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Lion's Bride

Lion's Bride

Lion s Bride 27


  He meant it, she realized with fury. He would strike her down as he had that first night in the desert. “I see you’ve armored yourself to face an unarmed woman.”

  “You’ve never been unarmed. I’ve armored myself to keep us alive.”

  “Leave here and you’ll stay alive.”

  “But you won’t. Where’s Selene?”

  “We’re not going with you.” She took a step back. Should she turn and run toward the door leading to the hall or to the garden? The garden. Dusk would soon fall, and there were more places to hide there. “I’ll call Domo, and he’ll tell the guards that Kemal’s property has to be protected.”

  “But everyone here knows you’re my property, including Domo.”

  “And Kemal has shown them I’m to be treated with respect, my every command obeyed.”

  “Except as pertaining to your freedom. Don’t fight me, you’re going.” He glanced at the window behind her. “By all that’s holy, stop arguing, it’s getting dark.”

  She backed toward the door.

  His gaze swung to her and his hoarse voice rang with desperate sincerity. “Don’t do this to me. I don’t want to hurt you. I’m trying to keep you alive. Kemal is on his way back here to slaughter you.”

  She froze in place. “Why should I believe you? You’ve lied to me before.”

  “I don’t lie now. Look at me, listen to me.” He held her gaze. “If we’re not out of this place soon, we’ll all be dead.”

  She moistened her lips. “The banner?”

  He shook his head. “Richard butchered twenty-seven hundred Muslim captives at Acre.”

  She stared at him in shock. “No,” she whispered.

  “You know Kemal. What do you think he will do?”

  She knew what he would do. She felt a surge of wild frustration and anger. Freedom had been so close. “How much time do we have?”

  He gazed at her warily. “You believe me?”

  “You don’t lie well. If I hadn’t trusted you, I’d never have let you trick me when you brought me here.”

  He flinched. “I had no choice. I had to—” He broke off and returned to the matter at hand. “We’ve no time for talk. Kemal could be arriving here within the hour.”

  “Selene!” Thea called as she strode toward the door. “Get your cloak and the bag we packed. We’re leaving.”

  “Now?” Selene came to the door. Her eyes widened as she saw Ware. “What’s happening? Why would we—”

  “No time,” Thea said. “Hurry. Danger.”

  “The banner.” Selene sighed. “I knew it would bring us grief. I’ll be right back.” She vanished from the doorway.

  Thea opened the carved wardrobe box at the end of the bed and drew out her cloak. “Is Kadar here?”

  Ware nodded. “Trying to soothe an uneasy captain.”

  “He’ll have no problem. It’s good you left the falsehoods to him. Kadar can talk anyone into anything. He even persuaded me to forgive him.” She put on her cloak. “Since he’s busy, you’ll have to get our wagon from the stables.”

  “Wagon? We’ll take the horses Kadar said Kemal gave you, but no wagon.”

  “We’ve packed all our goods and a basket of silkworm eggs in a wagon.” She quickly folded the tapestry she had been embroidering. “We have to take it with us.”

  “No,” he said flatly.

  “You don’t know exactly when Kemal will arrive, and it will take only a few minutes longer to harness the wagon.”

  “It may be a few minutes too long.”

  “Your threatening to strike me down wasted more time than it would take you to harness the wagon. You should behave sensibly and assume I have the intelligence to realize danger when I see it. We’ll take the risk. To leave our work would be to lose these two years.” She added fiercely, “And you’ve taken too much from me already. Now, go get the wagon. We’ll meet you in the courtyard.”

  For an instant she didn’t think he’d obey her. She drew a sigh of relief as he turned with a muttered curse and strode out of the chamber.

  Selene hurried out of the chamber with their packing box. “What’s happened?”

  “Kemal is on his way here to avenge a massacre at Acre.” She moved toward the door. “No one here knows yet of the massacre. Kadar is trying to convince the captain that Lord Ware is only reclaiming his property.”

  “Where are we going?”

  “We’ll worry about that when we’re away from here.”

