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Lion's Bride

Lion's Bride

Lion s Bride 30


  “In two days we will see.”

  He glared at her. “Now.”

  She glared back at him. “Kadar said we should wait here for him, and I’ll not have my work ruined after all the bother I’ve taken with you. Try to get up, and I’ll tie your legs to this tree we’re under. Now, go back to sleep.”

  “You couldn’t do it. I’m not so weak a woman could best me.”

  “You’re so weak, a caterpillar could best you.” She could see he was not convinced, and fear rushed through her. “We’ll strike a compromise. Tomorrow, if you’re better, we’ll see if you can sit a horse.”

  “Of course I can sit a horse. I’ve ridden fifty miles with a wound through my stomach.”

  “Then you were very foolish. Someone should have stopped you. Tomorrow.”

  He stared at her in rage and frustration. “Kadar may need me.”

  “One more day won’t matter to him, and it may mean a great deal to you. You aren’t going to face murderers when you have no more strength than this. Go to sleep.” She rose to her feet. “You might as well do as I say, for you’ll have no horse. I’m going to take all of them down to the brook and groom them.” She grimaced. “And myself. I’ve not left your side since you were wounded, and I badly need a wash. I must smell as you did when you wore your sheepskin drawers.”

  His anger disappeared. “You stayed by my side for four days?”

  “You were most uncooperative. You would not wake.” She started toward the tree where the horses were tied. “But that was not your fault. The blame will lie with you if you do something stupid now.”

  “Four days?”

  She did not answer. She could feel his intent gaze on her as she gathered the reins and started down the incline. She kept her back very straight and did not look at him. She had never experienced such melting tenderness. She wanted to run to him and gather him close and tell him everything would be all right, that she would do whatever he wished. Even in their moments of passion she had not felt like this, and it frightened her. Much better to keep him at bay with harsh words than let herself flow into him and lose herself.

  “I’ll help you.” Selene was beside her, grabbing her horse’s reins. “Why did you not ask?”

  “I’ve already allowed you to do too much.” She paused. “And without thanks.”

  Selene did not look at her. “When have thanks been necessary between us? And you did not allow me to help much.”

  And denying her that service had hurt her, Thea thought. “It is not—He was hurt and I was afraid. You didn’t understand.”

  “No, I didn’t. I still don’t.” Selene’s words came haltingly. “I’ve been thinking about it, and I see no reason why you should let yourself love Lord Ware. We would be much happier off by ourselves.”

  “It’s not a question of letting myself.”

  “Fate? Magic? You never believed in it before. Have you lost your senses?”

  Perhaps she had lost her senses. She had certainly changed. “Lord Ware has a good heart. He saved my life.”

  “So? You don’t have to give it to him. Reward him in some other way.”

  Such a simple solution. “It’s not a reward. You don’t understand.”

  “You keep saying that. I do understand.” Thea could almost see Selene withdrawing into herself. “Well, go ahead. Love him. Go to him. I don’t need you. We’re all alone, anyway. We just like to pretend we aren’t.”

  “You’re not alone.” Thea lovingly touched her arm and flinched as Selene stiffened. “I’ll always be here when you need me.”

  “It won’t be the same.”

  “Don’t be stupid.” She lost patience. “Nothing is ever the same, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good. You’re my sister and my friend, and I’ll neither forget nor stop loving you. You’re the one who is pushing me away.” She grabbed Selene’s shoulders and shook her. “I won’t have it. We need each other and I won’t lose you.”

  Selene stared into her face for a moment before saying gruffly, “Perhaps you haven’t quite lost your senses. You may yet get over this madness.” She shrugged off Thea’s grasp. “I suppose I’ll wait and see.” She reached into the pocket of her gown and handed Thea a bar of soap. “I’ll tend the horses. You bathe and wash your hair.”

  “We’ll both tend the horses first,” Thea said with firmness. “We do things together.”

  “Only some things.” Selene grimaced. “For I will have nothing to do with this strange malady that’s overtaken you.”

