A warm afternoon breeze lifted Alyciane's
loose, golden hair away from her shoulders, riffling in her palfrey's
silvery mane and rattling the leaves overhead. Alyciane looked about
with eager, bright blue eyes, absorbing the familiar sights of the
forest. It felt good to be returning to the place of her childhood.
Duncan's horse galloped up to her, and he reined the stallion in, stirrup even with hers. Rhemuth's auxiliary bishop looked immensely comfortable in riding leathers, a change from the cassock Alyce usually saw her cousin in. His cap had long since been stashed in a saddlebag, allowing the wind to tousle his tonsured brown hair; in addition to his shaven crown, the half-dozen ecclesiastical knights strung out behind them served as a reminder of his rank.
Looking appreciatively at the picturesque forest all around, Duncan inhaled the fresh air deeply. He turned to Alyce. "How are you doing, milady?" he asked solicitously, shifting slightly and a little painfully in his saddle.
Alyce met his gaze candidly. "Oh, I'm all right. You forget I wandered Gwynedd for nearly a year with a mule from Saint Brigid's." She smiled, not mentioning anything to her cousin about his apparent saddle sores. "It's so good to be back home! It's all exactly as I remembered it."
"You've not been home for a long time, have you?" Duncan asked quietly.
"Over fifteen years. Oh, Father visited Saint Brigid's every once in a while, but--" she sighed. "It's such a long ways away."
Duncan was silent at that, and Alyce returned her gaze to their surroundings. The bishop still seemed a little uncomfortable around his new-found, but illegitimate, cousin. Alyce figured her parentage would be hard for any clergyman to accept. She was proud of Duncan, however; he had accepted her as a person, and not as what her parents made her.
A fluttering in the trees ahead attracted Alyce's attention. A hawk flapped its way free of the rattling leaves, flying awkwardly away with its prize--a small sparrow--clutched in its talons. Her eyes slid off of the hawk as she noticed the plume of gray smoke rising from the forest not far away. The empathic branch of her fine-tuned Deryni senses picked up extreme fear coming from the same area as the smoke.
Blue eyes bright, she turned to Duncan, who was conferring with his guard captain. She reached out to touch him on the shoulder and get his attention.
"Duncan? You see that?"
"Humph. What is it?" Duncan squinted into the distance.
"I'm not sure. Feel the fear, though? Someone's cottage might be burning down."
Her cousin nodded in agreement, and they spurred their horses to a faster pace. The episcopal knights formed up around Alyce's horse protectively, following Duncan.
They soon came upon a clearing in the forest, and Duncan pulled up his horse short at the scene in front of him. The knights obediently stopped with him, but Alyce trotted her horse up even with Duncan's. His face was deathly white; and when she saw what was before them, she stopped dead too.
In the center of the clearing stood a stake. Kindling smouldered at the feet of a dark-haired peasant man chained to it. His face was full of pure, abject terror and merasha fog. Alyce unconsciously reached for Duncan's hand as she surveyed the situation further, trying to give him a steadying presence.
A man in priestly garb stood a safe distance away from the stake, watching triumphantly, one hand covering a pectoral cross. A put-out torch dangled from his other hand. Behind him, two burly men held a ragged woman and a girl--obviously, the Deryni's family. Shackled at wrist and ankle, eyes riveted on the Deryni man at the stake, their fear shone right through the signs of a heavy dose of merasha. Most likely, they would be next.
After a moment more, Duncan tore his terrified gaze away from the tableau. "Dear, sweet Jesu," he murmured, voice thick with held-back emotions. The priest had turned to face them, full of defiance. Tongues of real flame licked up at the base of the stake now; the man's face was twisted with fear and pain, sweat dripping down his face and bare chest.
Duncan jumped off his horse, motioning his guards forward. They dismounted hastily, going to the stake and the semiconscious man chained to it. They worked to free him and put out the fire; Duncan strode to the priest. The shock on the bishop's face had been replaced with anger and a little revulsion.
The priest drew himself up. "What right have you to do such a thing? We are dealing out God's justice for the heretic Deryni."
"I believe the correct form of address for the auxiliary bishop of Rhemuth is 'Your Grace,'" Alyciane reproached, sliding off her palfrey. "I would advise you to treat him with respect."
Duncan sent his cousin silent thanks, and regally extended a gloved right hand to the now sputtering priest. He seized the hand and brushed it with his lips. Alyce noticed that he had one green eye and one gray eye. "Y-Your Grace! Forgive me, I had no idea--"
"Father," Duncan played the haughty role for all he was worth. "I see you are unaware of the changes that the last General Synod has made in Church doctrine."
