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Lion s Bride 23
“Not if Vaden decides he wants her dead. Kemal could keep her safe from everyone else, but not from Vaden.” He turned his horse. “Protect my people at Dundragon.”
“And who will protect you?” Kadar called after him. “He’s been stalking you for years, and now you wish to skewer yourself on a spit for the serving.”
Ware didn’t answer.
“You need me. I won’t have you killing yourself when your life is mine.”
“The best way to make sure he slays me is if I don’t go to him alone,” Ware said. “Three days.”
He could hear Kadar cursing with frustration as he rode toward the third mountain.
Vaden was watching him.
Ware stared into the flames of the campfire.
He was there in the darkness behind him. Ware had heard nothing, but he could feel him.
The white flag he’d speared into the ground glimmered in the darkness to the right of the campfire. The Grand Master would disregard any truce gesture and strike him down. Who knows? Vaden might do the same. He must have grown as tired of this game as Ware. No, no one on earth could be that weary.
“Are you coming or not?” His gaze never left the flames. “I don’t remember you being this timid, Vaden.”
Silence. Then an amused chuckle and the sound of footsteps behind him. “You were never subtle in your challenges, Ware. Did you think a charge of cowardice would bring me running?”
“I was planning on joining you anyway. I was merely waiting to see if you were desperate enough to set a trap for me.”
“Under a flag of truce?”
“Desperation can change a man. I’ve pushed you hard.” Vaden sat down across the fire from him. He took off his helmet and ran his hand through his tawny hair. “And, after Jedha, you’ve reason to wonder if there’s any honor left in the world.”
“You had nothing to do with Jedha.”
“How do you know?” Vaden’s dark eyes narrowed. “How can you be sure? Perhaps I was growing weary of cat and mouse and wished to stir you to action.”
“You wouldn’t do it. You’re not capable of such an act.”
“Ah, but you’re wrong. You’re judging me by your own standards. You could never have committed that depravity, but I’m fully capable of any sin. It’s merely a matter of choice with me.”
“Foolishness. Sin is always a question of choice. You wouldn’t have destroyed Jedha.”
“Have it your own way.” He held out his hands to the fire. “But, then, you always did. You could always see only one path. Right was right. Wrong was wrong. There were no shades in between. At times I envied you that blindness.”
And Ware had envied Vaden’s cleverness, the coolness, the ability to hold himself aloof even in the heat of battle. It was strange that their differences had not prevented them from becoming friends. His own hot-headedness and eagerness had been balanced by Vaden’s control and cynicism. He had never felt he entirely knew Vaden, but he’d sensed that whatever lay beyond that icy, beautiful exterior was no threat to him. Sadness rushed through him as he thought of that time that would never return. “There were no shades of right and wrong about the massacre at Jedha.” He paused. “Or about the killing of Philippe. There might have been some reason to kill Jeffrey. He had trespassed, but not Philippe.”
“The Grand Master said he knew too much.”
“He knew nothing. Even if I’d confided in him, he would never have told anyone.”
“They couldn’t be sure. He was a weak man.”
“A poor excuse. I’m not weak, but you’ll kill me for the same reason.” He added with sudden harshness, “For God’s sake, you know me. I would keep my vow.”
“Perhaps. But you always had a soft heart. If you were given the choice of another Jedha or telling what you saw in the Temple, which would you choose?”
“That wouldn’t happen.”
“Which would you choose?”
He met Vaden’s eyes across the fire. “Life, goddamn you. I’d choose life.”
“I thought as much.”
“And so would you.”
Vaden shook his head. “A tiny village or the end of our world as we know it? You know what chaos could ensue. I assure you that I wouldn’t choose your Jedha.”
“I don’t care what you say. You couldn’t do it. You’re not like them.”
