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Lion's Bride

Lion's Bride

Lion s Bride 36

His head went back and his laughter rang out.

  “Why are you frowning?” Ware asked as he slipped his arm through Thea’s. “Kadar is safe and you have your embroideries.”

  “But what about next time?” she whispered. “Kadar will never truly be safe. Sinan will always be like a huge spider spinning his web to draw him back.”

  “He’s a match for Sinan. Kadar has survived for nineteen years, and he gains more weapons as time goes on.”

  “But Sinan has weapons we don’t even know about.”

  Ware suddenly chuckled. “Do you know what you’ve said? My love, none of us are safe. I’ve been trying to convince you that both you and I will be forever in mortal danger, and you worry about Kadar.”

  “That’s different.”

  “Because God saved me once and you’re convinced he’ll not allow His handiwork to be ruined?”

  “Not as long as I’m with you and here to remind Him.”

  He brushed her temple with his lips. “Then I’ll most certainly have to keep you safe just to preserve my own life. How clever of you to so obligate me.”

  “But women are far more clever than men. Do we thunder about and try to kill one another? No, we try to build, not tear down. That’s why the more I consider it, the more relieved I am that Asherah is an aspect of God. She must be the part that furnishes not only fertility, but wisdom as well.”

  “Next, you’ll claim she’s the part that created heaven and earth,” he said dryly.

  “I’ll have to think about that.” Her gaze went back to Kadar on the path ahead. “Does he have the banner, Ware?”

  “We may never know. This journey took overlong. If he did take it, he may have tarried to find a courier to send it to the Knights Templar.”

  “I hope he did.” A sudden thought occurred to her. “He would not have used the banner to bargain with Sinan?”

  He shook his head. “Remember? He cautioned us not to let Sinan know about Kemal’s belief in the banner.”

  She didn’t believe he would have gone to the Old Man either, but she was glad to have her intuition reinforced. “He said Sinan knew everything that goes on in this land.”

  “Why are you worried?” He glanced away from her. “You said the banner has no power.”

  She was making him uneasy for no reason. They must forget about this war-ravaged land and lion thrones and banners that seemed to have a life of their own. “Perhaps he will tell us someday.” She took his arm. “Come, we must see to the safe storing of the embroideries in the hold.”

  “And then tell everyone to board the ship.” His pace quickened with eagerness. “We’ll leave on the midnight tide.”

  TWO YEARS LATER

  SEPTEMBER 7, 1193

  MONTDHU, SCOTLAND

  SELENE WAS WAITING on the cliff overlooking the harbor.

  Kadar had seen her as soon as he had sailed into the harbor, and she had not moved as his ship neared the shore. She stood with hands clenched at her sides, the blustery wind blowing her brown gown against her slim body. She looked as if she were ready to battle the world, Kadar thought. He waved his hand as he moved toward the gangplank.

  She didn’t return the salute. She was already running down the cliff path toward the dock.

  He met her before she reached the bottom of the path. So full of glorious life and more glorious spirit. He wanted to reach out and touch the shining red hair tumbling about her shoulders. He did not. “You should have worn your cloak.”

  “Is that all you have to say to me? You’ve been gone four months.”

  He smiled slyly. “Have you been waiting for me on that cliff all this time? I wonder you didn’t turn into a statue.”

  “Conceited ox. If I waited for you, it was only to hear what success you’d had with our embroideries.”

  “Great success. The merchants of Spain were dazzled by your skill. I came back with a chest full of gold.”

  “I think you should take me with you next time.”

  “Oh, you do?”

  “Yes.” She started up the hill. “Someone besides you should be trained in the trading of our silks. You take too many chances. What if you were killed? Then what would we do?”

  “Beat your head on the ground and mourn forever?”

  “Don’t joke.” She suddenly whirled on him, her eyes glittering. “Take me with you.”

  It had been too long since he had looked into those wonderful eyes. He found the barriers weakening that he always lifted against her. “To protect the trade?”

