Sword of a Saint
Chapter 9 - Part 3
Michael woke to the distinct sound of
someone being wretchedly sick. He lay still for a time, assessing his
situation before he gave whoever was ill a sign that he was awake.
He lay in one of the wagons. His leg, which throbbed painfully with each jolt of the rough road, was thoroughly wrapped in cloth and bound to straight sticks. Other than the bandage, his only covering was a thick wool blanket that draped him from shoulders to heels. Someone had taken the time to strip off his clothing and bathe him, for which he was very grateful. With all the other discomforts he did not think he could have stood the added annoyance of clinging sweat.
He finally found the energy to open his eyes. For a moment he wondered if he had died. A vision stood at the far end of the wagon. The exquisite sprite had a halo of fiery curls and wore only a plain linen shift made transparent by the light streaming through the single open window. The picture Valerian created sent a jolt of lightning through his veins. Then worry came hard on the heels of the pleasure. It was she who had been ill.
Valerian covered the chamber pot, washed her face and hands in the basin and refolded the towel before she turned. She jumped when she saw he was awake.
Quickly she recovered herself and sat on the edge of the bed. One small palm brushed his cheek. "How do you feel?"
"Like I fell in a hole." Michael saw shadows beneath her dark eyes and tried to lighten the mood. "How long have I been asleep?"
"Two days, or there about." Valerian turned her attention to the bandages on his leg. "Lord Gregory says we'll reach Trevalga early tomorrow. We're having to travel a bit more slowly, but we've encountered no trouble." She nodded, apparently satisfied with whatever she saw beneath the bandage. "Would you like something to eat?"
Michael nodded and tried to force his mind away from the dangerous paths it was wandering down. The sight of Valerian's body, revealed in shadow beneath the rough spun linen she wore, was enough to arouse a corpse. He should be thankful for the proof he was not dead.
If he were any gentleman, he would warn her of the display she was making. No doubt she had never been in such a position. If the light in the room were less focused her shift would be a perfectly acceptable covering. More important, the blanket would be no shield for anyone's modesty if this situation continued.
She bent over a chest. The shift swung loose over her body. Michael decided he was no gentleman.
Valerian retrieved a loaf of plain bread, a chunk of cheese wrapped in linen, a flask of wine and two cups from the chest. She pulled a small stoneware jar from one of the cups, poured a stream of brown powder into one of the cups and filled both cups with wine.
"What's that?" Michael frowned, his attention finally diverted from the illicit show she presented. A sick suspicion formed in his mind. He'd never in his life slept for two days, no matter how ill he was.
When Valerian did not immediately answer, anger kindled. "Did you drug me?" Michael heard his own voice drop to a low, threatening tone.
Valerian returned to the bed with both cups of wine. "It's just something to help you sleep. Do you prefer the pain?"
Even as she spoke she slipped a hand behind his head. The drugged cup hovered at the ready. She started to lift his head, apparently believing he was too weak to drink for himself. Michael forced himself up on his elbows. The movement sent a knife of agony up his leg, but he ignored it. His attention was totally focused on Valerian, his eyes narrowed.
She lowered the cup but did not set it aside. From the stubborn set of her pale lips she intended to fight him. "Don't be ridiculous. It's only a sedative, nothing dangerous." She lifted the cup again, her eyes narrowing as she met his glare with her own. "Why suffer if you don't have to?"
"I'd rather be gelded with a dull knife than swallow that poison."
Her eyes widened. "You can't think ---" Her lips clamped shut before she finished the thought.
Too late Michael realized how his words must have sounded to her. He shook his head and tried to moderate his voice. Unfortunately the pain from his leg gave a harsh tone to his words.
"Of course I don't think you deliberately ---"
Fire flared behind Valerian's eyes. "I may not be able to Heal you, but I am still capable of mixing a pain killer from the ample stock of herbs your Yasmina keeps. I haven't lost that skill yet!"
"I never thought you had." Michael gave up the battle to hold himself up and fell back on the mattress, groaning. "I just prefer not to lose my senses. I can control my pain."
"Fine!" She set the cup aside and offered the other. When she lifted his head so he could drink, Michael felt the tension in her fingers.
She put a chunk of bread in his hand. "Try this for a start. See how your stomach feels."
Detesting plain bread but unwilling to protest further and hurt her feelings, Michael took a bite and obediently chewed. His mind spun as he attempted to swallow the dry, nutty mass. He had never seen Valerian in this mood. Clearly she was upset by something. He suspected the incident at the stream, but as he considered her more closely he realized there was more to it. Valerian had looked thin and exhausted then. Two days in a wagon should have rested her, but she seemed as worn as she had been. If anything her face was paler, her eyes more shadowed, her gestures slower and heavier.
He held out the chunk of bread. "You eat too."
Valerian shook her head. "I'm not hungry."
"No, but you look like hell. If your stomach's upset, bread may settle it." He made himself smile when she flinched. "Isn't that why you gave it to me?"
The corners of her lips lifted slightly. She nodded, broke off more bread from the loaf and nibbled it.
Michael decided to make the most of the opportunity to talk. "You got sick this morning. What's wrong?"
"Nothing." She answered a bit too quickly for his liking. "I'm probably just upset. After all, the past weeks have been a bit difficult."
"No doubt of that." Michael set the remains of his bread on the blanket near his hand. "Why don't your Sisters let you rest? You've had enough in the past month to send anyone to their bed."
Valerian shook her head. "I just need to adjust to the work, as I told you before. Sister Agnes ---"
"I know, I know. Physical ease leads to impure thoughts." Michael rolled his eyes when she nodded. "This bread's a bit dry, you know."
Without a word, Valerian picked up the wine cup. She dipped his chunk of bread into it, then offered the moist end to him.
Wet with wine the bread was much easier to chew. Michael watched Valerian take a tiny bite of her own dry crust.
"How long have you been a nun?"
"I took my final vows two years ago, near Christmastide."
"Then I think you should be used to the work."
Valerian shook her head. Her wistful smile spoke of happier memories, but her shields remained firm when Michael ventured a thought to her.
"My abbey . . ." Tears glistened on her thick lashes. "My abbey was not so strict as the order Sister Agnes comes from. And I was a Healer, spared from the heavier tasks because of my Calling. We went into the village regularly, even attended fairs on occasion." She offered the wine soaked bread again. Michael took another bite, his stomach gradually awakening to two days of hunger.
When he swallowed the bread and drank again as she held the cup for him, he decided to become bold. "Does Sister Agnes forbid you to speak?"
"What?" Valerian seemed genuinely startled.