“No, I’m not like them. I’m worse. They wish to kill you in the name of God. I’ll do the deed to protect myself and my place in life.” His smile faded. “I hope you believe me when I say that it’s not by my will. When I found out it was you who had fled the Temple, I wanted to throttle you. Why in heaven couldn’t you keep your curiosity in check? If I’d been there, I’d have put a sword through you before I’d have let you go down to those caves.”
“You know Jeffrey. He wanted to see what was secreted down there. If I hadn’t gone with him, he would have gone alone.”
“Christ.” Vaden shook his head. “I should have guessed. Will you never learn you can’t protect the entire world? You should have let Jeffrey run his own risks.”
“He was my friend,” Ware said simply. “My brother.”
“And so was I. So much for friendship. In our own way we’ll both be the death of you.”
“I’m not dead yet.” He lowered his gaze to the fire. “I don’t want to talk about the Temple. That’s not why I came here.”
“The woman? Did you really think Kemal could protect her from me?”
“No, that’s why I’m here.” He said haltingly, “I want to ask you to let her live. She’s not a threat. She knows nothing.”
Vaden was silent.
Ware’s voice was suddenly hoarse with intensity. “As Christ is my witness, I didn’t tell her. Let her live.”
“You care about her.”
Vaden could read him too well for Ware to make a total denial. “A woman should not die because a man has a…fondness for her. It’s not right.”
“But you might care enough about her to lie. Would you lie for her, Ware?”
“No.” It was the answer he should make, but he suddenly knew it was the wrong one. “Yes, I would lie. What are a few lies when it means she would live?” He raised his gaze to Vaden’s face. “But I’m not lying. You always said I had no guile, that you could read me without effort. Am I lying to you now?”
Vaden studied him before slowly shaking his head. “Not unless you’ve changed more than I thought possible.” He shrugged. “Grand Master de Ridfort would say the risk is too great.”
Ware tensed. “You told him about her?”
Vaden shook his head. The relief that poured through Ware didn’t last long.
“Not yet,” Vaden said. “It wasn’t necessary. Why should I trouble them when they’re occupied with trying to recapture Acre?” He shrugged. “Not that it will do any good. De Ridfort is a fool to think we can triumph over Saladin’s vast army.”
Ware didn’t give a damn about Acre. “It’s still not necessary to tell him. She’s not involved in this.”
“She’s involved with you, and that guarantees she’s as immersed as the rest of us. You should have been more careful.”
Vaden’s tone was genuinely regretful, Ware realized with a leap of hope. “Then the guilt is mine. Leave her alone.”
Vaden shook his head. “You know that’s not possible.”
“I don’t know it.” Ware tried to temper the anger in his voice. “Very well, then, at least promise me you’ll do nothing right away. Think about it. There’s no risk while she’s imprisoned at El Sunan.”
“True.” Vaden was silent, thinking. “If she remains at EI Sunan.”
“She’ll remain there. Kemal will make sure of that. I struck a bargain to guard his southern border.”
Vaden lifted a mocking brow. “A bargain with the heathen infidel?”
“If it brings me what I need. It shouldn’t surprise you. Am I not regarded as a heathen myself?”
; “It doesn’t surprise me. It was bound to happen. As I said, desperation changes a man. We left you few doors to open.” He paused. “But I find it interesting you didn’t open this one until the woman came.”
“You place undue importance on her. She’s only another responsibility.” He could see he was not convincing him. He went back to firmer ground. “She’ll stay at El Sunan. You can keep watch on her.”
Vaden didn’t answer.
“You need do nothing now.”
Vaden’s expression was unreadable. What the devil was he thinking?
Ware tried again. “I told her nothing. You said you believed me.”
Finally Vaden nodded. “I do believe you. Very well, I’ll hold my hand as long as I believe she’s no danger.” He grimaced. “God knows, I’ve no desire to kill a woman.”
Ware felt nearly light-headed with relief. Thea was safe.
Vaden’s eyes were narrowed on Ware’s face. “She means too much to you. You shouldn’t let me see your weakness. I might be tempted to use your temptress as bait.”