  “We’re taking the wagon, aren’t we?”

  “Of course.” She stuffed the tapestry into the bag. “We must display meekness and sadness as we leave.”

  “Meekness? Then they will certainly suspect something is amiss.”

  Selene was probably right. Thea had made her presence felt here, and any change of demeanor would be wrong.

  Domo was standing uneasily by the horses in the courtyard when Selene and Thea left the women’s quarters. “I do not know…You are my responsibility. Lord Kadar says that Lord Ware and my master have decided to dissolve their bargain, but perhaps Lord Ware should wait until my master returns.”

  Thea shrugged. “Your master has been very kind to me. It would please me to stay and say good-bye, but my master says I must go. It’s not for us to question.” Was that too meek? She could see by Domo’s surprised expression that it probably was. “But perhaps you could intercede for me. Speak to Lord Ware.”

  Domo’s eyes widened in alarm. “I could not. It is not my place.”

  Thea sighed. “Then I suppose I must go with him. You are right. It’s not our place to question.”

  “I did not say—” He stopped as he saw Ware driving the wagon across the courtyard with two horses tied behind. “Or perhaps I did.”

  Kadar broke away from the young captain and came toward them. “Domo, help the women into the wagon. We must leave while there’s still a little light.”

  Selene frowned. “I don’t wish to ride in the wag—” She stopped as Thea pinched her arm. Kadar was right—the sight of women riding on horseback through the gates would jar their captors, and that was to be avoided. “Oh, very well.”

  Domo said, “Perhaps you should wait until morning.”

  “Lord Ware is impatient.”

  After a moment’s hesitation Domo lifted first Thea and then Selene onto the bed of the wagon. “May Allah bless you.”

  Domo would be grateful, she knew, to have back the peaceful life he had known before Thea had disturbed his existence. He had been annoying at times but never unkind. She hoped her escape would not cause Kemal’s wrath to fall on him. “May heaven protect you also, Domo.”

  The wagon started with a lurch, then rumbled toward the front gates.

  How many times had she stood at her window and looked out at those tall gates, seething with frustration and bitterness?

  The soldiers rushed forward, the gates swung open, and they rode through.

  A wild surge of joy soared through Thea.

  Kadar rode up to the wagon and said in a low tone, “We can’t look as if we’re in too much of a hurry, so we’ll go at a moderate pace until we’re out of sight.”

  “I want to ride,” Selene said.

  “We’re all aware of that. Later.” He spurred on ahead of the wagon. “I’ll go ahead to spy out the road over the hill.”

  What awaited them over that hill? Thea tensed as she remembered how fragile was the freedom she had welcomed so joyously.

  “This wagon is too heavily loaded.” Ware’s voice was as tense as Ware felt. “We’re going to have to move fast. Is it worth your life?”

  No, but it represented two long years of her life. Disappointment washed through her. “Can we hide the wagon somewhere and come back for it?”

  “There’s a grove several miles up the road. We can hide it there.” Ware paused. “But I won’t promise we’ll come back for it. It may prove too dangerous.”

  Not for her. She would find a way to retrieve her precious silks. “Then we’
ll hide the trunks and wagon and loose the horses to return to El Sunan.”

  “I didn’t think you’d be this sensible,” he said slowly.

  “I’m not stupid. I can see that we must move quickly. I won’t risk our lives.”

  Kadar was waving from the top of the hill.

  No riders in sight.

  They had just finished hiding the trunks and wagon deep in the grove and brushing all signs of their passing away with branches when Kadar heard the hoofbeats.

  He lifted his head like one of his falcons scenting wind. “He’s coming.”

  Ware went still. Then, as he heard them too, he exploded into motion. “Take the horses and watch out for the women, Kadar.” He ran toward the road.

  Thea was right behind him.

  Dozens of torches moved in a molten stream from the north. The horsemen would be there within a few minutes.

  “What will we do?” Thea whispered.

