Settings
Lion's Bride

Lion's Bride

Lion s Bride 26


  Ware ignored the gibe. “We have to get that banner from Kemal.”

  “Because you want it yourself?”

  “I don’t want it. I’d be happy never to see it again.” He moistened his dry lips, trying to close out those blazing golden eyes, the flowing mane. “But we can’t let Kemal keep it.”

  “Why not?”

  “It’s not safe. Vaden may see it. It’s a miracle he hasn’t seen it already.”

  “On the contrary. Kemal has taken the banner only on little skirmishes within his own province. It would have been pure chance for Vaden to have seen it.”

  Kadar was right. He wasn’t thinking clearly. Jesus, he was surprised he could think at all. “He’ll see it if Kemal goes into battle with Saladin. All the Knights Templar will see it.”

  “And what difference will that make?”

  “It’s the lion throne.” Kadar didn’t understand. Why should he? Ware had made sure he knew nothing about the throne. Even now, when he realized he had to tell him, the words were sticking in his throat. Yet he had to have Kadar’s help to get the banner, and he couldn’t expect him to follow blindly.

  “The minute Vaden or any of the high officers of the Temple see the banner, they’ll find out who created it and send someone to kill Thea.”

  “For stitching a banner?”

  “For knowing what I saw in the caves below the Temple of Solomon.”

  Kadar shook his head. “You told her nothing.”

  “But she knew,” he whispered. “Christ, she knew. How in heaven or hell did she know about the lion throne?”

  “And what is this lion throne?”

  “It’s why Jeffrey and I went down into the caves. We’d heard tales of the throne that had been brought from Canaan. We wanted to see it.” He closed his eyes, seeing it again, reliving that moment. “It was in a small hidden room in the depths of the cave. The lion throne.”

  “And because you saw this…this throne, the Templars want to kill you. Why?”

  He would say no more. He had told Kadar too much already. “Because it was the lion throne.”

  “I grow weary of your secrets, Ware.”

  “We have to get the banner back.”

  “I think you imagine the lions in the banner form a throne. I didn’t see it.”

  “Anyone who ever saw the real throne will see it. Vaden knew about the throne. He believed me when I said she knew nothing. He won’t believe me now. He’ll consider her as much a danger as he does me. No—a greater danger, because she put the throne on a banner for all the world to see.” He murmured, “Pray God he doesn’t see it before we can manage to take the banner from Kemal.”

  “We? You expect my help?”

  Ware met his gaze. “I ask for your help. I have no right to expect it.”

  Kadar smiled. “And you tell me no more than bits and pieces about this throne of mystery. I’m tempted to withhold my help until I learn all your secrets.” He sighed. “But then you would be so beset by guilt that you’d become unbearably tedious. I’ll get your banner for you, my friend.”

  Relief rushed through Ware. “Not yet. Not until we find a way to get Thea away from El Sunan.”

  “Make up your mind. You said it was urgent we get the banner.”

  “I’ll stay and set up camp here to stand guard over El Sunan. I want you to go to Saladin’s camp and watch Kemal. If he merely meets with Saladin and then returns home, we may have time to make plans.”

  “But if I hear he’s going to do battle against the Franks with banner flying, I’m to come back here to tell you.” Kadar nodded. “I approve. I was afraid you were going to forget reason and be ruled by your emotions.”

  He couldn’t afford to give in to the fear tearing at him. He must not make any mistakes. Danger was closing in all around them, and one misjudgment might mean Thea’s death. “Don’t let Kemal know you’re in Saladin’s camp.”

  “Am I a fool?” Kadar mounted his horse. “No one sees me if I don’t wish to be seen.” He looked down at Ware. “It’s truly the same lion throne in Thea’s banner?”

  Ware nodded. “I swear it. Though God knows how she knew.”

  “I have a suggestion.” Kadar’s eyes were twinkling. “Perhaps you talk in your sleep.”

  Ware shook his head.

  “Or maybe you murmured it with the sweet words you gave to her.”

  “I gave her no sweet words.”