“Not you. You wouldn’t have the stomach for it.” He grinned. “In spite of what you say, you’re an honorable man.”
“What is honor? We both know it’s defined by most men to suit their own needs.” His flippant smile faded. “Except by you. When I first met you, I thought you were no different from the rest. Only a rough, bawdy soldier out to win riches for himself. I almost wish you were that man. It would be easier for me.”
“I was a rough, bawdy soldier. The rules of the Order were never easy for me.”
“Yet you would never have broken your vows. You were like an eager child reaching out and clasping all of us to your bosom. We were all your brothers.” He smiled sardonically. “I found it most disconcerting to be included in that affection. I kept pushing you away, but you kept coming back. I finally decided it was easier to become your friend than to go on with the battle.”
Ware suddenly smiled slyly. “Do you know what I thought of you when we first met? I thought you were the lover of some powerful monk or priest, perhaps even a cardinal.”
Vaden’s eyes widened. “You thought me a sodomite?”
“It was possible. I could think of no other reason for the Templars to break their rules to allow you entrance. It would have been a safe place for a jealous lover to send you, because everyone knows the Templars aren’t corrupted in that way.” He tilted his head in appraisal. “And you were certainly comely enough to attract anyone’s attention.”
“Thank you.” Vaden did not sound grateful. “I am not a sodomite.”
Ware’s lips twitched. He had evidently touched a sensitive spot. “It was only a first impression.”
“And a stupid judgment.” He added dryly, “But it puts an entirely new light on your persistence in welcoming me into your circle. Perhaps I was in error regarding your brotherly love for me.”
As usual, Vaden had turned the tables. He was never at a disadvantage for long. It was one of the qualities Ware had found most appealing in him. “No, you were not in error. I could not have loved a brother more.” He could have bitten his tongue. Christ, next he would be sniveling like a babe. “But, then, I was only a boy and had little discernment. I no longer intrude where I’m not wanted.”
“I didn’t say it was an intrusion.” Before he could reply, Vaden was rising to his feet. “And now I bid you good-bye. Don’t come to me in truce again. I won’t honor it.”
Ware looked back at the flames. “Yes, you will.”
“You’re still laboring under the false assumption that I’m an honorable man. It may be the death of you. I fully intend to kill you, Ware.”
“And probably will someday.” He reached out and poked at the wood with the stick. “But you’re having a good deal of trouble bestirring yourself to do it. In all this time you must have had opportunities. I know I gave you at least one.”
“I had my reasons for holding my hand.”
“And you’re a patient man.” He lifted his gaze to Vaden’s face. “But not that patient. I often wonder what you think about when you sit at your campfire at night.”
Vaden smiled mockingly. “You shouldn’t flatter yourself that you’re my only concern. It’s true you’ve been designated my primary duty, but the Grand Master makes use of my sword when he needs it. For instance, I go to battle at Acre tomorrow.”
“And when you return to your duty here?”
“I meditate. I read the scrolls of scholars.” He paused. “I wait.”
“Not a life you’d choose. I’d think you’d want to hurry and complete the task. Could it be you’re having doubts?”
“I never have doubts once I’ve set upon a course. You should remember that about me, Ware. Have you ever seen me waver?”
“I’ve never seen it. That doesn’t mean you’ve never done it.”
Vaden’s smile vanished. “I cannot waver in this. Don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m softening because I choose not to complete my mission until I see fit. I warn you, the woman will live only as long as I perceive her as no danger.”
“And you won’t live for a day after I hear you’ve killed her.”
“Ah, Ware, and you say she means nothing to you but responsibility?” Vaden shook his head. “Perhaps I was wrong. It may be the woman, not I, who will be the death of you.”
He moved out of the firelight and faded into the shadows.
Silence. Only the crackle of the wood on the fire sounded in the night air.
By the saints, he was mad. He should be filled with hatred and thoughts of revenge. Vaden was his enemy and that time of friendship was gone. When would he learn to give up those memories and realize Vaden meant what he said?
