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Lion's Bride

Lion's Bride

Lion s Bride 2


  “He has a great anger in him and he’s not a gentle man. I admit he often takes the most direct path to reach his destination. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes also the roughest. What is your name?”

  She hesitated.

  He smiled and pushed the water skin toward her. “Drink.”

  She picked up the water skin and drank deep. The water was warm but flowed like mead down her parched throat.

  “Not too much,” Kadar warned. “It may have to last us awhile. Ware and I had a small disagreement regarding your disposition, and he can be very stubborn.”

  She lowered the water skin. “I…thank you.” She searched her memory for his name. “Kadar.”

  “It was my pleasure…” He looked at her inquiringly.

  “Thea. I am Thea of Dimas.” Panic rushed through her as she suddenly realized her basket was no longer on her back. “You took my basket,” she accused fiercely. “Where is it?”

  “On the ground in back of you. I don’t steal from women, Thea of Dimas.”

  The relief flowing through her was immediately followed by shame when she met his reproachful gaze. How foolish to feel shame for doubting a stranger.

  He tossed another leather pouch to her. “Dates and a little mutton. How long have you been without food?”

  “I ran out yesterday.” But she had limited herself to only a few bites a day since she had escaped the attack. She opened the pouch and tried not to snatch at a piece of meat. It was dried and tough, but she chewed blissfully. “You don’t wear armor. The others wore armor.”

  “Because I’m not a soldier. I regard those who battle with lance and sword as barbaric. I prefer my wits.”

  “You call this Lord Ware barbaric?”

  “On occasion. But he has known nothing but battle since he was a child, so he must be forgiven.”

  She had no intention of forgiving him when her jaw still ached from his blow. Those light-blue eyes and aura of power were imprinted on her memory as vividly as the bruise he’d inflicted.

  “He’s a Frankish knight?”

  He shook his head. “Ware is a Scot.”

  “Scot?” She had never heard that term. “From where?”

  “Scotland is a country far more barbarous than this one. It’s north of England.”

  She knew of England. In Constantinople it, too, was considered a barbarous country.

  “And was he going to battle when you came upon me?”

  “No, we’d just come from helping Conrad of Monferrai fight off Saladin’s siege of Tyre. We were on our way back to Dundragon.”

  She took another piece of meat. “Then the war is over?”

  He chuckled. “The battle is over. I doubt if this war will ever be over.”

  “Then why do you go home?”

  “Ware’s contract with Conrad ended with the siege, and Conrad didn’t wish to part with any more funds.”

  “Lord Ware battles for gold?”

  “And property.” He smiled. “He’s the strongest knight in the land, and it’s made him a very wealthy man.”

  Which was not uncommon, Thea thought. Everyone knew that many knights who had supposedly come on the great Crusades to fight a holy war had stayed to plunder and win vast properties for themselves.

  “As for myself, I’ll choose a far less dangerous way to riches.” He changed the subject. “Thea. You’re Greek?”

  She nodded.

  “And you were traveling with the caravan to Damascus?”

  She nodded again.

  “You’re very fortunate. We had heard no one escaped from Hassan’s attack. He brought over a hundred captives to the slave market at Acre and bragged he’d killed another hundred.”

  Her eyes widened. “You know him?”

  “One does not know a reptile. Ware and I are acquainted with him. There’s a difference.” He dampened a cloth and handed it to her. “Bathe your poor face. Your skin must be very sore.”

  She took the cloth and then stopped. “You said I shouldn’t waste water.”

  “I’ve changed my mind and decided to trust in my instincts. Take it.”

  The wet cloth was heavenly moist on her burned cheeks and forehead. “You’re very kind.”

  “Yes.” He gave her another sweet smile. “Very. It sometimes makes my life difficult.” He paused. “Were your parents among the slaves Hassan brought to Damascus?”

  “No.”

  “Your husband?”

  “No, I was alone.”

  His brows raised. “Odd. You’re very young.”