  “Never? No wonder she finds it hard to forgive your sins.” He turned his horse. “If you won’t admit to a loose tongue, then it must be chance. Fate does not seem to favor you, my friend.” He lifted his hand in farewell. “It’s just as well you have such a stalwart, brilliant comrade to balance the scale.”

  “Yes, it is,” Ware said simply.

  Kadar glanced over his shoulder, disconcerted. “At last you realize my worth.”

  “I’ve always realized it. I could have no truer or more valiant friend on this earth. Go with God, Kadar.”

  Kadar, for once, appeared at a loss for words. His pace as he spurred through the grove back toward the road resembled flight. His discomposure didn’t last long. “You forgot about ‘brilliant’,” he called back over his shoulder. “True, stalwart, valiant, and brilliant.”

  “Brilliant.” Moisture stung Ware’s eyes as he watched Kadar until he was out of sight. After all these years of striving to distance himself, he had deliberately drawn Kadar down into the quagmire surrounding him. Once the Templars knew about the banner, no one who had made contact with it would be allowed to live.

  Scarlet lions with slanted golden eyes.

  Power and majesty.

  Death and rebirth.

  Dear God, how had she known?

  TWO MONTHS LATER

  AUGUST 20, 1191

  ACRE

  “THE FOOL IS GOING to do it.” Vaden watched with disbelief as the soldiers drove the long line of Muslim captives outside the gates of the city. “For God’s sake, stop him.”

  “It is disrespectful to speak so of His Majesty.” Robert de Sable, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, gazed straight ahead. “Saladin has shown ill faith in the surrender negotiations. King Richard believes he must be taught a lesson.”

  “It’s not ill faith. Saladin seeks to strike a fair bargain to protect his people. Richard need only have a little more patience.”

  “His Majesty wishes to push on toward Jerusalem to liberate the holy city from that infidel.”

  “That ‘infidel’ treated his captives with utmost honor when he captured Jerusalem four years ago. He could have followed the example of butchery set by the Crusaders during the Second Crusade, but he did not.”

  Robert de Sable turned to look at him. “I find it curious you would defend him when captured Templars are never ransomed but executed immediately on his orders.”

  “A compliment. He doesn’t want his men to face us in battle again.” Vaden’s hands clenched on the stones of the battlement. “There are women and children among those captives. Speak to Richard. He thinks well of you, or he would never have persuaded the Order to accept you as Grand Master.”

  “He thinks well of me because I’m not foolish enough to interfere when I know it will do no good. He wishes to teach Saladin a lesson.”

  “The devil he does. He doesn’t want to bother with caring for captives on the way to Jerusalem.” He could tell by de Sable’s expression that his protests were to no avail. Why was he even trying?

  Because it was senseless. There should be some reason in this world. Men should not take life on a whim or because they could.

  But they did and called it glory.

  “I think it best you leave here. I will not risk you offending His Majesty.” Robert de Sable added, “The Marshalls tell me you’re a great warrior, but I’ve noticed a certain arrogance in your demeanor.”

  Vaden flung out a hand at the soldiers below and spit out, “Perhaps you’d rather I go out and join the other soldiers. I have a strong right arm. I can
sever a head from a man’s shoulders with one blow.”

  “I don’t appreciate such levity.” The Grand Master fixed him with a cool stare. “You have another mission which you’ve been neglecting since Grand Master de Ridfort’s death. Now that I’m Grand Master, that will not be tolerated. After this is over, you will return to Dundragon at once. We must bring an end to this threat.”

  Bring an end to Ware but not to the horror going on below.

  “Or perhaps your dedication to the task is wavering?”

  “I know it must be done. I will finish it.”

  “Then leave Acre to Richard.” His gaze shifted away from Vaden to the hill above Acre. “Ah, I see Saladin has heard rumors and sent some of his people to witness.”

  “The moment Saladin hears of this, no Christian hostage or captive will be safe.”

  “Saladin will be too fearful of Richard to act.”

  Did de Sable actually believe that madness?

  “What a magnificent banner,” the Grand Master murmured. “Richard would find those lions most appropriate for himself. They call him the lion-hearted, you know. I must tell him….”