  He drew her back into the screen of trees. “Pray that Kemal won’t decide to water the horses at the brook. He may not. It’s only a short distance to El Sunan.”

  “And if he does?”

  “Circle around the south end of the grove and hope we’re not seen.”

  She watched with horror as the fiery torches bore down on them. It would be her fault if they were captured, she thought, stricken. It had been at her insistence that they’d stopped to hide the wagon instead of abandoning it. Their lives might be forfeit because she had wanted to ensure Selene’s and her own future well-being.

  The flames came nearer.

  The hooves beat louder on the rocky ground.

  The riders were close enough now so that she could see the cloud of dust surrounding them.

  The banner.

  The golden eyes of the lions shimmered with a strange luminosity in the torchlight. Thea shivered, as if those eyes could pierce the shrubbery and see them where they hid.

  Idiocy. She was being as foolish as Kemal. This was a banner made of silk and thread and the fruit of her labor. It was fear that made her imagine anything else.

  Her glance moved to Kemal riding behind the banner. His expression was grimmer than she had ever seen it.

  The riders were only a few yards away now.

  She held her breath.

  Kemal hesitated, glanced at the grove, made a half motion as if to rein in.

  No, please. Go on.

  The flag bearer had drawn even with the trees behind which Ware and Thea were hiding.

  Shimmering golden eyes.

  Don’t stop, she prayed.

  Kemal shook his head and his spurs dug into his horse.

  The riders swept past them in a roar of thunder and a cloud of dust.

  Thea sank back against the tree, limp with relief.

  Another chance. They had been given another chance.

  “Come along.” Ware took her arm and drew her away from the road. “It’s only a reprieve. The moment Kemal reaches El Sunan and finds we’re gone, he’ll wait only to change horses before he sets out again. We have to make use of that time.”

  “And where do we go from here?” Kadar was striding toward them. “Dundragon?”

  “Where’s Selene?” Thea demanded.

  “I told her to stay and tend the horses. I wasn’t sure what I’d find here.” He asked Ware again, “Dundragon?”

  Ware shook his head. “I won’t lead Kemal or the Templars to Dundragon. Neither would hesitate to wipe it from the earth now. After Jedha, I promised my people safety.”

  “The Templars have been too cautious to strike at Dundragon before,” Thea said.

  “But that was before Kemal took the banner to Acre. They won’t wait for an easy strike now.”

  Thea frowned in puzzlement. “What matter does the banner make to the Templars?”

  Ware’s eyes narrowed on her face. “You don’t know?”

  “Would I ask if I knew?”

  “I never know what you’ll do or how you come to know things you should not. It is not—” Ware broke off and wearily shook his head. “All I know is that we cannot return to Dundragon. We’ll lead Kemal in another direction away from it.”

  “What direction?” Kadar asked. “With the entire country lusting for blood, you will be safe from the Templars and Kemal nowhere.”

  “One place may be safe from both of them.” Ware met his gaze. “With you as guide. It was before.”

  “Before?” Then Kadar gave a low whistle as comprehension dawned. “You would certainly be safe from them there. That doesn’t mean you would survive. You were within a hair of being removed from this earth before. He won’t take kindly to your trespassing again.”

  “We have no other choice. We need a haven until I can think of some other solution.” He paused. “Unless you refuse to take us.”

  “It’s not a place I’d choose. I don’t wish to be drawn back into that web.” He shrugged. “But I never refuse fate when she comes knocking. I deem it extremely discourteous.”

  “What are you talking about?” Thea asked impatiently.

  Kadar said, “It seems we’re going to visit the Old Man of the Mountain.”

  THEY TRAVELED ALL THAT NIGHT and through the next day, stopping only to rest and water the horses. Ware reined in at a clearing on a hillside at sunset. “We’ll set up camp here for the night.”

  “Is that wise?” Selene asked. “You need not stop because of Thea and me. We can go on.”

  “You stalwart women may be able to go on, but I’m far too weary.” Kadar got down from his horse and spoke to Ware. “I saw a brook a quarter mile down the hill. You can make camp while I go water the horses and stake them.”

