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Lion's Bride

Lion's Bride

Lion s Bride 12

A brilliant smile lit Abdul’s face. “That is good.”

  “I don’t need any trees,” Thea protested. “They would have to be replanted immediately and would not be of any use for a few years.”

  “I want the trees.”

  “There’s no place to plant them at the castle.”

  “The green on the north side overlooking the cliff.”

  He had clearly thought about this, she realized. “But it would be wasted effort. I’ll be gone long before they even take firm root.”

  “Silk is a profitable business. Perhaps I’ll have Jasmine tend the trees and grow silk for the trade.” He smiled. “If you’ll spare us some of your valuable worms?”

  “Of course,” she said doubtfully. “And I’ll teach Jasmine how to care for them and gather the strands. You really wish this?”

  “I really wish it. Perhaps someday I’ll grow weary of crunching heads and want a more peaceful occupation. It’s not completely beyond possib—” He broke off and went still.

  “What is it?”

  His head lifted, and his gaze turned to the rocks on the hill.

  Danger. The threat vibrated from every muscle in his body. It could not have been clearer if he had spoken the word.

  “What’s wrong?”

  His gaze never left the boulders. “Get the trees.”

  “You said there was no one here.”

  “Dammit, there wasn’t anyone.”

  “Is it the same people who set fire to the village?”

  “No.”

  She impulsively reached out and put her hand on his arm. “Then why are you—”

  “Don’t touch me!” He jerked away as if she had burned him. His eyes blazed down at her. “There’s no one there. Go get those trees. Hurry.”

  She backed away from him, then turned and walked quickly down the hill with Abdul following. Before she reached the grove, five more soldiers joined Abdul. A half-dozen armored men to uproot a few trees? She glanced up the hill.

  Ware had moved away from his horse and was standing facing the boulders. Defiance. Boldness. Challenge. He had given her an armed escort, yet he was standing in full view, as if taunting whoever was on that hillside.

  Or diverting?

  “My lord said to hurry,” Abdul reminded her.

  She hesitated. Her instinct was to return to Ware, yet if there was danger of attack, wouldn’t he have ordered the men back to the castle? Perhaps it was her imagination. Perhaps there was no one on that hillside and Ware’s change of attitude was just moodiness. The argument didn’t convince her, but if she went to him without the trees, he would only send her to the grove again. The quickest way to resolve the situation was to get the mulberries and ride away from here as soon as possible.

  “Then we will hurry,” she answered. “Follow me.”

  Vaden watched the fourth tree being loaded into the wagon.

  It was the woman who guided the disposition of the trees. It had been the woman who had forced Ware’s soldiers to climb like monkeys. It has been the woman who had laughed with Ware and reached out and touched him. It did not matter that Ware had flinched away. He had become aware of Vaden by that time, and the motion had been as revealing as what had gone before.

  Ware was still standing looking up at him, protecting the woman by offering himself as target. It was a brave move, but Vaden could not make the kill today. If he missed, Ware’s soldiers would swarm over the hillside, and Vaden had no desire to die.

  Ware mounted his horse, reached down, and lifted the woman. His mailed arm encircled her, covering her chest and part of her belly. He was trying to armor the woman.

  But Vaden still had her eyes as target.

  Ware was shifting her sidewise on the saddle, burying her face against his chest.

  Clever Ware. He had always been brilliant in protecting his flank. The strategy with the woman had been unnecessary. If he couldn’t kill Ware today, he wouldn’t kill anyone else. Besides, he thought with disgust, he wasn’t the Grand Master, who murdered innocents without warning.

  But she would have to die. He had no choice.

  Ware had allowed her to come too close.

  “I CAN’T BREATHE.” Thea struggled to lift her head from Ware’s chest. “You’re smothering me.”

  “Be quiet.”

  “When you stop smashing my nose into your armor.”

  Ware’s arms tightened around her, quelling all movement. “Soon.”

