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Lion's Bride

Lion's Bride

Lion s Bride 29


  Kemal’s men swarmed around Ware.

  Kadar grabbed Thea’s reins as she tried to ride into the fray. “No. Stay. You can do nothing.”

  “Stay? They’re killing him.” Ware was warding off most of the blows with his shield, but not all. How long could he withstand such punishment? she wondered in agony. “Do something Kadar. Or let me do something.”

  “Not yet.” Kadar’s head was tilted, listening. “I hear—It may be…” Excitement lit his face. “If he can hold them at bay…”

  Ware was holding them. His sword downed men to the right, to the left, as he wheeled and struck again and again.

  Thea jerked fiercely at the reins Kadar was holding. “Let me go to him.”

  “Listen,” Kadar insisted.

  “I hear it, too,” Selene said. “A drumming.”

  Kemal’s head was lifted, his face turned to the rocks bordering the plateau.

  “What is it?” Selene asked.

  “They’re called death drums. There’s a superstition that anyone who hears them will never live to fight another battle.”

  The throbbing of the drums echoed over the hills, ghostly, menacing.

  Thea scarcely heard them. Ware was down.

  He had been toppled from his horse at last. A man on foot was doubly vulnerable. They would cut him to pieces.

  The drums throbbed louder.

  And Kemal’s soldiers were frozen in place, their gaze on the ring of rocks that formed a ledge around the plateau.

  A white-robed figure appeared on the ledge. Another was suddenly standing a few yards from the first. The assassins flowed in a circle, silent, watching white ghouls at a death feast.

  The drums became louder, faster.

  “Yes,” Kadar murmured. “Let them hear it.”

  Kemal’s soldiers were fleeing, streaming down the mountainside in a panic.

  Thea could not believe it. Ware was safe.

  “Come back here, cowards,” Kemal shouted. “There’s nothing to fear. I have the banner.”

  Thank God they were not listening. Thea jerked her horse’s reins from Kadar’s grasp and rode toward Ware. His helmet had been knocked off in the fall, and he was on his knees, struggling to get up.

  “I have the banner,” Kemal screamed again. His face was flushed, his eyes popping with anger. His gaze flicked to the ledge, and a ripple of fear crossed his face as he realized he was alone. His frustration exploded as he wheeled on Ware. “Vile dog!”

  His sword crashed down toward Ware’s unprotected head.

  “Ware!” Thea’s scream was without voice, the horror too great for sound.

  Ware managed to deflect the point with his shield but took the broad side of the sword on his temple.

  Kemal was gone, riding over Ware and down the mountain after his men.

  Ware lay crumpled on the ground, white and still. His temple was bleeding and looked…dented.

  Thea was off her horse and beside him. “Ware.” She sank to her knees and gathered him to her breast. “You will not die. Do you hear me? I will not have it.”

  Ware’s lids opened. “Listen…Kadar.” Ware’s voice was a mere whisper. “Take—her away—from this land. Too much danger—here.”

  “He will take me nowhere.” Her arms tightened fiercely around him. “If you want me away from danger, you must live and take me yourself.”

  His gaze shifted back to her face. “Stubborn—woman…” His eyes closed and he slumped.

  Dead?

  No, she could see a faint movement of his chest beneath the armor. He lived, and she would find a way to fan that spark of life to flame. She glanced up at Kadar and demanded, “What do you know of healing?”

  “I know he is very bad and that there is nothing either of us can do.” He held up his hand as she opened her lips to protest. “It is true. With a head wound you can only wait and tend and hope he will wake. With severe blows sometimes the sleep becomes death.”

  “Don’t tell me that I can do nothing. I won’t let him die.”

  “Can you turn back the clock and prevent Kemal from striking the blow? That’s the only way you can help. The rest is not in our hands.”

  She closed her eyes as sickness swept over her. She must not give in to this weakness born of despair. She could not help Ware unless she remained strong. Her eyes flicked open. “Can we move him?”