  De Sable was mumbling about banners when that royal idiot was going to ignite all of Islam with this blood spill?

  “He may decide to take it for his own when he returns to France,” de Sable said. “Is that Saladin’s banner?”

  Vaden cast an impatient glance at the group of Saracens gathered on the hill. He recognized only Tariq Jallal and Kemal ben Jakara. “I’ve not heard Saladin has lions on—”

  My God, Ware, have you gone mad too?

  “Well, is it Saladin’s banner?” the Grand Master asked with impatience.

  “No. But I see Kemal ben Jakara, Sheikh of El Sunan. I suppose the banner belongs to him.” Robert de Sable clearly didn’t recognize the lion throne in the design. When he had taken power he had only been told of the throne; he would not be able to see it until Jerusalem was liberated. Christ, but any of the Grand Marshals would instantly see the danger. And they knew of the agreement between Kemal and Ware.

  “El Sunan.” Robert de Sable smiled slyly. “I’ll tell Richard. He may want to pay a call on the sheikh on his way to Jerusalem. A captured fortress has no need of banners.”

  “El Sunan isn’t on the way to Jerusalem.” He gazed at the flag with anger and frustration. The woman held captive by Kemal ben Jakara had to be responsible. My God, why had Ware permitted her to flaunt her knowledge to the world?

  Ware had told her of the lion throne. He had lied to Vaden. It should not be a shock. All the world lied, and with far less reason.

  It was a shock. He felt betrayed.

  Foolishness. Ware had told him he would lie to keep the woman alive.

  And then he had let Kemal come there waving a banner that would be her death warrant.

  “Such a banner is worth a detour.” Robert de Sable’s glance returned to the Saracen captives, and his voice harshened. “I believe they’re ready to begin. I want no protest from you. You will stand here and watch, and if you show any emotion at all, it will be approval. Do you understand?”

  Vaden watched as a soldier decapitated the first captive with one slice of his sword. Was the captive one Vaden himself had delivered to Richard? The cry of approval that went up as the blood spurted reminded him of the howl of a hungry animal. He said impassively, “Oh, yes, Grand Master, I understand perfectly.”

  A rider, coming fast.

  Ware shaded his eyes with the edge of his hand.

  Kadar.

  A chill rained through Ware as he moved out of the trees and waited for Kadar to reach him. Kadar’s pace was as forbidding as the grimness of his face.

  Kadar reined in before him. “Get them out of El Sunan. Now. Today.”

  Ware’s heart leaped. “How bad? What happened? Someone saw the banner?”

  “Saladin sent Kemal to Acre to bear witness and report back to him. It’s likely both he and the banner were seen.” He slipped from the saddle and led his horse toward the brook. “Even if that were not so, it doesn’t matter now. Kemal will kill her anyway. Have there been any horsemen before me today?”

  “No.”

  “There probably will be. As I left Saladin’s camp, I saw messengers streaming out, bound for every province of the land.” He knelt and splashed water on his face. “I doubt there will be a Christian captive left alive by the end of the week.” He lifted his head. “King Richard ordered twenty-seven hundred Muslim captives put to the sword. They were driven from the city to a field outside the gates and butchered like cattle.”

  “God.”

  “I saw no sign of any deity at Acre that day,” Kadar said. “Though I may be mistaken. After all, Richard says he’s God’s instrument in the battle to win back the Holy Land.”

  “Almost three thousand lives…” It was beyond comprehension. “Why?”

  “You’ll have to ask Richard. I could see no valid reason.” He stood up. “But I could see the danger to Thea and Selene.”

  And so could Ware. Kadar was right—Kemal might not even wait to get back to El Sunan to have Thea executed. No personal reward for himself would count against avenging the atrocity that had just been committed. Ware’s arrangement with Kemal was known to Saladin, and Kemal must erase any taint of dealing with the Franks. Even now an assassin might be on his way to El Sunan.

  “How long do you think we have?”

  “A few hours. I didn’t stop to eat or sleep, but we can’t count on Kemal to pamper himself on this journey. It’s known he bargained with a Christian, and he’ll have to prove he’s a true believer or become an outcast among his people.”