  She had blurted the truth without thinking. “I’m ten and seven. Many women have wed and borne children by my age.” But women did not travel without escort. It would be safer for her if everyone believed she had been orphaned during the attack. “I mean…my father was killed by that man…Hassan.”

  “Oh, is that what you mean.” He smiled. “How?”

  He did not believe her. His tone was faintly chiding.

  “I don’t want to talk about it.”

  “How cruel of me. Of course you don’t.”

  She quickly changed the subject. “And what of you? You said your father was a Frank. Have you lived here long?”

  “All my life. I grew up on the streets of Damascus. Have a little more water. Slowly.”

  She sipped from the water skin. “Yet you serve this Scot.”

  “I serve myself. We travel together.” He smiled. “He belongs to me. It’s rather like owning a tiger, but it has interesting moments.”

  She frowned in bewilderment. “Belongs to—”

  “Shh.” He suddenly tilted his head, listening. “Ah, do you hear? He’s coming.”

  She stiffened. She didn’t hear the hoofbeats, but she could feel them vibrating on the ground. “Who’s coming?”

  “Ware.” He chuckled. “I warn you, he’ll be very annoyed. He doesn’t like being thwarted.” His smile faded as he saw her expression. “You’re frightened.”

  “I’m not frightened.” She was lying. She could still see that looming giant before her. Cold. Fierce. Brutal.

  “He won’t hurt you,” Kadar said gently. “He’s only half beast. The other half is very human. Why else would he be coming back for us?”

  “I have no idea.” Shivering, she rose shakily to her feet. She did not want to confront this Ware, whom Kadar claimed was half human. She had seen too many beasts of late. “And I don’t want to stay here.” She slung the straps of her basket over her shoulders. “Will you give me water for my journey?”

  “It’s forty miles to the nearest village. You’re exhausted and weak. You would not survive.”

  The horses were coming nearer. The man on the first horse loomed large and menacing. “Give me the water skin and I’ll survive.”

  “I cannot do that.”

  “Then I’ll survive without it.” She had eaten and drunk deeply and still had a few swallows of water in her water skin. She had traveled far more than forty miles since the caravan had been attacked, and she could go another forty. She whirled and started to walk away.

  “No,” he said with great gentleness. He was suddenly beside her, grasping her arm. “I cannot let you go. I would worry about you.”

  She tried to shake off his grasp but couldn’t. Desperate, she began to pull at his fingers. “You have no right—”

  The riders were suddenly upon them, and she froze.

  Kadar stroked her arm as if she were a nervous puppy. “All is well. No one will harm you.”

  She barely heard him, her gaze fixed on the man who had reined in before them.

  “He is only half beast.”

  Mounted on the huge horse, looking like a centaur, dark and forbidding, he cast a giant shadow on the ground before him…and on her. She had the panicky feeling that if she did not move out of that shadow, she would be held captive forever.

  He did not look at her, but at Kadar. “Bring her.” His tone was crisp and stinging as the lash of a whip. “And if you don’t want me to turn
your horse loose and make you walk, you’ll wipe that smile from your face.”

  “It’s a welcoming smile. I’m always glad to see you.” He released Thea and moved toward his horse. “Dundragon?”

  “Bring her, damn you.”

  He was angry. Kadar had said he was filled with anger; nothing could be clearer or more intimidating in this moment.

  Kadar did not seem to be affected as he mounted his horse. “My horse will not bear her weight. You will have to take her.”

  She could feel the displeasure Lord Ware emitted as if it were a tidal wave. “Kadar.”

  “Well, she’s a trifle unwilling. I’m not sure I could subdue her if she struggled.”

  Ware’s icy glance shifted back to Thea. “She does not appear unwilling. I’ve never seen a more spiritless or bedraggled maid.”

  She stared at him in disbelief. Spiritless. Bedraggled. What did he expect, with all the suffering and horror she had undergone. This condemnation was the spark that exploded her rage. “I’m sure you prefer women without spirit, as do all cowards.”

  His gaze narrowed on her face. “Coward?”

