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Lion's Bride

Lion's Bride

Lion s Bride 34


  “Affection? I’ve seen no signs of affection.” Never the-less, his arms tightened around her as he rode back into the center of the confusion. The next few minutes he devoted to giving orders regarding the securing of prisoners and receiving reports on the wounded.

  “You look as if you’ve been fighting hand to hand, Thea,” Kadar said as he rode toward them. “May I say you don’t look at all well bathed in blood?” Then he added, “I suppose I should have known you’d follow me.”

  “If you knew it, why didn’t you stop her?” Ware asked grimly.

  “One can only do so much.” Kadar changed the subject. “What do we do with the prisoners?”

  “Take their horses and set them free,” Ware said. “With Kemal dead they’ll give us no trouble.”

  “Kemal is dead?”

  Thea could see no sign of anything but surprise in Kadar’s expression. But, then, Kadar was expert at disguising his emotions. “And the banner is gone,” she said. “I thought you had killed him.”

  Kadar shook his head. “Perhaps one of his men grew impatient with his stubbornness in remaining here and decided to save his life and take Kemal’s.” He smiled teasingly. “Or it could be that your banner grew weary of being used by such an unpleasant man and worked its magic on him.”

  She met his gaze. “Or it could be that you don’t wish to get into Selene’s bad graces if she finds out you broke your word to her.”

  “Yes, that’s a possibility also.” He gazed at her innocently. “We shall never know, shall we? Unless we discover the banner in one of the prisoner’s possession.” He turned to Ware. “I feel obligated to clear my name of this crime by conducting the search myself.”

  And so be in a position to make sure the banner is conveniently discovered, Thea thought.

  “It doesn’t matter who killed Kemal,” Ware said impatiently. “We have to go back to Maysef and get Selene. We need to leave this place by dawn tomorrow. I barely avoided one of Saladin’s troops on the way here. Every minute we waste makes the journey more dangerous.”

  “If Sinan decides he wishes us to go,” Kadar said. “He may be quite peevish that we’ve robbed him of his amusement at watching us kill each other.”

  Dear heaven, she was weary of facing a new danger every time she turned around. “Will you be able to convince him?”

  He shrugged. “Perhaps Sinan can be persuaded that our leaving will be to his advantage, but it may require a bargain Selene has forbidden me.” He changed the subject. “Don’t take your soldiers to Maysef. Sinan would make sure they never entered any gates but those of hell.”

  “I had every intention of leaving them camped here,” Ware said. “We may need rescue.”

  “Pray that we don’t require rescue. I assure you the soldiers would be no help.” Kadar turned his horse. “I’ll go ahead and talk to Sinan. Give me a few hours alone with him.”

  Sinan stood waiting on the steps as Kadar rode into the courtyard. Kadar was reminded of the night he had first come to the fortress.

  He rode up to the steps and stopped before Sinan.

  “You know why I’m here. We’ve removed Kemal from our path. Is it your will that we leave?”

  “It is not my will. You know what I wish of you.”

  “I cannot walk your path.”

  “You’re wrong, no one can walk it better. You just will not.” Sinan said harshly, “These foreigners have swayed you with their soft words. I will not have it.”

  “When have I ever been swayed by a will other than my own?” He paused. “Even yours, Sinan. Is that not why you wish me to stay?”

  “You will stay.”

  “Only in death.”

  A flicker of expression crossed Sinan’s face. “You will yield before I have to kill you. You embrace life with too much pleasure.”

  “But the first lesson you teach is that death is never to be feared. Not our own and not the ones we cause. You say I’m a reflection of you. When you look into your mirror, do you see a fear of death?”

  Sinan’s gaze held his. “You mean this,” he said slowly.

  “I mean it.” He smiled. “But death should never be wasted. Particularly of one you value. So why not make me pay a price of passage and let us go?”

  “A price of passage,” Sinan repeated slowly.

  Kadar was careful to keep any hint of fear from his thoughts or expression. Sinan fed on fear, and Kadar had seen many instances of the Old Man’s uncanny perception.