  She was only hurting herself. She gave up struggling and lay still.

  They were several miles from the grove when Ware let her sit up. She drew a deep breath and smoothed the bodice of her gown. “I wonder you didn’t make me ride all the way back to Dundragon in that position. It was most uncomfortable.”

  He didn’t answer.

  She tried to turn around and look over her shoulder.

  “Be still.”

  His tone was impatient, but there was no tension. The danger was gone. “Who was it?”

  “I didn’t say anyone was there.”

  “But there was.”

  “If my men had been in danger, I would have told them. I wouldn’t have risked another Jedha.”

  She knew he was speaking the truth. She had seen the guilt that tormented him after the massacre. Yet there had been danger today.

  “There was someone on the hillside.”

  “Did you see him?”

  Him. Singular, not plural. How could one man have caused such a disturbance in Ware? “No.”

  “Neither did I.”

  Then he had heard him or sensed him. He had known. She started to argue, but she could see he was closed to her. He had made up his mind and would not yield.

  It was not yet sunset when they rode through the gates of Dundragon.

  He reined in his horse and lowered her to the ground. “Go to your chamber and rest.”

  She shook her head. “The trees must be planted at once.” She motioned to Abdul. “They’re very fragile when they’re uprooted. They could die.”

  He nodded and started to turn away.

  “Will they follow us?” she asked abruptly.

  He stopped to look at her.

  “I want to know,” she said fiercely. “You’re not being fair. It’s my life too. Will they come? Will it be like Jedha?”

  “No.”

  “How can you be sure? Who was it?”

  At first she thought he would ignore the question. “Vaden.”

  He rode his horse toward the stable.

  She doubted if she could wrest any more from him than that one word.

  But the name was vaguely familiar. Where had she heard it?

  On the battlements, the night of the massacre. The tiny campfire on the third mountain.

  Vaden…

  The last tree was not planted until well after dark.

  Would they survive? Thea wondered. The green was open to the sun and winds, and it would require great care to make sure the roots took hold. She rubbed the small of her back as she rose from the ground.

  “It is all done?” Abdul held the lantern high, surveying the row of trees.

  She nodded. “Thank you, Abdul.”

  “With these fine trees, you will not need us to go and pluck any more leaves?” he asked hopefully.

  She smothered a smile. She did not have the heart to tell him these trees would not be ready for a long time. “We have sufficient.”

  He breathed a sigh of relief. “There is no dignity in this plucking of leaves.”

  Ware had expressed the same sentiment. “Yet you didn’t object when Lord Ware told you to do it.”

  “My lord always has a good reason.” They started for the castle, the lantern lighting their way. “But I’m glad this plucking is over.”

  “I was sorry you fell from the tree.”

  He suddenly grinned. “So was I. It was not funny when it happened, but I found it very amusing with the others. Laughter is good. We needed it.”

  She was silent a moment. ?
??Did you lose someone in Jedha?”

  His smile faded. “My family was already dead, but I had friends who died that night.”

  “But you don’t blame Lord Ware?”

  He looked at her in surprise. “Why? He did not do it. These things happen in war. Our village was starving, our young men without hope, when he came to Dundragon. He fed the poor and the helpless and gave the rest of us back our honor.”

  “So you will continue to serve him?”

  He nodded, then made a rueful face. “But I hope that he asks me only to fight his wars, not climb trees.”

  She chuckled. “I don’t think he will do—”

  “My mother sent me to get you.” Tasza stood in the doorway, gazing coldly at Thea. “She said that it is foolish for you to stay out and risk the night devils bringing you the fever.”

  Abdul smiled at the girl. “But I was here to protect her from the night devils, Tasza.” He bowed to Thea. “I must go have my supper. Good night.”

  “Good night. Thank you, Abdul.” Thea smiled at him. “No more leaves, I promise.”

  He nodded and strolled down the path that led around the castle to the courtyard.

