him. “Take Asmodious back to camp!” His voice was low and urgent. “Go!”
“What about you?” Valerian glanced from the huge stallion to Michael, who was unbuckling his sword belt. His face was grim.
“There isn't time. Do as I say!”
“I can't manage that horse!”
He shoved her roughly at the stallion. “Damn you, woman! Run!”
Unable to think clearly through the fear that paralyzed her mind, Valerian seized the stallion's bridle and ran toward the trees. The horse followed her like a lamb.
Once she was within the cover of the forest, Valerian stopped and turned. Surely Michael was following, only hanging back to guard her. He must be. He could not mean to challenge a party of mounted men on foot.
Ice filled her veins. That was exactly what he meant to do.
Three horsemen drew up beside the stream and paused. Their crimson tabards emblazoned with the lions of Gwynedd proclaimed them King's men. They sat, talking, laughing and passing around a skin of wine as their horses drank their fill.
What if they crossed the stream? If the camp were discovered, Valerian knew there would be trouble. No doubt there were enough men in the party to handle three soldiers, but the fight might well attract more unwanted attention.
Suddenly one of the horsemen stiffened in his saddle. Blood gushed from his mouth and nose as he coughed, shuddered and tumbled into the stream. Before he struck the water, a second horseman followed him in death.
The third drew his sword and glanced around. Even from her secluded spot in the trees, Valerian could see his eyes widen. He waved the sword at his unseen foe, while his horse sidled in panic beneath him and the other two bolted back the way they had come.
His sword was no protection. Before Valerian could draw her next breath, he lay beside his companions, convulsing as death claimed him.
Michael emerged from the trees a few feet from where Valerian stood. His naked sword hung from his left hand. His face had the grim look of an executioner.
Horror and fascination churned in Valerian's stomach. Michael used his power for cold blooded murder. No amount of words could have so vividly made her understand what he was.
Unable to stay still, Valerian left Asmodious standing where he was and ran to the stream. Michael ignored her as he caught the remaining horse and stripped the saddle and tack from the restive animal.
Valerian stared for a moment at the bodies in the stream. The terror etched on their faces made her empty stomach roll. “You killed them.”
“I did.” Michael tossed the saddle packs and blanket at her. “Those we can use.”
Before she could respond, he turned his naked sword on the three bodies. For several minutes he hacked at the corpses while Valerian stood, struggling for breath and the words to make him stop.
“What are you doing?” she managed at last.
Michael rinsed his sword in the swift flowing water. “Making this look like a robbery.” He flashed the sword before the trembling horse. It bolted after its' mates.
“That was the most cold-blooded act I've ever seen.” His manner reminded her of her Custodes captors. Did he have no feeling for human lives?
“Would you rather risk those sweet fellows stumbling on our camp?”
“You don't even know they were headed in that direction. Or did you read their minds before you slew them?” Shock rapidly melted before the anger burning in Valerian. To think she had been wasting sympathy on his lonely childhood! He was as much a monster as the men who had held him captive.
“And even if they did find us, there were only three of them.”
Michael climbed out of the stream and turned his attention to the packs on the grass. “That we saw. There might be more, so let's not waste time.”
He pulled open both packs and dumped the contents on the bank. A blanket, a set of stones, a pot of oil and a rag for polishing metal rolled across the grass. Michael shook the packs, and a bundle of dark green wool landed beside the more common items.
Valerian stared at the cloth, not wanting to believe what she saw. Her stomach, already aching from so much emotion, turned over again.
Michael lifted the cloth and shook it loose. Bright, sparkling bits of jewelry fell from it. One ring tumbled to a stop at Valerian's feet.
“I wouldn't --”
Valerian closed her fingers around the ring before Michael's words could register. An impression so vivid it knocked the breath from her chest struck her as soon as she touched the polished gold band.
**Screams. She was shrieking in terror, running frantically from the pursuing horsemen. The king's troops attacked the small village, burning and killing as they went. A spear pinned her to the ground. Blood gushed from her chest. Before darkness claimed her, one of the soldiers seized her hand and tried to remove the ring. Her knuckles, swollen from age, thwarted his effort. He drew his dagger and sliced off her finger.**
“Christ!” Michael's voice reached through the vision.