  “Get down. We will talk about it.” Sinan turned on his heel and started up the steps. He glanced back over his shoulder, and his smile breathed of malice. “On consideration, there may be a price only you can pay.”

  The courtyard was deserted except for the usual white-robed guards.

  “I don’t like this,” Thea said uneasily. She had felt sure Kadar would meet them when they rode through the gates. He had known they would be anxious regarding his interview with Sinan. She got down from her horse and moved toward the watering trough. Anxious or not, she must wash the blood from her face and hands before Selene saw her. “Where could he be?”

  “In the stable.” Kadar smiled as he strolled toward them across the courtyard. “I was helping Selene saddle her horse. I decided we should not wait until dawn to ride out of this hospitable place. It’s always more pleasant to travel in the cool of the evening.”

  “Your talk did not go well?” Ware asked.

  “If it hadn’t gone well, we would not be alive at this happy moment. I just wish to be gone from here before Sinan decides to ask more of me.”

  “What did he ask?”

  “Enough.” Kadar changed the subject. “But I fared better in our bargain than I thought possible. How fortunate that you have such a brilliant negotiator in me. We not only have our freedom, but a ship and a crew to sail it.”

  “What?”

  “I see you understand the importance of such a coup. No one who is not mad would try to seize a ship belonging to the Old Man of the Mountain. Sinan is sending a message to Hafir, to Ali Balkir, the captain of the Dark Star, requesting that he place himself at your disposal. He will take us to Scotland and then return to report to Sinan.”

  “Report what?” Thea asked.

  “Where he left us.” He held up his hand as Ware started to protest. “Don’t worry, no torture would ever make Sinan’s followers reveal something he didn’t want them to tell.”

  “But Sinan would know.”

  “You fear he’ll tell the Knights Templar?” He shook his head. “Why should he? He hates them. He wants to know only where he can put his hand on me if I fail in the task to which he set me.”

  “And what task—”

  “It’s better you do not know.” Kadar’s tone became flippant. “I should think you’d have learned by now how dangerous other people’s secrets can be.”

  “You do this for us,” Ware said. “That makes it my secret.”

  “It’s no use questioning him,” Selene said as she led Kadar’s and her own horse out of the stable. “He’s probably promised Sinan some foul or impossible deed, but he won’t tell.” She added grimly, “Right now.”

  But Selene’s chances of extracting that information from Kadar were better than anyone else’s, Thea thought.

  “May we leave now and discuss my concerns later?” Kadar swung into the saddle. “We need to be gone from here. Your army should be out of the foothills by evening if we don’t wish to make Sinan impatient.”

  “A ship,” Ware murmured. “An entire ship.” His brow was furrowed in thought as he rode after Kadar through the gates. “It could be…”

  “What is it? What are you thinking?” Thea asked.

  “Dundragon.” Excitement illuminated his face. “I was worried about my people there. I planned on sending Abdul and the army back with orders to distribute money and find a place for them. But now I don’t have to do that. I can take them to Scotland with me, can’t I?”

  She should have known, Thea t
hought, her throat tightening with emotion. Ware would never abandon any burden he had willingly assumed. He would protect his world even if he had to take it with him. “Yes, you can bring them.” She swallowed and tried to steady her voice. “Providing they wish to come. You can’t just whisk them on board the ship. Abdul will have to give each person a choice.”

  Ware frowned. “It wouldn’t be safe to tell them where we go.”

  “No, so they must make the choice blindly. They may decide to stay here, where all is familiar.” She could see he was about to rebel. “I know you wish only to keep them safe, but I’ll have no one in this new land who obeys blindly. Only slaves act without free will. They will choose. Do you understand?”

  She didn’t think he was going to agree, but then he nodded jerkily.

  She breathed a sigh of relief.

  They had almost reached the camp when he murmured, “But I’ll tell Abdul to make sure they know what a wondrous, free life they’ll lead if they go with me.”