  “Take me with you. You need me.”

  “Ah, yes, I do.” He permitted himself to touch her cheek. Exquisite pleasure surged through him in a golden tide. “But not to protect the trade.”

  “No,” she whispered.

  He had known this would soon come, but he still found he was not prepared for it. “You are too young.”

  “I’m ten and five. Many women have wed and borne children before they reach that age.”

  “I know.”

  “And you wouldn’t have to rut with strangers. I would be willing to—Why are you laughing? I would do it.”

  “I don’t doubt you.” He had almost been swayed this time. She was fully mature in so many ways and only had these rare flashes of childhood. “I appreciate the sacrifice.”

  “I don’t think it would be sacrifice.” She moistened her lips. “I’ve found that I—do not mind—being touched by you.”

  “Because I offer you no threat?”

  “No, you do offer me threat,” she whispered. “More than anyone. You make me feel—”

  “What?”

  She shook her head and then said defiantly, “Why should I tell you? You will only laugh and tell me that I’m too young.”

  “There is that possibility.”

  “Then I’ll not waste breath on you.” She started up the hill again. “And there are others who don’t think me too young to wed.”

  “Indeed?”

  “Lord Kenneth of Craighdhu is paying me court. He comes here to visit at least every fortnight.”

  “And do you find him a pleasing suitor?”

  “Why not? He’s young and comely and says I’m sweet as honey.”

  “He must not be a good judge of character. I think you should send him away next time.”

  She cast him a shrewd glance. “Ah, I thought you would not like it.”

  He had masked his displeasure, but she knew him too well. “I don’t like it,” he said softly. “I like it so little that, if I see him near you, I may be forced to vent my dislike in a way you’ve told me I should not.”

  She thought about it for a moment and decided to retreat. “Well, I don’t like him anyway. He talks only of horses and my hair. You’d think there were no other red-haired women in Scotland.”

  No woman like you, my love. No woman in the world like Selene. “Be tolerant with him. Red is a most peculiar color.”

  “Be tolerant with him, but not in a way you reserve for yourself.” She frowned. “You’re most unfair.”

  “You’ll learn that’s the nature of men with women.”

  Her brow cleared and she smiled. “Oh, yes, I’m learning more all the time. You called me a watcher, and it’s you I watch now, Kadar. I watch and I learn.” She deliberately reached out and took his hand. “You will not go on many more journeys without me. On this I give you my word.”

  Healing, brightness in darkness, a flame that has no end. Selene.

  Let her go. Not yet. Let the promise be fulfilled.

  Ah, but it was such a glorious, tempting promise. His grasp tightened around her hand, and it was a moment before he could force himself to release it. “But I fear if I took you with me, there is a grave problem that could never be resolved.”

  “What problem?” she asked, puzzled.

  He smiled. “Why, my dear lady, which one of us would captain the ship?”

  “Ware, I’ve decided you must get me another ship,” Thea announced as she came up the hill towar
d him. “I must have a constant supply of silk, and heaven knows if I can get my worms to survive and multiply in this climate.”

  “You seem to have no trouble.”

  She glanced down at her swollen belly. “But I’m not a silkworm.”

  “I’ve noticed that.” He smiled as he reached out a hand and helped her to level ground beside him. “You’re much more demanding. I should have seen it coming when Kadar arrived yesterday. You had barely finished greeting him before you started quizzing him about the availability of silk in Spain. I’ve already supplied you with one ship to use in the trade. Why is it not enough?”

  “I must have the silk when I need it. Are my embroiderers to sit twiddling their thumbs while I wait for Kadar to get back from a trading journey? It’s not reasonable.”

  “It’s not reasonable for me to have to spend my gold on another ship when I need it for craftsmen to build my fortress.” He glanced at the multitude of busy workers a few yards away. “It’s more important that we have strong walls to protect us than you have silk.”