  Kadar shook his head.

  “Then we will set up camp here.”

  “They’re gone.” Selene’s wondering gaze was fixed on the ledge where the robed figures had stood. “Where did they go?”

  “Back to the fortress. They accomplished what they came for.”

  Not in time, Thea thought. Not before Ware was struck down. “I’ll tend him, and you must make sure we’re not disturbed until he’s well.”

  “A small task,” Kadar said with irony. “I must contend only with the Old Man of the Mountain, on whose land we’re trespassing, and Kemal, who is sure he cannot be defeated as long as he carries your banner.”

  “Then take the banner away from him,” she said. “But first help me remove Ware’s armor.”

  Selene stepped forward. “I’ll help you.” She knelt beside Ware. “Together we can do it.” She fixed Kadar with a stern look. “Go about your business and let us tend to ours.”

  “Yes, my lady.” He bowed mockingly. “Should I have a favor to carry into battle?”

  “If you’re clever, you won’t have to do battle,” Selene said. “So be clever. This Sinan must bear you some affection if he took the trouble to scare off Kemal. Go see if he will help us escape Kemal. And don’t come riding back here dripping blood and begging us to help you. It’s enough to have one sick man to tend.”

  “I shall earnestly try to spare you that bother.” He moved toward his horse. “Your temperament is clearly unsuited for such tasks.”

  “Yes, it is.”

  Thea could not bear listening to them any longer. “Help me with him,” she said. “He could die while you stand here talking, Kadar. Does he mean so little to you?”

  “He belongs to me. One always cares about one’s possessions.” Kadar mounted his horse. “Naturally, I will do everything I can to preserve his life. Don’t leave this place until I return, and keep a good watch. Since I’m going to all this effort, I’d hate to have my efforts wasted.” He turned and trotted up the mountain.

  Flippancy in Kadar at this tragic moment was incomprehensible to Thea. “I don’t understand him.”

  “He’s afraid,” Selene said quietly. “I think he’s seen too much death. He armors himself against feeling deeply for anyone because he fears he will lose them. Don’t worry, he will find a way to help.”

  All the help in the world would do no good if Ware slipped away from her. But he would not slip away; she would not permit it.

  Ware did not wake that night.

  Thea sat beside him, moistening his lips and head with water. She and Selene had taken off his armor, and without that protection he looked frighteningly vulnerable. He was no longer a warrior but a man open to all harm.

  Selene came to her at dawn and knelt, gazing at Ware’s pale face. “He is no better.”

  “He might be.” Thea could hear the desperation in her own voice. “Perhaps the sleep is healing him.”

  “Perhaps,” Selene said without confidence.

  “He will wake soon.”

  “And what if he doesn’t?” Selene asked gently. “You must accept the possibility that he may die.”

  “I will not accept it.”

  “Because he gave his life for you?”

  “He didn’t give his life. He’s not going to die.”

  Selene was silent a moment, studying her. “I was a fool,” she said harshly. “All this time I believed you when you said you hated him. You love this man.”

  “Yes.” How simple to confess it now when she had not been able even to contemplate the idea before.

  “Then why did you lie to me?”

&n
bsp; “I didn’t lie to you. I didn’t know—I was afraid to love him.” She ran her hand wearily through her hair. “And he had no right to do what he did. I was angry and hurt.” She was still angry and hurt, but at this moment that meant nothing in light of the fact that Ware might die. She repeated, “I didn’t know.”

  “You should have chosen another man to love.” Selene’s hands clenched with anger. “You should have known Lord Ware would bring you pain.”

  “I didn’t want it to happen. It just…came.”

  “And now look at you. When he dies, you will grieve, and I’ll be able to do nothing about it.”

  “He’s not going to die,” Thea repeated. “Go away. I won’t have you here thinking bad thoughts.”

  “Thoughts don’t kill. Let me help you.”

  She couldn’t take the chance. She had the feeling Ware was teetering on the brink, and even a breath would cause him to fall. “I’ll take care of him myself.”