  She ignored the menace in his tone. “Coward. Isn’t it cowardly to hit a woman who cannot defend herself?”

  “I have bruises on my face to prove you wrong.”

  “Good. You should expect nothing better. You ride up and let me think you’re one of those savages who killed—”

  “You gave me no chance to speak before you struck out at me.” He got down from his horse and moved toward her. “Just as you’re striking at me now with your words.” He should have looked less dangerous off the steed, but he did not. He towered over her, and she had the same sensation of power and boundless authority as at their first meeting. He glared down at her. “Be silent. I’m weary unto death, and Kadar has made sure my temper is raw.”

  She glared back at him. “Are you going to hit me again?”

  “Tempting,” he murmured. “By the saints, it’s tempting.”

  Kadar interjected quickly, “He doesn’t mean it. Come, Ware, we must get her to Dundragon. She’s weak and exhausted.”

  “Weak?” His gaze raked her defiant stance. “I think she’s stronger than you claim.”

  “I’m not going to this Dundragon.” She shifted her basket and stepped to one side to go around him. “So you need not argue as to who is to take me.”

  “And where are you going?”

  “Kadar said there was a village.”

  “Too far.”

  She didn’t answer as she started away from them.

  “Ware,” Kadar said.

  “I know. I know.” His hand fell on her shoulder, and he spun her around to face him. “You go to Dundragon. I don’t want you there, and if I had my way, I’d let you walk to Hades, but I’ve no choice. By God, I’ll not have you making more trouble for me.”

  “I do have a choice. I go nowhere with you.”

  He studied her defiant expression. “You’re a very stubborn woman.” He drew his dagger.

  She stiffened as her pulse leaped with fear. Was he going to cut her throat?

  He smiled with tigerish satisfaction. “You think I might wish to rid myself of a troublesome wench. You’re right, I do.” The dagger arced downward, piercing and ripping her water skin, then slicing through the leather cord. She stared in horror as the pouch fell to the ground and the last of her precious water spurted out onto the sand. “No!”

  He sheathed the dagger. “Now you have no choice either.” He turned away. “Throw aside that basket you’re carrying. It will be too cumbersome.”

  She stared at him in helpless fury. With one stroke he had destroyed her chance of reaching safety without him. She wanted to shout, to pound him as she had done before.

  He mounted the horse and sat waiting for her.

  He expected her to come meekly and do his bidding.

  “Throw the basket away,” he repeated.

  “Or you’ll stick your dagger in it too?” She strode forward. “I’ll go, but my basket goes also.”

  “I’ll take the basket.” Kadar quickly slipped from the saddle. “It will be my pleasure.”

  “Throw it away,” Ware said, meeting her gaze.

  He did not care if she took the basket; he just wanted to have his way. Well, he had won enough battles. “I won’t give it up.”

  “It contains such a treasure?”

  “Not what you would consider treasure. Nothing that is worth your thievery.”

  His expression changed, tightened, as if she had struck him. She heard Kadar’s inhaled breath beside her.

  “Thievery?” Ware said softly.

  A little of her anger ebbed, banished by caution. She had stirred something dark and potentially lethal. Yet she could not back down. “Kadar said Hassan was an old acquaintance. Like to like.”

  “Like to like.” His eyes half closed as he savored the words. “Yes, we do have certain similarities and interests.”

  Kadar jerked the basket from her back. “It’s growing late. We must set out, or we won’t reach Dundragon before dawn.” He grasped her arm. “I’ve reconsidered. I believe my horse will hold your weight after all.”

  “Nonsense.” Lord Ware brushed his hand aside. “We mustn’t risk doing damage to such a fine animal. I’ll take her.” He remounted his horse, leaned down, and lifted Thea before him onto the saddle. “I’ve grown accustomed to the idea now.”

  Kadar started, “I truly think that—”

  Ware touched spurs to the stallion, which lunged forward into a gallop. The other horsemen followed, and Kadar had no choice but to do the same.