  Ware was still awake when she returned to the camp two hours later.

  “Why?” he asked.

  “You’re supposed to be asleep.”

  “It appears I’ve done nothing but sleep for the past few days. Why did you not leave my side?”

  She tied the horses to the tree. “You needed my care.”

  “To that extent?” His eyes were fixed on her face. “That you could not leave me for even a moment?”

  “It’s one of my faults that I can do nothing halfway.” She shrugged. “But now that you’re on your way to health, I can take time to help Selene.” She added, “If you’ll be sensible and not make more work for me by trying to do too much too soon.”

  “I find it strange that you’d work so hard to save a man you hate.” He paused. “You did say you had not forgiven me?”

  “And it’s true. What you did was unforgivable.” She ran her hands through her damp hair to aid it in drying. “But you saved my life. I couldn’t let you die.”

  “Why won’t you look at me?”

  “You’re not overpleasant to look upon. You have four days’ growth on your cheeks.”

  His hand involuntarily lifted to his rough cheek. “That’s not the reason.”

  “That’s all the reason you’ll get from me.”

  He was silent a moment, watching her. He said in a low voice, “Could you not leave your hair down? I’ve not seen it unbound for a long time.”

  Since the night Selene had come to Dundragon. It seemed a century ago. She had a sudden vivid memory of writhing under him, making soft, frantic cries. His hands in her tresses holding her still as his hips drove forward, again and again, filling her, stretching her until she could—

  She quickly drew her hair over her shoulder and began to braid it.

  He said wearily, “I shouldn’t have mentioned it.” He closed his eyes. “I should have known you’d not give me that pleasure. It seemed a little thing….”

  It was not a little thing. The memory had brought to life that part of her she had buried for the last two years. She would not be able to look at him now without remembering pleasure.

  And wanting it again.

  Not now. Not until she could come to terms with this loving. Everything was happening too fast. She already felt too weak and needy; taking him into her body would only make it worse.

  He was asleep again. Dear God, his big body looked helpless lying there. No, not completely helpless. She could already see the faint signs of returning strength. Soon he would be himself again, strong, stubborn, willful, carving his way through life, sure that only his path was best. She would have to be wary every moment if she was to hold her own.

  But that moment was not now. She slowly crossed the clearing and lay down close to him, savoring his nearness. If he woke, she could use his weakness as excuse.

  She cuddled closer, and a warm sweetness flowed through her. This was good. She did not have to worry about either yielding or holding herself aloof. She could lie here and know that, for this moment, it was safe to let herself love him.

  She woke in the middle of the night to see him staring down at her with wonder.

  “Thea?”

  She was too vulnerable, too full of love. She should move away from him. She should close her eyes so that he could not see.

  She did not want to close her eyes. She wanted to keep on looking at him forever.

  “Why are you afraid?” he whispered. “I’ve been feeling your f
ear since I came back to my senses.”

  She was afraid she loved him too much, afraid she would give him everything and have nothing left for herself. She said shakily, “You’re still out of your senses, if you think I fear you. I don’t—”

  “Stop.” His finger gently touched her eyelash. “There’s something here, something I can almost see, if you’d only stop blistering me with words.”

  She did not want him to see. Not yet. She must be more sure of herself before she let him be sure of her.

  She shut her eyes. “You won’t hear me blister you with words if you don’t talk and disturb my sleep.” She could feel his gaze on her face for another moment before he settled down beside her. “Why did you lie with me?”

  “To keep you warm. You must not get a chill. I’ll leave if you like.”

  “No, stay.” Then he repeated in a low tone, “Stay, Thea.”

  Ware straightened in the saddle. “Hand me my helmet.”

  Thea shook her head. “It’s too heavy. I won’t have that metal pressing on the wound.”

  “You’d rather have my head split open by one of Sinan’s men. Hand me my helmet.”

  Thea ignored him. “Get our horses, Selene.”

  Ware shook his head. “You’ll stay here and wait until I return.”