  Selene shook her head as she rose to her feet. “It’s worse than the time you made the banner. You wouldn’t let me help then either, but at least you didn’t think I’d bring death by being in the same chamber.” She shrugged and strode away. “I’ll go back and stand watch. Call me if you decide I can help.”

  She had hurt Selene, Thea realized wearily. She would have to make amends later. She supposed her sister was right. This desperation and obsessive determination were similar to what she had felt when she had been embroidering the banner. But the terror, the sickening fear, had not been present then.

  The banner.

  Asherah.

  Had Ware been struck down by God for questioning the holy teachings?

  She would not believe it. If he died, it would be because he had given his life for her. Whatever trespass he had committed, surely such a sacrifice would not be demanded of him.

  Kadar could feel the thrust of power as soon as he entered the gates. It was as strong and compelling as the throb of the ghost drums.

  Time had not weakened the Old Man.

  Sinan waited for him on the steps of his castle, a fierce smile of satisfaction curving his lips. “You came back to me. I knew you would.”

  “I came to ask for sanctuary. I will not stay.”

  “Sanctuary for those weak fools below? They would have been slaughtered if I hadn’t sent the drums.”

  “But you did send the drums.”

  “For you, not for them.”

  “Then, for me, send help to keep Kemal from attacking them again.”

  “But you are here. I have no need to keep them alive now.” He smiled coldly. “And I will make sure you soon forget them. You already feel far, far away from them, don’t you, Kadar?”

  Kadar could feel the whirlpool of power draw him deeper as Sinan exerted his will.

  He had forgotten how hard it was to resist that will. It took a moment before he was able to break free. “I will not forget them.” He paused. “And if they die, I will remember them always. Memories can be much stronger than a living presence. They tend to grow until they are in every corner of your mind and heart.” He could see Sinan did not like that idea and followed it quickly. “So why not send someone to watch over the weak ones and make sure Kemal doesn’t make them into memories?”

  Sinan stared at him with no expression. “You were always troublesome, Kadar.”

  “But you don’t permit anyone to trouble you.”

  “Nor shall I. I almost had you before. Ah, how I wanted you to stay. You were without equal. The strongest always feels the pull the most and fights it hardest.” He turned and started up the stone steps. “But I have you back now. We’ll see how much you wish to save these Franks.”

  Three days passed and still Ware did not wake.

  Thea dropped water on his tongue, but she could get no food down. How could he heal if he had no nourishment? she wondered desperately. He seemed to be growing thinner and weaker before her eyes.

  “I’m done with asking you to sleep, but you must eat.”

  Selene was beside her, holding a wooden bowl filled with stew. The stew Ware had refused to swallow. She shook her head.

  “You’ll eat it or I’ll knock you down, straddle you, and force it down your throat.” Selene’s expression was grim. “I’m out of patience. You persist in killing yourself for a dying man, and that idiot Kadar is probably lying dead somewhere on this stupid mountain. I’ll not have it.” She thrust the bowl into Thea’s hands. “Eat it and I’ll bother you no longer.”

  It was easier to obey than argue with her. Thea quickly finished the food and gave the bowl back to Selene.

  “Good.” Selene turned away and said over her shoulder, “If this is what love for a man brings to a woman, I’ll make sure I never allow myself to feel it. You’re more a slave than you ever were at the House of Nicholas.”

  It was true, Thea thought dully. She was chained to Ware in ways she had never thought possible. She felt so close to him, it was as if she were a part of every breath he drew. At times she thought if that breath stopped, she would also die.

  Terror iced through her. He must not die. She had done everything possible to keep him alive.

  But everything she had done had not been enough. God was going to take him.