  “We’ll have to be well gone from El Sunan by nightfall, then.” Ware moved quickly toward his horse and began to saddle it. “Wipe down your horse and clean yourself. We don’t want anyone at El Sunan to suspect you had reason to ride hard.”

  “You have a plan?”

  “Yes, we’re going to ride into El Sunan and claim my property.”

  “Hardly very clever.”

  “We don’t have time for clever. We have to be gone from El Sunan before they hear about the massacre.” He tightened the cinch. “Kemal’s soldiers are accustomed to seeing you, and my arrangement with Kemal is common knowledge. We’ll tell them that Kemal and I have come to a parting of the ways and I’m releasing him from his guardianship.”

  “And hope that they’ll let you take her.”

  “Yes.”

  “And that Thea and Selene will come without argument.” Kadar shook his head. “Impossible.”

  “What’s impossible is leaving them there and doing nothing.” Ware put on his armor. “Kemal took his most trusted officers with him. Those in charge will be uneasy about making any decisions. Two men riding alone into El Sunan will not put them on guard as an army would.”

  “True. I’m feeling better already about riding into an enemy fortress.” He ran his fingers through his damp hair and began to dust off his tunic. “It should be no trouble at all plucking them from El Sunan.”

  “Do you know any of the officers who may be there?”

  “Kemal left Hallam ben Lallak, one of his captains, in charge. I’ve diced with him a few times. I’ll work my powers of persuasion while you get Selene and Thea.” He snapped his fingers. “What of Jasmine and her daughter?”

  “They’re no longer at El Sunan. I saw a wagon pass by here four days ago with them in it.”

  Kadar began to wipe down his horse. “It seems Thea has been busily making her own plans.”

  And they would not include riding off with him, Ware knew. Worse, he didn’t have time to argue with her. There was no telling when Kemal’s messenger would arrive, and seconds might count. What a shambles. Even if he managed to get Selene and Thea away from El Sunan, where would he take them? The entire countryside would be in flames after Richard’s action. If the Templars had seen the banner, not only Kemal but the Templars would be on their heels.

  He
would have to consider possibilities on the way to El Sunan. The only thing of importance now was getting Thea away from the fortress.

  The lion banner waved in the wind in taunting challenge.

  Vaden put spurs to his horse to keep Kemal’s escort in sight as they thundered toward El Sunan. It had not been easy to strike a balance between speed and caution when he wanted only to ride with reckless speed. God, he was sick of caution…and of waiting.

  I will finish it.

  If he got the chance. The Grand Marshals had seen the banner, and Vaden had watched them gather their forces after the massacre. The Templars would employ a little diplomatic maneuvering to explain to Richard why the most skilled fighting force in his army was not marching to Jerusalem in his wake, and then the Templars would ride to Dundragon. And when they didn’t find Ware there, they would seek him out elsewhere. Nothing would stop them now.

  Damn the woman. Damn that cursed banner. Ware was his prey. He would not have de Sable interfering.

  I will finish it.

  As those captives at Acre had been finished.

  Well, why not? Innocent blood was always spilled in war, and when had he ever worried about anyone but himself? Ware was no innocent. He had made a mistake, and such mistakes were not permitted in this world; they were paid for in blood. Vaden had known this moment would come since the day he had been told why Ware had fled the Temple. He could wait no longer.

  It had to be finished.

  Thea’s gaze flew to the door as it burst open.

  Ware!

  She stared at him in stunned disbelief as he strode into the chamber and slammed the door. “What do you do here?”

  “Get your cloak. Where is Selene?”

  She put her embroidery aside and stood up. “Why are you here?”

  “We’re leaving.” He glanced around the room. “Dammit, where’s your sister?”

  “I go nowhere with you.” Her hands clenched with anger as she understood. He was taking advantage of Kemal’s absence to reclaim her and destroy all her plans. “Never again.”

  “You will go.” In four strides he was there before her, glaring down at her. “We have no time for your protests. You’ll come with me, or I’ll knock you senseless and carry you out of here.”