  “How can you promise—” She shook her head and gave up the battle. He was impossible.

  An utterly impossible, stubborn, gloriously splendid man.

  WHEN THEY REACHED THE CAMP, Ware moved with speed to divide his army. He sent one division under Abdul’s command back to Dundragon, and he took the other under his command. They broke camp and galloped away from Sinan’s mountain as the first weak streaks of dawn streamed through the clouds.

  “I leave you here,” Kadar announced when they were safely out of the Nosarai mountains.

  “What?” Ware asked, startled. “You’re not going with us to Scotland?”

  “Of course I’m going. It’s clear you cannot do without me.” Kadar put spurs to his horse and said over his shoulder, “I’ll join you in eight days’ time at Hafir. Don’t sail without me.”

  “But where are you going?” Thea asked.

  “I have a task to complete.”

  “No,” Selene shouted after him. “Come back. I won’t have it.”

  Kadar waved. “Eight days.”

  Ware grabbed Selene’s reins as she tried to ride after him. “You can’t follow him.”

  “He’s going about that evil man’s business,” Selene said. “And he does it for us. I’ll not let—”

  “You can’t stop him. Do you think I wouldn’t try? He’ll only slip away later,” Ware said. “Kadar always keeps his promises. He said he’d come back to us.”

  “He shouldn’t do it.” Selene’s voice was agonized, her gaze on Kadar’s rapidly vanishing figure. “You don’t understand. It…damages him.”

  “In eight days he’ll be with us,” Thea said, trying to comfort when there was no comfort to be had. She was as terrified as Selene. “He’ll come to Hafir.”

  If he was still alive.

  “What is it?” Thea edged her horse closer to Ware. It was the third time in the past hour he had reined in and looked back over his shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

  “Nothing.”

  “Don’t tell me nothing. I won’t have it.”

  “Vaden.”

  She inhaled sharply. “Did you see him?”

  He shook his head. “But I feel him.”

  “You set a man to watch our rear. He’s not reported any riders.”

  “He would see an army, he wouldn’t see Vaden.”

  “Then he may not be there. You cannot know.”

  “I know. He’s been watching me so long, sometimes I feel as if he’s a part of me.”

  She moistened her lips. “And what if he is following us? He’d be mad to attack. One man against so large a force. He’s never taken a chance before.”

  “We’ve never been this close to escaping before. He must know by now that we’re heading for Hafir. By tomorrow we’ll be under Sinan’s jurisdiction again, and even Vaden would have trouble getting to us there.” He put spurs to his horse. “I don’t think he’ll wait. Let’s get out of these woods before dark.”

  Dark was already falling, and in the dimness trees loomed on either side of the path, shadowy ghost figures hovering over them.

  Like the shadow that was Vaden.

  Thea muttered an imprecation and followed Ware. “Come along, Selene. Hurry.”

  “What’s wrong?” Selene asked as she came abreast of her.

  What could she say? A threat that could not be seen, only felt? Yet Thea could not discount the danger when she remembered how Ware had sensed Vaden that day at the mulberry grove. Oh, she didn’t know. Perhaps in some mystical way the two men were joined. “I’m not sure. Ware doesn’t like these woods.”

  “I don’t either, but it’s less rough than those mountain trails.” Selene stood in her stirrups and peered ahead. “I think the forest ends a little after we cross that stream. It’s difficult to tell with all these shadows, but I don’t see any more trees.”

  Ware was already slowly crossing the shallow stream, his gaze searching the shadows on either bank.

  He reached the other side of the stream and waved at them to cross.

  They were almost at the other bank when fire arched out of the heavens toward them.

  “Christ!”

  Thea barely heard Ware’s exclamation as she saw the burning arrow speeding toward her.

  No, not toward her. The burning arrow struck the water in back of her.

  The ribbon of water exploded into a wall of flame!

  “Dammit, get out of the stream, Thea.” Ware’s voice.