  Thea glanced at the high stone outer walls that had just been completed. The work on the castle itself had been started, but it was going slowly. Ware demanded perfection: every window must be cut in such a way as to repel arrows, the battlements must be unscalable. “Silk brings more gold, and it will take years for you to finish here. We’re very comfortable in our cottages.” She paused. “Need you be so careful? It seems a different world here. It’s as if we’re the only people on earth.”

  Ware drew her close. “You like my highlands?”

  He had never asked her that question before. It had been a hard two years, a time of building cottages and planting crops, of teaching embroidery skills, of settling disputes and dealing with arguments and births and deaths. Did she like this Scotland?

  It was a land of mists and purple shadows, of chill, blustery winds and seas that shimmered like green-gray silk under summer skies—a hard land.

  A land of challenge that bred strong men like Ware.

  “It’s not a land you ‘like,’” she said slowly. “That is too weak a word. But it’s a place that becomes part of you. I belong here now.” She went back to the original argument. “But we’ve seen no sign of threat. If we’re careful, must we live in a fortress?”

  “Yes.” His lips thinned. “I will take no chances.”

  She sighed and leaned against him. It was the answer she had expected. Ware had lived too long as a hunted man ever to feel safe. “Well, could you not delay—”

  “A rider comes, my lord.” Haroun’s eyes were bright with excitement as he ran toward them. “From the south.”

  Ware tensed, and she put a soothing hand on his arm. “It could be Lord Kenneth from Craighdhu. You know he’s been riding here to see Selene.”

  He was not listening; he was striding up the hill to a higher vantage point.

  She followed him. “I tell you, it need not be danger.”

  His muscles were locked, his eyes on the approaching rider.

  It was not Lord Kenneth. The armor of the man coming toward them shone brightly in the sunlight, and he rode a white horse. She had seen that horse only once before, but she would never forget it.

  “My God,” Ware muttered.

  “Vaden.” Fear tore through her. “Alone?”

  “So it appears.”

  A little of her terror ebbed. Even if Vaden had changed his mind and come after Ware, this was Ware’s place and hers, their land, their people. One man alone could not prevail against their numbers.

  But Vaden was a great warrior who possessed a strange hold over Ware. Who knew what would happen if Vaden challenged him to a battle, one on one? Ware had said he wasn’t certain he could best him.

  Vaden stopped his horse and sat looking up at Ware.

  He was drawing his sword!

  He hurled the weapon with such a force that its point pierced the ground and the sword stood vibrating back and forth.

  He nudged his horse and continued up the hill.

  “What does it mean?” she whispered.

  “I’m not sure,” Ware said. “But I think it’s a white flag.”

  Dear God, Ware’s expression was full of eagerness. Vaden had many other weapons, and yet Ware was placing his trust in him. “Let me call Abdul.”

  He didn’t take his gaze from Vaden. “No.”

  She took a protective step closer to him and watched Vaden come toward them.

  Vaden reined in a few yards distant from where they stood and took off his helmet. “No wonder you chose to come to the Holy Land, Ware. The land of your birth is not a welcoming place.”

  She stared at Vaden, stunned. At their first encounter he had been covered with black soot, and she had been conscious only of danger and devilish ferocity. This man had the bright manly beauty of Apollo. Tawny hair framed a face whose perfection held one spellbound, and she could see his eyes were a glittering sapphire-blue. She impatiently shook off her amazement. What difference did it make that he did not look like a gargoyle? He was still a threat. “And we do not welcome you either. What are you doing here?”

  Vaden’s gaze turned to Thea. “Ah, the lady Thea. Greetings. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you in less unhappy circumstances.” His gaze shifted to her belly. “Your child, Ware?”

  “Yes.” He paused. “And my wife. You should not have come, Vaden. I cannot let you leave to tell others where we are.”

  “How do you know they don’t know already?”

  “Do they?”

  “I could tell you that they do. It would save my life. You look for an excuse not to kill me.”

  Thea felt a rush of despair as she realized how well Vaden knew Ware. Knowledge was a greater weapon in his hands than the sword in the ground. “Stop toying with us. How did you find out where we’d gone?”