Father Mismatched-Eyes pushed the charred torch that he had dropped a little further away with one foot. "My parish is isolated, as you can see, Your Grace."
"That is most unfortunate. Burning Deryni has been outlawed, Father--" Duncan paused.
"McCormick," he supplied sullenly.
"Father McCormick," Duncan continued. "And this practice has been discouraged for a long time." He paused. Alyce could tell he was shaking inside, but he did a good job of hiding it. "Do you have legitimate charges against these people?"
"They--they are Deryni, Your Grace," Father McCormick began, no longer quite so sure of himself. "They work black magic and other practices against the teachings of our Holy Church."
"And have you proof of this?" McCormick didn't answer. Duncan turned to the family that his episcopal knights had freed. They were tightly embracing, dazed but overjoyed to have been saved. The bishop motioned for them to approach and addressed the man. "Is it true that you are Deryni?"
Alyce silently applauded him. Father McCormick hadn't recognized Duncan as "the Deryni heretic McLain." Keeping that identity unknown would make it easier to help the family.
The man's eyes were wild and somewhat distant, and Alyce winced at the turmoil she sensed from his heavy dose of merasha. Experiencing the power-dampening drug was a part of every Deryni's training, but that didn't make it any easier to deal with. He managed to nod in response to Duncan's question.
The bishop already knew they were, of course, but he couldn't let on. He glanced at McCormick. "And are you guilty of heresy against the Church?"
"No, sir," he answered weakly, his wife catching him concernedly as he swayed on his feet.
"There, Father," Duncan turned sternly to the priest. "He is perfectly innocent. Now I have heard that it is very difficult for a Deryni to lie under the influence of merasha." Duncan gave him a severe look. "Given what I've found here today, can you give me one good reason why I shouldn't suspend you?"
McCormick's mismatched eyes darted around at the scene in the clearing. His two guards were surrounded by Duncan's knights--not quite taken into custody yet, but an easy task for them. The family held on to each other tightly, their backs to the stake. Duncan and Alyciane faced McCormick down, putting on their most formidable faces. At first, he drew himself up as if to protest, but then he realized he was outnumbered. He bowed his head, defeated. "No, Your Grace."
Duncan favored him with a slight nod, then turned to the commander of his guard. "Captain," he began, "take the Father and his men. I believe Bishop Fitz-Padriac is in charge of your diocese, Father?" He cast a glance at the sullen Father McCormick, then back at his captain. "Take three others from your men and escort these men to Ratharkin. I'll write His Grace a note."
Alyce moved to the young Deryni wife, who was helping her husband sit on a lichen-covered stone. Their daughter clung to her patched and torn skirts, making the job considerably more difficult.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Alyce ventured, startling the young woman. She regained her balance, rubbing her head numbly.
"Um," she began softly, her merasha distraction showing plainly, "I don't know . . ."
"It's all right." Alyce's voice was gentle. "I'm Deryni--I understand what you're going through."
The man and the woman both gave her a shocked look.
"Please," Alyce went on, "I'm trying to keep a low profile." She laid a gentle hand on the woman's shoulder. "You can call me Alana."
Take no chances, she sent simultaneously to her cousin. They'll know I'm Deryni eventually, but don't forget--I'm Alana.
She caught Duncan's silent affirmation from where he supervised his guard captain.
"I'm--I'm Cecily, my Lady," the woman replied, her hands and eyes tracking gently down her husband's bare and blistered legs. "This is William, and the little one is Katy."
William gasped and clenched his fists as Cecily hit a sore spot. Alyce bent closer and saw the nasty burns festering on his skin.
She looked up. "Duncan," she beckoned to her cousin, who began to make his way towards them. She turned back to Cecily. "Since you're making new friends today . . . the good bishop here is Sir Duncan McLain, your former duke." Their eyes grew wide. They'd heard of McLain.
"Ouch--she threw all the titles out at once." Duncan winced as Alyce favored him with a smile. "A pleasure," he added, crouching to examine William's burns. What--Alana," Alyce was the only one who caught his slight pause, "didn't tell you is that a particularly useful facet of my Deryni powers is the ability to Heal. May I?"
William and Cecily looked at each other uneasily. Alyce could sense William's wavering control as his cloudy brown eyes met Cecily's brilliant blue; her Deryni powers felt his pain, breaking through the merasha turmoil in his mind, yet his face scarcely showed it. He swallowed, blinking rapidly, then slowly nodded. Cecily tentatively returned his nod, then both looked to Duncan.