  “No,” she whispered. She closed her eyes. “Give him back to me.” Why was she praying? God had not listened when she had prayed for her dying mother. She wasn’t sure God ever listened to women’s pleas. He probably regarded females as unimportant, as man did. Yet if Asherah was part of God, then there was a slim chance God might understand a woman’s desperation. She had to try. “Listen to me. This man has a good heart. He wants to live. He deserves to live. I won’t ask for any other help to save us. Just let him live, and I’ll do the rest.”

  Silence.

  What had she expected? A crash of thunder to signal a miracle?

  Her hand tightened on Ware’s.

  Live.

  No stirring, no sign of waking.

  She blinked back the tears stinging her eyes. It was stupid to feel disappointed. She had never been one to believe in miracles anyway. She had been right. God didn’t listen to women.

  An hour later she spooned a little stew from the bowl beside her and put it on his tongue.

  He swallowed it.

  She stiffened, afraid to believe it.

  She placed another spoonful on his tongue and held her breath.

  He swallowed that bite also.

  The tears she had refused to shed overflowed and ran down her cheeks.

  Not with a crash of thunder but with an act so small, it was almost imperceptible in the pattern of life.

  A miracle.

  WARE OPENED HIS EYES just before dawn.

  “Safe?” he whispered. “Are—you—safe?”

  “Quite safe.” She tried to steady her voice. In another moment she would be weeping, she realized with panic. She instinctively sought a way to prevent that indignity. “Through no help from you. First, you rush forward and try to get yourself killed, and then you delay us by remaining out of your senses for days.”

  “Should have—left without me.”

  “Yes, we should have.” She patted his head with a damp cloth. “But Kadar was too fond of you to abandon you.”

  “Kadar.” He tried to turn his head and then flinched. “Where is—”

  “Don’t move. Do you wish to do yourself more injury? Close your eyes and go back to sleep. Everything is fine.”

  His lids closed. “I seem to be able—to do nothing else. Sweet Jesus, my head…hurts.”

  “Perhaps that will teach you not to blunder forward and place yourself needlessly in harm’s way.”

  “Ungrateful…woman. I did not blunder…”

  He was asleep. But he would wake. She knew he would wake.

  She knelt there, drinking in his face as if she had not stared at it these many days. The faintest flush colored his cheeks, and his breathing was light and even.

  She lay down
beside him, not touching but close enough to be aware if he stirred.

  She was deeply asleep in less than a moment.

  “Where is Kadar?” Ware asked.

  She fought her way out of the webs of sleep and lifted herself on one elbow to look down at him.

  His voice was stronger and his eyes bright and alert. A surge of joy brought her fully awake. “You’re better. I’ll go get you something to eat.”

  “I have it here.” Selene was beside them, handing her a bowl. “I thought you two would never wake.” She studied Ware. “I believe you may live, after all.”

  “Your enthusiasm heartens me,” Ware said.

  “You betrayed us. I’m not like Thea. I don’t forgive easily.” She turned on her heel and strode away from them.

  “Then she’s very like you.” Ware grimaced. “No one forgives less freely than you.”

  “You’re right. I’ll never forgive you for taking me to El Sunan. Open your mouth.”

  “I can feed myself.”

  “Open your mouth.”

  He reluctantly obeyed her. “I feel like a babe.”

  She scooped another spoonful into his mouth. “Then eat and grow strong. Do you think I like doing this?” She did not mind. She would not have minded anything now that he had come back to her.

  “Where is Kadar?”

  She could no longer evade the question. “He went to seek help from Sinan.”

  “How long ago?”

  “Four days.”

  He muttered a curse and tried to sit up. She pushed him down. “What do you intend to do? Go riding after him when you can scarcely move? If he had been murdered by the assassins, would they not have been here in this camp by now? There’s been no sign of anyone since you were felled.”

  “Kemal?”

  She shook her head. “No one.”

  He looked down at the bits of meat in the bowl of stew. “How have you lived?”

  “Selene set traps for small game and kept watch.” She spooned the last bite into his mouth and sat back on her heels. “Are you dizzy?”

  He shook his head. “And my head aches only a trifle. I could ride right now.”