Tonight. From now on he would regard Vaden as any other enemy. To do anything else would endanger Dundragon and Thea. He must close away this sense of loss and behave with sanity.
The entire world was a barren place. To accept that Vaden was his enemy did not make the loneliness more desolate.
It only seemed to make it weigh heavier, much heavier.
Kadar visited El Sunan four times in the six months following Thea’s and Selene’s imprisonment. On the first two visits she refused to see him; on the third she saw him only long enough to order him to replenish her store of silken thread. On the fourth visit he decided it was time he was a little more aggressive and received a sharp set-down for his trouble.
“How is she?” Ware asked as Kadar rode into Dundragon’s gates on his return from that visit.
“In splendid health. In very bad temper.”
“Is Kemal treating them well?”
“Exceptionally well. Kemal is cosseting our Thea as if she were an empress.” He dismounted. “He wants nothing to happen to those magical fingers.”
Ware frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“He’s convinced himself that she’s a sorceress.”
Kadar’s lips were twitching, but he answered solemnly. “No, it’s true. He thinks she has the power to embroider spells into her cloth. He says he has proof of it.”
“I can scarce wait until you tell me what proof,” Ware said caustically.
Kadar took off his gauntlets and started across the courtyard. “Your banner. Thea gave him the banner she made for you. Kemal said every time he takes it into battle, he’s victorious. He’s had six skirmishes with bandits since you left her at El Sunan. No matter what the odds, he’s vanquished the foe.”
“Superstitious fool.” He frowned. “She gave him my banner?”
“Surely you didn’t expect her to send it to you with her fond regards?”
“No.” He knew his outraged response was out of proportion. He didn’t care about a banner he’d never even seen. But he did care that she had seen fit to slap him in the face in this manner. She could not have told him any more clearly that any feeling she had had for him was gone. Goddammit, he would not accept i
t. “It was mine.”
“And now it’s Kemal’s.”
“I want it back.”
“Back? You’ve never had it.”
He was not prepared to be reasonable. “She made it for me.”
“Are you willing to give up Thea’s haven and fight Kemal for its return? I assure you, he won’t give up his talisman without a battle.”
Of course Ware was not prepared to make such a sacrifice. “But I want it back.”
“Wait until he’s lost a few battles to prove this ‘magic’ false. Then I’ll approach him with gifts and sweet words and you’ll have your banner.”
“Did you see it?”
Kadar shook his head. “He uses it only when he rides into battle. At other times he keeps it in a special trunk with his armor.” He shook his head as he understood the direction in which Ware was going. “And I won’t steal it. I may be a magnificent thief, but I won’t risk my extremely handsome head when waiting will bring you what you want. We both know Kemal’s streak of good fortune cannot last.”
Ware knew Kadar was right. Kemal had been trained to protect a fortress against siege but did not have a warrior’s mind. The reason Ware had been able to strike a bargain with him so easily was that Kemal’s defeats were becoming too frequent and the sheikh was afraid of reproof from Saladin.
But he wanted the banner now. It belonged to him, just as she belonged—
Christ, what was he thinking? He could not have Thea, so he would take the banner and put her at risk again? This fragment of silk was not Thea and would bring only bitter memories.
No, the memories would be sweet. Thea lying next to him at night. Thea in the firelight, her brow furrowed as she looked down at the chessboard. Thea watering the mulberry tree with the sunlight on her hair.
He turned to meet Kadar’s quizzical stare. Stop thinking like a lover. Maudlin sentiment would not keep her alive. “Forget the banner. I have no need of it.”
“You are sure?”
“I’m sure.” A thought occurred to him. “No, wait. Don’t forget about it. When Kemal starts losing battles, he’ll be too vain to blame himself. He’ll fault the banner. We may have to move if he also blames Thea. Increase your visits to once every month and keep watch on the situation.”