  “The Old Man of the Mountain.”

  Ware shook his head. “He would never have told a Knights Templar. He’d have killed you before you set foot in the fortress.”

  “He almost did. Several times. It was a long, laborious process. I stalked him as I stalked you, Ware.” He smiled. “Finally it began to amuse him, and he allowed me into his rather gruesome presence. But it was almost another year before I could persuade him to give me the information I wanted. He cared nothing about you, but I had to give him my promise I’d leave your friend Kadar untouched.”

  The story was incredible, but Thea could almost visualize the Old Man and Vaden together. Darkness and light, but both possessing a core as hard and cold as iron. “Why couldn’t you leave us alone?”

  He turned to her. “It occurred to me. In truth, I almost turned my back on you forever. But I found it impossible, dear lady.”

  “Why?” Ware asked.

  Vaden smiled sardonically. “Ware, Ware, will you never learn? Look at you. You wish me to tell you that I’ve changed and that we can be friends forever. I will never change and nothing lasts forever.”

  “Then why did you come after us?”

  Vaden’s smile faded. “I didn’t change. To my infinite disgust I merely learned that there are some prices I’m not willing to pay to keep the world as it is. I’d rather risk everything than stand by and watch another massacre like the one I witnessed at Acre.”

  “Your Jedha?” Ware murmured.

  “Perhaps. Though it galls me to admit you might be right.” He shrugged. “So that’s why you’re a dead man, Ware.”

  “No!” Thea stepped forward, her hands clenched.

  “Wait,” Ware said.

  “I believe she was going to attack me.” Vaden smiled faintly. “I can almost see why you’ve given two years of your life in service to her.”

  “I’ll give her all the years of my life.” Ware’s eyes were narrowed on Vaden’s face. “If I’m permitted.”

  “Such devotion. I was sure you wouldn’t wish to live without her, so she is dead also.”

  Ware tensed. “How?”

  “After
all these years I found you defenseless at last and executed my duty to the Temple. You both died just outside the gates of Dundragon. Your friend Kadar was also killed defending you. Your bodies were dragged into the fortress for burial by your loyal followers.”

  Thea was beginning to understand the incomprehensible. “You told the Knights Templar you killed us?”

  “I drove your horses before me so that the trail would reflect pursuit.” He shrugged. “Actually, you made it very easy for me to cover your departure. Dundragon was deserted when I burned it to the ground. It was still in flames when our brothers of the Temple arrived from El Sunan.”

  “El Sunan?” Thea repeated. “But you said that the Knights Templar were only a day’s ride behind us.”

  “A small untruth.” He smiled with sly satisfaction. “I was very irritated with Ware that day and thought it would do no harm to worry him a bit. I didn’t want them to interfere with my dealing with you, so I sent a message to Robert de Sable telling him I’d heard rumors that Kemal had returned to El Sunan and was swearing that he would burn the banner. De Sable decided it would do no harm to delay his attack on Dundragon, if it meant getting the banner for Richard.”

  “You went to a great deal of trouble,” Ware said.

  “Don’t endow me with virtues I don’t possess. Everything I did was to protect myself as well as you. Robert de Sable isn’t a madman like de Ridfort, but he wouldn’t hesitate to order my death, if he found I’d risked the world knowing about the lion throne.”

  “But you ran the risk.”

  “Very well, I ran it. Satisfied?”

  A broad smile lit Ware’s face. “Yes.”

  Vaden ruefully shook his head. “You’re truly impossible.”

  “But why are you here?” Thea asked. “You said you’d decided not to follow us.”

  “I did.” His lips tightened grimly. “But I had to bring you something.” He reached into his saddlebag and tossed the bundle of silk he drew out of it to Thea. “Good riddance.”

  She shook it out and stiffened in shock. “The banner,” she whispered. Her gaze flew to his face. “Kadar did send it to the Templars, and you took it from them?”

  “Kadar?” He shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I stole it from Kemal the night Ware attacked.”