  “You had him helping you dig in the dirt,” Tasza said curtly. “You should not have done it. He is a very important man, a leader.”

  Thea smiled. “He’s already told me I have injured his dignity.”

  “It’s not funny.” She turned and moved back into the castle. “Don’t do it again.”

  Tasza was bristling with protective outrage, Thea realized. “I didn’t mean to insult your friend, Tasza.”

  “He is not my friend. Whores do not have men as friends.” A world of pain layered the sharpness of her tone.

  Thea did not know what to say. She couldn’t tell Tasza she understood. She knew little of whores or the men who used them and then condemned them. “Abdul seemed to treat you as a friend.”

  “Because he is kind…and he pities me. I’ve seen it in his face.” Her tone was suddenly fierce. “I don’t need his pity. I have such skill, I can make men weep with pleasure. Can you say the same?”

  “No.”

  “Of course not. My mother says you’re a virgin.” She paused. “Are you going to couple with Abdul?”

  Thea’s eyes widened in shock.

  “Are you?” Tasza demanded.

  Thea shook her head.

  Relief rippled over Tasza’s face, but her tone was offhand. “It’s just as well. He deserves better than a woman with no skill.”

  Tasza was jealous. Jealous and hurting and striking out in all directions. What must it be like to have to rely only on your body to find worth in a man’s eyes? Thea would not have been able to bear it. She said gently, “You’re right, I don’t have your skill.” She paused. “But you don’t have mine.”

  “Your skills and embroidery mean nothing when a man is in lust.”

  “But they can bring pleasure for a hundred years, not just for a few moments. And I can earn my bread and be dependent on no man.”

  Tasza shook her head. “A woman is always dependent on a man. They will allow nothing else.”

  “Not if we have a skill that they need.” She paused. “Men are driven by a desire for gold and power and are more likely to pay heed to what a woman demands if she can offer him one or the other. Silk can become gold. Fine embroidery is valued by all.”

  Tasza was silent a moment. “You have strange ideas.”

  “Lord Ware said he’s interested in making silk for the trade. He wished Jasmine to learn how to take care of the worms and trees.” She added with careful casualness, “I could teach you as well.”

  “Me? Worms?” She adamantly shook her head.

  “I can teach you embroidery, but after you learn the stitches, it will still take years to perfect.”

  “I didn’t say I wished to learn this skill.” Tasza paused. “But you may teach my mother. She’s no longer young, and I think she would like—” She was silent a moment. “She deserves to be treated as a woman of worth.”

  “And you do not?”

  Tasza glared at her. “You’re confusing me. I’ll talk no more about this.” She turned on her heel. “My mother said to tell you she moved Haroun to her room.”

  “She didn’t have to do that.”

  “Yes, she did. Give her no argument. She needs to pamper the boy as much as he needs the care. In a few weeks he should be well enough to go to the soldiers’ barracks.” She moved toward the door leading to the servants’ quarters. “Abdul will make sure he comes to no harm. If he’s not distracted digging in the dirt to plant your silly trees.”

  Thea shook her head as she made her way down the corridor toward the Great Hall. Why had she offered to teach the woman when she had been certain of a rebuff? She was being drawn deeper and deeper into the lives of the people here, and she could not allow it.

  But it would do no harm to try to give these women what she had herself. They were both strong and deserved something better than the life fate had doled them. She would not be able to teach them more than the rudiments before she left for Damascus, but perhaps that would be enough. She had taught herself more than she had been taught. Perhaps it would be the same with Tasza and Jasmine.

  If Tasza would let herself be taught. She seemed to resent everyone in the world but her mother.

  And Abdul.

  Well, Thea could not worry about them tonight. She must get something to eat, wash off this dirt, and go to her bed. She would sleep well tonight.

  Would Ware sleep well tonight?

  She banished the intrusive thought. She had spent enough time wondering if all was well with him. He, too, was insinuating himself into her life. No, that was the wrong word. Not “insinuate,” there was no subtlety about Ware. He was like a rock rolling down hill, crushing everything in its path.