The bishop tugged off his riding gloves, blue eyes snaring Alyce's. I think I can handle getting him under, he told her in a flash of focused thought as he fished something on a chain out of his tunic--a Saint Camber medallion. Why don't you try calming Cecily and the girl, and I'll get started.
Watch that merasha! Her admonishment shot back.
"I won't quite be able to effect a complete Healing right now," Duncan explained apologetically, as he ducked his tonsured head and pulled off his Camber medal. "The full procedure requires the laying on of hands, and I'm afraid, with the merasha in you, that to do so at this time would make me of little use to you or your family." As he talked with William, letting his voice drone on, he gently set his medal to spinning by twisting the chain between thumb and forefinger. "I can help to block some of the pain, and hopefully some of the more nasty side effects of the disturbance I know you're experiencing." He grimaced sympathetically, checking William's eyes, which had immediately, if somewhat dully, tracked to Duncan's spinning medal and were now dilating as he raggedly plummeted into trance.
Alyce smiled slightly, assured that Duncan could handle William expertly. Then she went to Cecily, who sat on a nearby rock, and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder briefly. The woman started at the touch, looking up at Alyce with tear-filled blue eyes and hugging her daughter closer.
Alyce squatted in front of them, heedless of her skirts dragging in the dust. One comforting hand touched Cecily's knee, the other was on Katy's shoulder. With that con act, Alyce quickly and subtly insinuated first trust, then a calming effect into their disoriented minds. It wasn't easy; she walked a thin line between helping and hurting. Having the two calm while Duncan worked on William would help them all; however, if Alyce was pulled into the merasha turmoil in their minds, she would be of no help to any of them. She felt like she balanced on a tightrope between the two high turrets of Rhemuth Castle, defying the plunge to death like an oh-so-rare circus performer.
With her controls set, Alyce was able to delve more deeply into the helpless minds of the girl and her mother, doing her best to lessen the effects of the drug in their systems. She could do nothing for the most ravaging effect of merasha--the alarming disruption of the mind it caused--and only sleep would cure them, but she could assist them as best she could.
"Bishop McLain is a very talented Healer," she told them in a reassuring voice, trying to keep Cecily's mind, at least, off of the probe in her mind. "Your William is in very capable hands."
Cecily wiped away moisture from her watering eyes, wincing at the ruthlessness of Alyce's probe but doing her best to weather its effects, knowing Alyce was only trying to help. Katy, sitting on the ground with her ragged skirts splayed around her, hid her face in her mother's dress, but Alyce knew that was mostly shyness. It had been very dangerous for McCormick and his goons to drug a child with merasha; the drug could kill the very young, whether or not they were Deryni. As she finished her work with their minds and released them, silently Alyce thanked God that Katy seemed to be all right.
"His gift must be sure come from God," Cecily murmured, gazing at her husband, whose head was bowed, with Duncan's, in trance.
Alyce nodded her head gently. "So he believes; and such a gift could only be from His goodness," she agreed. She talked with Cecily for a few more moments, then gently took her leave of them and went to Duncan.
His eyes were closed, as were William's, but the bishop was only in a light trance as he helped William to go deep and shunt aside some of the merasha's worst effects. Alyce placed her fingers gently over Duncan's on William's temples, her fingers brushing the chain of the medal that still dangled from one of the Deryni bishop's hands, setting the silver tinkling as she easily established contact with her cousin.
I'm ready, Alyce whispered to Duncan, as she settled into a light working trance and extended her controls gently over William. Work your miracle.
She sensed his amusement, feather-light and shining softly, as he carefully let go of William's merasha-fogged mind and plunged deeper into a Healing trance, moving his hands to pass over William's legs, not quite touching the skin. She started, but managed not to lose her control, as she sensed Duncan's intent to try Healing William anyway, without his physical touch. Wordlessly he pushed away her protests and moved beyond their link as he went ever deeper into trance, calling upon his Healing powers. Fearful for her cousin, she pushed down her dissent and began careful watch over William's vital signs, insinuating a probe into Duncan's mind as well before he could stop her. If something went wrong, hopefully she would be able to pull him out before merasha overwhelmed him. Once at a certain working level of trance, he seemed to pause, waiting.