  Ware nodded as he dismounted, then he lifted Thea from the saddle.

  “I’ll go with you.” Selene took her horse’s reins and followed Kadar down the trail.

  How could Selene retain that much strength after the past two days? Thea wondered tiredly.

  She turned to Ware and echoed Selene’s question. “Is it wise to stop?”

  “It’s wiser than killing the horses and ourselves. Kemal has to rest and eat too. We’ll leave early in the morning.”

  “We’ve not seen any sign of Kemal. Are you sure he’s following us?”

  “Oh, he’s following us. He must remove the blemish on his honor before he faces Saladin again.” He turned away. “Sit down. I’ll have fire and food ready soon.”

  She sank down onto the ground. She would not argue with him. Every muscle in her body felt bruised, and she could barely keep from collapsing. Sitting at an embroidery hoop was no training for this kind of physical punishment.

  She felt better later, after she had eaten a little, but she was still dazed with weariness.

  Selene was in little better condition, she noticed. The energy or proud pretense that had kept Selene going ebbed swiftly after she sat down before the fire. She was the first to lie down between her blankets and was asleep moments later.

  Kadar smiled. “It’s good she is asleep. She would probably insist on taking her turn at guard duty.” He stood up and stretched. “I will go first,” he told Ware. “You’ll relieve me at midnight.”

  Ware nodded.

  Thea watched as Kadar moved up the trail to a higher point that would allow him a view of the entire valley below. “He’s been very quiet on this journey. That’s unusual for Kadar.”

  “Yes.” His lips thinned. “If there had been any other way, I’d never have asked him to return to the Old Man. It’s too dangerous for him.”

  “More dangerous than for us? He told me he lived with the assassins.”

  “But he broke away from Sinan, and he told me once that he’d rather be stung by a scorpion than be drawn back into that circle.” He added, “I can’t blame him. Better a scorpion than an asp.”

  “Is that what Sinan reminds you of? A serpent?”

  He shrugged. “In his deadliness, perhaps. But one can kill a snake. I’ve often wondered if—” He shrugged. “Pay no attent
ion to me. I was ill when I stayed at Maysef, Sinan’s fortress. The fever made me imagine strange things.”

  “And when should we arrive at this serpent’s mountain?”

  “We’ll arrive at the Nosairi foothills by tomorrow evening,” Ware said. “I’m surprised you gave me no argument about going to Maysef.”

  “Of course I gave you no argument. You wouldn’t take us into a serpent’s pit if there was anything else to do. I don’t see why you persist in thinking me lacking in reason.”

  “You’re a woman. I’m not accustomed to women who think at all.”

  Thea bristled with irritation. “Perhaps you were too busy taking their bodies to notice if they did or not.”

  “That could be true.” He paused. “But my mother was not like you. She sang sweet songs and laughed and always bowed her head to my father’s will. I saw no signs of thinking in her.”

  “I’m not like your mother. Nor would I want to be.”

  “I didn’t say I wanted you to be like her. I merely told you that I wasn’t used to women who think.” He thought for a while. “I believe if you did not think, I’d miss it in you.”

  “Astonishing.”

  “But I wouldn’t miss that stinging tongue,” he said with an edge to his voice. “I’m not your enemy. You’ve no cause to cut me.”

  He was wrong. She had every cause to keep him at a distance. “I treat you like an enemy because you’ve behaved like an enemy. You’ve taken two years of my life.”

  “And given two years of service to keep you safe.”

  “You expect me to be grateful?”

  “No,” he said wearily. “I knew when I took you to El Sunan that you wouldn’t forgive me.”

  “Very wise. I will not.” She looked down into the fire. “And when we’re free of danger from Kemal, we will part. I’ll not let you put me in another prison.”

  “Kemal is the smallest danger you’re facing. The Templars will never stop hunting you now.” He broke out with sudden violence, “Christ in heaven, nobody but Vaden knew you were a danger. Why did you have to tell them?”