Sword of a Saint
Chapter 9 - Part 6
Michael pretended to pay attention to
the blacksmith, but his gaze kept roving the ward searching for some
sign of Valerian's copper hair. Where could she have taken herself? She
had been gone when he woke in the wagon the night before, and despite a
day of diligent searching he had not found her yet.
The blacksmith laid Michael's sword on his workbench with an appreciative grunt. "I've never seen such fine work, m'lord. It's beyond my skill and that's a fact. But I can certainly clean those knicks from the blade for you."
"At what charge?"
The blacksmith's teeth gleamed crooked and yellow in his blackened face as he smiled. "It's a pleasure to work on a blade as fine as this one, m'lord. I'll not take your coin for it."
That caught Michael's attention. "I've never heard of a craftsman who offered even the most minimal service free of charge."
The smith's belly laugh made both apprentices look up from the horseshoes they were pounding into shape. "You're right enough, m'lord. Not any worth paying for, at least. But you see, I'm already in debt to whoever it was caused all that mayhem in Caerrorie near a month back. My son, his wife and his family escaped that cursed place the day the inn burned and joined me here." He jerked a huge thumb toward his apprentices. "That fellow with all the hair be my grandson.
"Now, as I can't say who the good fellow was that did us that favor, I'll repay my debt by tending to your blades." The blacksmith's broad wink turned his face into a collection of bronzed wrinkles. "I served the former Earl of Culdi more than once, and right pleased with my work he was."
"Ye there, lad!" Lord Gregory's booming shout echoed through the yard. "Stay where ye are!"
Michael tried not to laugh as he watched the portly knight dash toward him, dodging people and livestock, his face red and glistening with sweat.
"I've been looking the length of the place for ye." Lord Gregory's voice came in short gasps when he finally reached Michael. "Should have known ye'd find yer way here. Getting' old I am."
"Now you've found me."
Lord Gregory nodded and wiped the sweat from his face with the end of his plaid. "I wanted to ask if ye'd had a look at that mare of mine. She's a beauty, isn't she." His words were not a question.
Michael nodded, even though he had not so much as glanced at the stables. His attention still stretched around the courtyard. Valerian had to be somewhere, and he meant to find her before he left.
"Good, good." Apparently Lord Gregory did not question his gesture. "She should be coming into her season in another month or so. Will ye be back our way then?"
"Of course." It should be easy enough to swing through Trevalga. A small concession to please the old man.
Lord Gregory chuckled, clearly pleased. "It'll be well worth yer while. The colt she'll throw from that stallion of yers . . . But that wasn't why I was lookin' for ye. We've had word from the Haven this morning."
A jolt of alarm cleared Michael's mind of all other matters. "What's happened? Have they been found?" Surely not. Whatever he might think of Joram MacRorie, the man was a more than competent commander.
"No, lad. Nothing like that. It's worse." Lord Gregory drew a deep breath and
continued, looking more sober as he spoke. "That bastard MacInnis burned the church in Caerrorie. The homes of the village elders, too."
"How many killed?" Michael immediately reviewed the route in his mind. He would strike swiftly and as hard as he could. MacInnis would never again doubt his ability to retaliate for whatever madness was begun.
"Eight or ten, so Ansel thought. He didn't go down while the fires were burning, and Joram would not let Teig try to help anyone who might have survived. Joram thought it was likely a trap. Thanks be to God nobody was in the church." Lord Gregory signed the cross quickly, almost as an afterthought.
"We'll be gone at first light."
"And we'll be with you!" The youth with the shaggy brown hair spoke quietly, but his voice held the steel of an adult who had seen too much.
Michael realized the work in the blacksmith shop had stopped. The smith and his apprentices stood just behind him. Clearly they had heard the news from Lord Gregory, and just as clearly it affected them far more deeply.
Tears streaked the blacksmith's soot caked cheeks. "Your sword will be ready by dark, m'lord. And any of your other blades that you want sharpened, bring them by."
Both apprentices squared their shoulders and braced their legs. The brown haired youth spoke again, firmly. "We're going with you. It's our friends were killed."
Lord Gregory and the blacksmith both scowled. Michael managed to speak first.
"Have either of you ever killed anyone?"
Both youths shook their heads. The blacksmith's grandson found his voice first. "I can learn. We both can."
"No, you can't. You can't ever learn to like how it feels when you have a man's guts on the end of your blade. If you're lucky you take him through the heart, and he shudders and pukes up blood all over you. Otherwise you hear him scream louder than that forge at its' worst. You wear the smell of his blood and bowels. He'll clutch at you, trying to hold his own guts in. Or maybe he'll still try his best to kill you with what last moments are left to him. Either way you feel his hatred, his terror, his agony all tied to you through the blade in your hand."
Both of the apprentices looked like they would faint. Michael drove his point home. "Can you get used to knowing that every night you may not see the sun rise? To watching your life spill out over some Custodes' blade, or choking on the end of a rope? Have you ever watched a body writhe in flames, knowing that that's the way you might end up if you're lucky enough to survive the battle that takes your freedom?"
One apprentice shook his head. The blacksmith's son, however, looked as if he clung to the dream of heroism.
Michael ran his hand over the exposed blade of the knife in his belt as he stared the lad down. Warm blood trickled from the slight cut on one finger. He crushed his hand into a fist as he extended it toward the lad, letting the blood coat his palm.
"Then welcome to the family, lad."
The youth gaped at the bloody hand Michael offered. He staggered back, shaking his head, his cheeks pale.
"Back to work, you lazy louts!" The blacksmith shoved both his apprentices toward the forge, which was rapidly cooling without attention. He nodded solemnly to Michael. "Thank you, m'lord. It would have killed his mother to see the boy go."
Michael nodded, unable to answer the man's gratitude. He wondered, as he turned to meet Lord Gregory's wide eyes, where his words had come from. A month past he would have simply denied the lads the chance to ride with him. He did not need inexperienced fools endangering the good men he led.
So why should he seek to discourage them from striking out on their own?
Even as his mind puzzled the question, his heart knew the answer. Valerian saw the image he had described in him. No wonder she thought him a monster.
Lord Gregory smothered a soft cough with one hand. "If ye'll listen to a bit of advice, lad, MacInnis will be waitin' for ye with all he has."
That was true enough. Michael nodded, already forming new plans. "I can strike the Great Lords anywhere. Better if I strike just behind his back."
Lord Gregory's grin widened. "Lad, may God forgive me but I admire yer balls. Where are ye thinking of?"
"The less said the better for all. And if I'm to leave before first light I need to organize my folk." Michael cast one more glance at the yard, but with no success.
Lord Gregory nodded. "Ye might check the church, lad."
Michael froze, surprise momentarily halting his search. When he turned to the older man, Lord Gregory wore a knowing smile that spoke of experience.
"My late wife was much the same. If she wasn't to be found, I'd look in the chapel. No doubt she was kneeling there, lighting a candle and praying over some foolishness she knew I'd done, suspected I'd done or feared I'd do."
Michael nodded his thanks and headed directly for the small church that served both the castle and village. He closed the door behind him and paused, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light.