Suddenly another Presence was with them, lending an overwhelming, loving new power to the working. Alyciane had never anything quite like the mental touch now joined with them, and her awe matcher her cousin's, even if his was more accustomed. Entangled as she was in Duncan's mind as well as William's, she caught the sensation Duncan felt of ghostly hands over his, and briefly sensed the touch on her hands as well. William's injuries glowed faintly with an ethereal energy to her Deryni Sight, and Duncan reverently drew his hands along, mere hairs from the blistered skin, Healing as he went.
Finally, Alyce found her eyes locked in her Duncan's, sharing the incredulity of such a deep spiritual experience. It was then that Alyce remembered the discussion of Healing that she'd had with her cousin and her half-brother, and their deep belief that somehow Saint Camber of Culdi was present when they Healed. Recalling the otherworldly Presence that had touched them both, she could not question the truth in that statement.
Grounding themselves carefully, Duncan and Alyce then brought William mostly out of trance. Cecily, seeing movement from the previously still group, carefully approached, watching her husband worriedly even as she swayed slightly on her feet from exhaustion and drugged disorientation. Alyce beckoned the woman closer with a graceful hand as Duncan examined William.
"Is he--all right?" Cecily whispered, blue eyes bright.
Duncan glanced up at her, momentarily unsure whether he should tell her of the miracle that had just occurred. Alyce sent her impressions of the woman's faith in him, and he decided against it. His experience with the Deryni saint had restored his equilibrium after the frightening sight of the stake, and he was almost serene. "He's going to be just fine," he reassured her, turning back to William. "How are you feeling?"
William captured on of Duncan's hands and kissed it feverishly. "Truly you are sent from heaven, Your Grace," he murmured thankfully.
Smiling slightly, Duncan turned his hand within William's grasp to clasp it reassuringly, then relinquished the hand to William's wife and daughter. Alyce and Duncan withdrew to give the family some momentary privacy.
"Saint Camber?" Alyce whispered to Duncan, still a little amazed.
He blinked. "You felt it, too?" he responded quietly.
Restraining an uncommon desire to cross herself, Alyce nodded. "He--he helped you Heal, didn't he?"
Duncan's hand moved up to clutch the Saint Camber medal on its chain around his neck, which still hung outside his tunic. "I--don't really know what happens," he admitted, "but, whatever it is, I believe that Holy Saint Camber has an active interest in it."
They were quiet for a long moment, sharing reverence and awe between eyes and minds. William's call roused them.
Covering his start of surprise well, Duncan turned to them, smoothing his Camber medal. He and Alyce moved to rejoin the Deryni peasant family, smiling gently.
William swallowed nervously before continuing. "\excellency, what will become of us now?" He looked concernedly at his wife, who was cradling a whimpering Katy in her arms and singing softly. The skin around Alyce's eyes tightened in a slight wince. Merasha was tough on children. It affected all, but Katy was barely old enough to begin demonstrating Deryni powers, and had no facilities to even slightly counteract the drug's affects.
"You have your freedom," Duncan assured them. "Lady Alana and I are traveling to Ballymar. You're welcome to come with us as long as you wish."
"We wouldn't presume to impose upon you, Excellency," stammered Cecily, squinting up at them through her pain and merasha headache.
"'Tis hardly an imposition," Alyce said. "In fact, it would be a pleasure to travel with you."
William and Cecily glanced at each other a little uneasily. "Well," William finally said, taking each word slowly and carefully, "our home was in Terrace Wood." He paused, looking up at his family. "But I don't think we want to go back,"
Alyce could understand his aversion to returning. Despite Duncan's personal interest in the matter, it was likely that Father McCormick would return to his parish--and even if he didn't, he may have infected others with his prejudice. At the same time she felt a pang of sorrow. Deryni would never have been persecuted in Terrace Wood in her father were still alive. But the fact remained that Kale had died with Duke Jared, Duncan's father, at Llyndruth Meadows in the war against the Torenthi. Lacking legal heirs--Kale's wife had died without issue, and Alyciane had never been acknowledged--his lands had gone to the Crown. Obviously Terrace Wood's new baronet was not as tolerant as Kale had been.
"I'm sure my son, the Duke of Cassan," Duncan was saying, helping a woozy Cecily to her feet, "would be glad to have you in his household. Come with us," he urged.
Glancing up at Cecily and getting a careful nod, William stood on his newly-healed feet. "Your Excellency, we would be honored to travel with you and start a new life in Cassan."
Duncan smiled, his next statement expressing deeper feeling and understanding than he had probably ever shared with a stranger--even a Deryni one. "God willing, you will soon forget all this."
Story also located at the Author's website - The Gwynedd Pages
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