Cold water soaked Valerian's face. She opened her eyes and found herself laying on the grass, cradled in Michael's lap. Her veil hung from his hand, dripping.
“I'm all right.” Valerian shoved herself upright. A wave of dizziness assaulted her, but she forced her shoulders to remain straight. “I wasn't expecting that.”
“Maybe I should have warned you.” Michael rose and offered his hand. Concern deepened the blue of his eyes as he looked her up and down. “I knew it had to be something nasty. These fellows were no angels.”
“And you are no better.” She was no longer angry at him, but disappointment lay as heavy as lead on her shoulders. He was no different than the men he slaughtered. No doubt this was what he had been telling her earlier.
Michael shrugged. “This is what I am, Valerian. A cold blooded killer without a soul worth saving. If you don't like it, you are welcome to take your chances on your own.
“But I think you might want this.” He held out the green wool. “It's safe enough.”
Valerian took the cloth. One touch told her it was the finest to be had, very expensive and beautifully made. No ornament marked it, but she knew what it was instantly. Only trained Healers wore that shade of green.
The cloth was like holding a warm cloud. Regretfully she shook her head. “I can't wear this. My habit is warm enough.”
“Then who else could it go to? You're the only Healer we've got.” Michael wrapped his hand in the polishing cloth and gathered up the scattered bits of jewelry. He carefully tucked them into his pouch before tossing the rag back with the remaining gear.
“I'll dispose of these when we get back to camp.” He surveyed the scene with a critical eye. “Good enough. I want to get moving immediately. We can't stay here.”
Valerian remembered taking two steps toward the trees. Then she remembered no more.
Uriel closed his eyes and sank his teeth into his lips. Now, when so much of his intention had gone wrong, he had his own charges to tend. The souls of the three soldiers stood at the edge of the stream, trying to reason out what had happened. He had to send them on, but everything in him demanded he keep watch over the couple now disappearing into the woods.
Michael would have to make certain things did not fall farther from the path they should take. How to tell his friend that without letting him know what had gone wrong was a puzzle Uriel knew he had no time to solve. He was not about to show his companion how far this afternoon's adventure had gone astray.
Not that he needed to bother. Michael seemed to read his mind.
“You hadn't planned that, had you?”
Uriel shook his head. “I should have seen it coming. I'd just hoped the timing would be better.”
Michael nodded toward the three on the bank. Already the spear of light was growing brighter for two of them. The third had another path to take, one he and his companions were beginning to sense if the fear on their faces was any indication.
“Why don't you catch up with us once you've dealt with your charges?” Michael laid a rough hand on Uriel's shoulder. Calluses snagged the fine cloth of the Death Angel's robes. “I think I can play nursemaid for a bit.”
“Just make sure they keep talking. Whatever you have to do, keep them together.”
Michael's expression screamed confusion. Why couldn't the thick headed brute have the least grasp of subtle suggestion?
“If they don't talk this out now, they never will. She's got to face the facts of the world. And he's too proud by half to try to get close once she's broken things off, which she will do if she's given half the chance.”
Michael nodded. “I think I can manage that.” His exaggerated grin left no doubt he had full confidence in his own abilities.
Uriel prayed his friend wasn't feeling too smug to see things done properly. Before he could offer further instruction, dark shadows emerged from the banks of the stream. Uriel cursed his own distraction. He'd left things too long.
“Come with me.” Uriel advanced on two of the soldiers. They cringed away from him, and away from the gathering darkness he strode through.
The malignant miasma of shadow and terror turned Uriel's stomach. The sooner he and his charges were away from it, the better for all concerned. “Come,” he said again, holding out his hands to the two he was to escort. “There's nothing more here for you. And nothing to fear, really, so long as you don't linger. Come away.”
First one and then the other took his hands. The third, who had been the last to die, tried to follow. The shadows seized his legs.
“Don't look back,” Uriel advised the younger men as their companion was dragged to his final reward. “He made his choices, and now he must answer for them. As must you, though to a more lenient judge.”