  “We go to Maysef.” Selene returned with the horses from the trees, and Thea swung into the saddle. “I’ll not change my mind, so you might as well be silent and save your strength. You may need it to protect us.”

  She rode ahead of him up the trail.

  She heard his muttered expletive behind her.

  “I won’t be this weak forever,” he called grimly. “Enjoy it while you may.”

  She was not enjoying his helplessness, but she was taking advantage of it. He looked strong and warriorlike sitting in that saddle, but she couldn’t believe he was as well as he appeared. She would not let him go alone to that fortress where unknown dangers lurked. “If you admit to weakness, you should have the sense to take care of yourself. Since I see no sign of it, I’ll have to do it myself.” She glanced back over her shoulder to make sure Selene was out of hearing. “I believe we’ll be just as safe at Maysef as we were waiting for Kemal, but I want a promise from you.” She paused. “If there’s a choice to be made, I want you to save Selene.”

  “Instead of you?” He shook his head. “I’ll not make that promise.”

  “You must. Selene has nothing to do with this. We’ve swept her along, taken away all her choices.” She moistened her lips. “We have to keep her safe. Can’t you see that it’s not fair?”

  “I don’t care if it’s fair or not. Dammit, I cannot make that promise.” He met her gaze. “You know I cannot.”

  Darkness and fire. Torches burning, lighting the unknown. Closeness, bonding, two together.

  Shaken, she forced herself to glance away from him. “It’s not fair,” she whispered.

  “What about this has ever been fair?” He smiled bitterly. “I’ll try to keep you both alive, but don’t expect me to let you die and another live.” He spurred ahead of her. “It will not happen.”

  “Ah, I see you’ve obeyed my orders with your usual precision.”

  Thea’s glance flew up the trail. “Kadar!”

  He clucked reprovingly as he rode toward them. “Did I not tell you to stay until I came for you? And look at you, riding to beard Sinan in his den.” His gaze shifted to Ware. “I’m glad to see you recovered. I suppose this is your doing. You wished to relieve yourself of your obligation to me, so you rush to pluck me from Sinan’s stranglehold. Well, it won’t be that easy. I fear you must remain my possession a little longer.”

  “I believe I can tolerate that state,” Ware said gruffly. “You are well?”

  “I’m wonderfully fed, splendidly clothed, but spiritually barren. Sinan is all brain and no soul, which has a certain numbing affect.” He looked beyond them to Selene. “But I was most tactful with him. I didn’t wish to come back dripping blood and inconveniencing you.”

  “Very wise,” she said impassively.

  “But it took all my powers of persuasion to get him to extend an invitation to you. He didn’t think you’d prove amusing.” He turned his horse. “Though he’s found terrifying Kemal’s soldiers these last few days a very gratifying experience. Perhaps he thought he’d wrest the same pleasure from intimidating you.”

  “Kemal?” Thea asked, cutting through the chaff to the kernel of importance. “What of Kemal?”

  “He’s camped in the foothills, trying to incite his soldiers to follow him back up the mountain to gut you. It’s been most difficult when every night one of the poor fellows is found with his throat sliced from ear to ear.”

  “Your suggestion?” Ware asked.

  “Well, I judged poison to be too subtle and inconvenient for the situation.” He glanced at Thea. “But frightening Kemal away from here would have been much easier if he didn’t have such confidence in his beloved banner. He may yet convince his followers to come after us.”

  “Only a suggestion?” Selene asked suddenly.

  Kadar met her gaze with limpid innocence. “You malign me.” He changed the subject. “On no account must anyone tell Sinan of Kemal’s belief in the banner, and when you meet him, lower your head and don’t speak until he speaks. He will probably ignore you. He views women as one step above animals of the field, and I won’t have my negotiations jeopardized.”

  “I won’t lower my head, but I’ve no desire to speak to him,” Selene said. “And most men consider women as animals that exist only for their use.”

  “Oh, I believe you’ll find Sinan does not resemble anyone you’ve encountered to date,” Kadar murmured.

  Something was different about Kadar, Thea realized suddenly. On the surface he was the same, but underneath there was something…hollow. No, not hollow…dark. Oh, she wasn’t certain.