  The links of chain mail were hard against Thea’s back. She felt as if she were suffocating, enclosed, bound in iron. He wanted her to feel like this, she realized angrily. She had said something that had struck deep, and he wanted to punish her. She could not give him the satisfaction of letting him know he had succeeded.

  Instead of holding herself upright, she deliberately sank back against him.

  He stiffened warily.

  Let him be uneasy. She didn’t have the strength to fight him now with anything but words. “How far is it to Dundragon?”

  “Not far.” He nodded at the mountains. “There.”

  Those mountains had seemed terribly far to her only a short time before. “I will not stay at that place.”

  “I don’t want you to stay. As soon as Kadar decides you’re well enough, you’ll be sent on your way.”

  “I’m not ill. I could go now.” Strange…the armor no longer felt uncomfortable, but smooth and sleek against her back. “And Kadar makes no decisions for me.”

  “Kadar makes decisions for everyone,” he said dryly. “As I’m sure you’ve already noted.”

  “Not for me.” She yawned. “Why should he? You’re both strangers and I know nothing about you.”

  “And we know nothing about you.”

  Thank the saints, that was true. Kadar might suspect her words about her father’s death were untrue, but surely he would not seek to disprove her story. As for Lord Ware, he wanted only to be rid of her and would not ask uncomfortable questions. “I’m Thea of Dimas.”

  She yawned again. It was odd how the pretense of comfort and confidence had become reality. He did not seem nearly as intimidating now that she could no longer see him. She was aware only of that rock-sturdy strength behind her that could keep her safe from all harm. “That’s enough for you to know.”

  “Is it?”

  She nodded drowsily. “Of course. You have…no desire to…” She trailed off as sleep claimed her.

  “There’s nothing as charming as a sleeping child.”

  Ware glanced over his shoulder to see Kadar riding behind him. He looked down at the slumbering Thea. He doubted if the thunder of Saladin’s army could awaken her from that exhausted sleep. “This particular child is dirty, odorous, and overbold,” he said.

  Kadar nodded. “But brave and determined. The brave deserve to li
ve.” He smiled. “And they also deserve kindness.”

  “Then you may give it to her.”

  “But you saved her. You were the first one to see her and decide to ride to her rescue. It’s your duty to—”

  “I have no duty. Nor shall I assume any. I’m content as I am.”

  “No, you aren’t.” Kadar nudged closer and even with him. “But I’ll persevere until you’ve reached that state. I know my duty, even if you don’t.” He looked down at Thea. “She’s only ten and seven. Did I tell you that?”

  Ware made no response.

  “And things go hard for women in this world. Particularly fair, comely women.”

  Ware did not answer.

  “What if she’s with child by one of Hassan’s men? She’s only a child herself. It’s enough to touch the heart.”

  “Your heart.”

  Kadar sighed. “I’m growing discouraged.”

  “At last.”

  “But not defeated.” He let his horse drop back to follow Ware up the narrow mountain path.

  The woman felt soft and warm and helpless in Ware’s arms. He would not look down at her. He would not feel the pity Kadar wanted of him. He would not feel anything but the emotions he chose for himself. It was a mistake taking her to Dundragon, and he would not compound it by allowing himself to soften toward her. Kadar didn’t realize how dangerous such an emotion as pity could be. Pity could make one vulnerable.

  Pity could kill them all.

  The fortress of Dundragon blazed with light. Even from a distance Thea was dazzled. Torches burned everywhere, illuminating every battlement of the grim fortress and, she discovered when they rode through the gates, the entire courtyard. Any chatelaine would have been horrified at the waste of such a display in the dead of night.

  “Too much…,” she said drowsily.

  He looked down at her.

  “Too many torches. Waste…”

  “I like light.” He smiled grimly. “I don’t regard it as waste, and I’m rich enough to indulge my fancies.” He dismounted and lifted her from the stallion. “Kadar,” he called, “come and take her.”

  “I can walk.” She took a step back. Her legs buckled.

  He muttered a curse and caught her. “Kadar!”

  “Stiff,” she murmured. “I’ll be able to walk in a moment.”