  Selene was directly in front of her. Couldn’t he see she couldn’t move until Selene reached the other bank?

  She could hear the soldiers shouting, horses neighing in terror on the bank behind her. She glanced back to see that they were cut off by the wall of flame licking down the stream. As she watched, the fire leaped up onto the bank, catching bushes, moss, and piles of dry leaves ablaze.

  “Thea.” Selene had reached the other bank. Sparks had ignited the trees there. Soon Selene would be surrounded by an inferno.

  “Don’t wait.” Thea desperately nudged her horse forward, but he was rearing, struggling, terrified by the combination of water and flames licking at his hindquarters. “Go ahead. Get out of the trees.”

  Selene did not move.

  “Go!” Ware’s hand came down hard on the rump of Selene’s horse and set him tearing through the blazing trees toward the clearing. Then he was riding back into the blazing stream.

  “No, you have to go too. The fire is—”

  “Be silent,” he said harshly. “Do you think I’ll lose you now?” He grabbed her horse’s reins and with sheer might jerked the beast’s head down. He wheeled his horse and started across the stream. “Hold tight and kick him—hard.”

  She obeyed and then clung desperately as Ware half dragged, half pulled the horse through the water.

  Fire.

  All around them.

  Devouring trees and bushes like a hungry monster.

  So fast. How could it spread so fast?

  Curls of black smoke before them and behind them.

  Searing their lungs, stinging their eyes.

  She could only pray that Selene had made it through the woods in time.

  They reached the shallows and the horses struggled up the bank.

  She realized with despair that she could no longer see the clearing through the dense smoke.

  “Take a deep breath and hold it.” Ware’s hand tightened on her horse’s reins. “We’re going through.”

  The acrid breath she drew hurt her lungs, but she had no time to think of pain.

  Smoke.

  Black as the deepest reaches of hell.

  Heat.

  She closed her eyes as tears streamed down her cheeks from her stinging eyes.

  She couldn’t hold her breath any longer. It rushed out and she was forced to inhale. She was immediately punished by a fit of coughing.

  She couldn’t breathe. Panic rushed through her as she began to gasp.

  Ware was coughing too.

 
Dear God, they were going to die in this blackness.

  “Thea!”

  Selene. Thea opened her eyes and could see nothing. But she had heard Selene’s voice just ahead. She must not be caught in this hideous trap. “Don’t come back. Don’t—” She broke off as she began coughing again.

  “It’s all—right,” Ware gasped. “We’re—through.”

  How could he say that? The smoke…

  No, it was lighter, a thick gray fog instead of a black wall.

  The sky, she could see the sky. Cool, twilight purple and glittering icy stars. “Thank God.”

  The horses sensed salvation too. They streaked toward the edge of the forest.

  They reined in as they reached the plain, and Ware slipped from his horse. He was still coughing as he lifted Thea down and reached for his water skin. “Drink.” He handed it to her. “Slowly.”

  She was coughing so hard, she couldn’t swallow. She finally managed a small drink. Gentle balm on her tight, dry throat. She handed him back the water skin, and he carefully sipped the water. His face was so smoke blackened, he looked like a Nubian, she noticed wearily. She probably looked the same. “But where’s Selene? I heard her just ahead.”

  “We’ll find her.” He drew his sword. “He doesn’t want Selene.”

  She stared at him.

  “It was Vaden’s arrow. Water doesn’t catch fire by itself. He poured oil on the stream.”

  The arrow. She had not thought beyond surviving the fire, but now the threat of Vaden returned. “He wanted to kill us with the fire?”

  “Don’t be foolish. I merely wanted to separate you from the others. I knew Ware would manage to get you through the blaze.”

  She whirled at the unfamiliar male voice.

  A man in armor was strolling out of the forest, sword drawn. Selene was walking before him, fingers clenched.

  “Vaden,” Ware murmured.

  Vaden’s face was as soot blackened as Ware’s, and he looked like a devil from the hell they had just come through. But his sword was from this world and poised only inches from Selene’s back.