  But she could see Selene sensed something also. Her sister’s eyes were narrowed on Kadar with apprehension.

  Apprehension? Nonsense. This was Kadar, their friend. There could be nothing to fear.

  Nothing to fear. Thea repeated the words over and over as they entered the grim fortress of Maysef and rode past Sinan’s guards. The Old Man’s white-robed followers gazed at them without expression as they stopped before the austere castle that loomed grim and gray in the late-afternoon sunlight.

  The interior of the castle was equally austere, and the halls felt cold on this warm day. Imagination, she told herself as they entered the high arched hall and moved toward the robed man seated in a high-backed chair at the far end of the huge chamber.

  Power.

  Thea had to keep herself from taking a step backward as she drew closer to Sinan.

  She had expected evil, but not this sense of cold, unfathomed power. They called him Old Man of the Mountain, but his face, though lined, appeared oddly ageless, and his dark eyes shimmered with a zeal that seemed an entity in itself. She was relieved that his glance rested on her for only an instant before shifting to Ware.

  “You are here again.” Sinan’s tone was flat. “Kadar tells me you’re a great warrior, but I have grave doubts. Every time you come to my mountains, you are wounded. If one of my followers was so clumsy, he would be discarded.”

  “It’s not clumsy to be overcome by superior numbers.”

  “It’s clumsy to rush forward into a situation where you’re surrounded, as I’m told you did. You should have let the woman die.”

  “As I told you, he thought to use her to barter later,” Kadar said quickly.

  “Yes, you told me. But, then, you lie well. Almost as well as I do. You do many things well, Kadar.” His faint smile was as chilling as that impression of boundless power.

  Kadar did not seem to feel the chill. “I’ve been well taught.”

  “But many men have neither the talent nor the fortitude. They fear the darkness, you embrace it.” Sinan’s indifferent glance moved to Ware. “This one has no love
for the darkness. He has lived in the shadows, but the darkness would strangle him. I don’t know why you bother with him.”

  “He has great strength. Strength is like a beacon that draws me.” Kadar shrugged. “But we have discussed this before and we do not agree. I brought them to you, and you can see they’re not as weak as you thought. Now, what is your decision?”

  “I did not say I would make an immediate decision.” He smiled again at Kadar. “I don’t wish it to end as yet. Perhaps I can persuade you to stay here with me permanently. After all, I cannot live forever.”

  “I’m not sure of that,” Kadar said.

  Sinan’s smile broadened. “Well, they say I must die sometime. You could stay and see.” He tilted his head as if thinking. “Perhaps I’ll slaughter these weak ones and then you’ll have no reason to leave.”

  Thea tensed and took a step closer to Ware.

  “It’s a game,” Ware murmured. “Don’t be afraid.”

  If it was a game, it was a frighteningly macabre one. She had no doubt Sinan would not hesitate to kill them all if the whim took him.

  Ware took a step forward. “If you think me weak, bring forth your champion and let me do battle with him.”

  “And kill in that childish way of the Franks? Full of pomp and bravado?” Sinan’s tone was scornful. “We are masters of death here. We do not play at it.”

  “Then let me fight your way.”

  “No.” Kadar stepped forward. “This is a waste of time, Sinan. You don’t wish to see such an uneven battle.”

  “On the contrary, it might be amusing. I’ve grown a little bored of late.”

  Kadar met his gaze and said softly, “I will take two tonight.”

  Sinan’s attention was immediately diverted. “Indeed?”

  There was a strong bond between them, Thea realized incredulously. It seemed impossible that the chilling evil of the Old Man could be connected in any way to Kadar, a youth under his twentieth year, glowingly handsome and sparkling with life. Yet she could almost see the twisted cord binding them together.

  “Two?” Sinan repeated. “You challenge yourself as a man should do. That will be interesting. Then we will wait before testing this Lord Ware. Give them quarters and food, Kadar.” He rose to his feet. “Except the red-haired child. I will use her tonight.”