  Like the boulders on the hillside this afternoon, the boulders that had hidden the threat he refused to discuss.

  Let him keep his secrets. Any confidences would draw her closer to him, and she wanted to be no nearer than she was bound to be by her promise to Kadar. Ware aroused too many unsettling emotions. Perhaps her vow could be kept by seeing that Ware had the means for entry into the silk trade.

  No, she thought regretfully, Kadar would not consider that the service he’d required of her. He had told her to keep Ware company. And how was she to do that? she wondered in exasperation. Was she supposed to help him train his troops or join him as he drank his way to oblivion?

  Ware was sitting at a table in the Great Hall with a large account book in front of him and a quill in his hand when she went searching for him the next afternoon.

  “I’ve come to play chess with you,” Thea announced belligerently.

  Ware frowned. “I don’t wish to play chess.”

  “Neither do I,” she said crossly. “It seems to me a foolish game with everyone stalking one another. But Kadar said you enjoyed playing, so I must play with you.”

  “It’s a very intelligent game.” He paused before adding, “But meant for men of war, not for women. They don’t have the bent of mind for such strategy. Kadar should not have attempted to teach you.”

  “Oh, shouldn’t he?” she asked with ominous softness. “Just because I think it a foolish game is no reason to believe I cannot play it.”

  “I have no time to find out.” He scowled down at the book. “Leave me. I have figuring to do, and reconciling these numbers makes me extremely bad-tempered.”

  “Dundragon has no agent?”

  He said with sarcasm, “Most Franks are willing to accept my temporary protection from the Saracens, but not the risk of allying themselves with me against the Templars. Is that not strange?”

  “What of a villager?”

  “It would take longer to teach one than to do it myself.” He dipped his quill in the inkwell. “And I hate—” He broke off and slowly lifted his head. “Kadar usually did this for me.”

  “He did?” she said caut
iously.

  “But he’s gone now.”

  She knew where this was leading. “I also hate numbers.”

  “But Kadar said you learned to do them at the House of Nicholas.” He paused. “It doesn’t seem unreasonable for you to assume this duty for him.”

  “For him?”

  “He was the one who asked service of you.”

  “I’ll play chess with you, but I’ll not do these accounts.”

  He leaned back in his chair. “Perhaps you think they’ll be too hard for you? It’s true, a woman’s mind isn’t meant for—”

  “I’m not a fool and I won’t be played for one. I won’t do your work.”

  He sighed. “It was worth a try. Then go away and leave me to them.”

  She started to turn away and then stopped. How was she to bear him company if she was not with him? “I will look at them,” she said grudgingly.

  He instantly swung the book around to face her.

  She looked at one page, then turned to another. “By all the saints, this is a hodgepodge. I cannot even read it.”

  “I was just starting to work on it. Kadar has poor penmanship.”

  She looked through a few previous entries. “Kadar also cannot add.” She glanced up and said, “And I’d wager his penmanship is remarkably like your own.”

  He gazed at her innocently. “But how can you be sure?” He rose to his feet. “Well, I must go see Abdul.”

  Like a boy going out to play, he intended to escape and leave her with this numeric nightmare. “I think not.” She went around the table and settled herself in his chair. She pointed at another chair a few yards distant. “Sit there.”

  “I have things to do.”

  “Yes, you must sit there and explain these hideous blotches that I cannot read. I’ll try to straighten the accounts, but you will bear me company.” She smiled sweetly. “As I promised Kadar.”

  He frowned. “I’m to sit here and twiddle my thumbs?”

  “Or do the accounts yourself.”

  He reluctantly sat down. “I don’t like to be still.”

  “One does what one must. Think of something else, as I did when I was a child enduring long hours at my loom.” She opened the book to the first page. This task might well last until Kadar returned, she realized crossly.