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Lion's Bride

Lion's Bride

Lion s Bride 37


  “You killed him?” Thea asked.

  He shrugged. “I had to have the banner. Several knights of the Temple recognized the lion throne at Acre. I was planning on taking it back to de Sable.”

  “You followed Kemal from Acre?” Ware asked.

  Vaden nodded. “He had the banner, and after the massacre I knew he would lead me to you.”

  “But why didn’t you take the banner back to the Grand Master as you planned?” Thea asked. “Why bring it to me?”

  “Why not?” He shook his head. “At first de Sable wanted it only for Richard, but then the Marshals told him what the design meant. The Knights Templar took El Sunan, and they came back with stories of a magic banner that brought victories to those fighting beneath it. Foolishness, of course, but I thought it best not to give Richard or the Templars any more reason to shed blood, so I told de Sable the banner had disappeared, perhaps destroyed.” He looked at Ware. “You did know Richard failed to take Jerusalem?”

  “No, we hear very little news of the outside world here.”

  Vaden glanced at the stark isolation of the land around them. “It doesn’t surprise me. Richard signed a treaty with Saladin and abandoned the Crusade but was taken for ransom by Duke Leopold of Austria on his way back to England.” He added grimly, “May he rot there.” He put on his helmet. “Now I bid you farewell.” He inclined his head mockingly. “If you’ll permit me to leave without slicing off my head, my lady?”

  “Wait.” Ware took a step forward. “At least stay the night.”

  Vaden shook his head. “I’ve done what I came for. If I stayed, I’d have to put up with seeing a great warrior curled on his hearth like a tame pussycat.”

  “You’re afraid,” Ware said softly. “It’s possible you might find that hearth both welcoming and desirable.”

  “You’ll never know.” Vaden turned his horse and started down the hill.

  “Don’t go back,” Ware called. “What is there for you there?”

  “Nothing. I won’t go back to the Order.”

  “Then stay here. It won’t be such a tame life. The highlands have more strife than any place on earth.”

  Vaden smiled. “You have too good an influence on me. I find it most disconcerting.”

  “Vaden,” Thea called, “if you won’t stay, why did you come all this way? Why didn’t you just burn the banner if you didn’t want them to have it?”

  “I couldn’t.” He reined in his horse where he had buried his sword and reached down to pluck it from the ground. “I had to bring it.”

  “Why?”

  He frowned with annoyance. “What difference does it make?”

  It was clear he didn’t want to talk about it, yet she felt compelled to keep probing. “It seems strange that you would undertake such a long journey when it was not—”

  “Dammit.” The glance he threw over his shoulder glittered with intense frustration and an odd sheepishness. “I brought it because I could do nothing else. It wanted to be here.” He put spurs to his horse and galloped down the hill.

  Her hands clenched in the folds of the banner as she watched him streak away from them as if the devil were after him.

  “Good riddance,” Vaden had said as he’d tossed the banner to her.

  “Imagination?” Ware asked softly, his gaze still on Vaden.

  “Is he a man who is overly imaginative?”

  “No.”

  She had not thought he was, and yet his words could have only one meaning.

  To her amazement the knowledge brought no fear. The silk of the banner felt comfortingly familiar in her hands, and she was experiencing a sense of overwhelming rightness.

  Ware’s gaze was searching her expression. “You’ve accepted it.”

  “That the banner has power?” She shook her head. “How can such a thing be when I was the one who created it? I am neither saint nor sorceress. I don’t even know how it came into being. I wondered at one time if my love for you was so great, our souls so close, that I read your thoughts.”

  “And you decided?”

  “That I will never know.” Her brow wrinkled in thought. “But perhaps, if there is power here, it’s some sort of sign that God is not only for men, that he doesn’t approve of the slavery man has decreed for women. Do you suppose that could be?”

  “Anything can be.” He smiled. “And it doesn’t surprise me that you would think so.” He sobered. “What will you do with it?”

  “What do you want to do with it? I created it for you.”

  “I told Vaden the truth—this has always been a strife-filled land. Do you wish me to fight under your banner?”

  “No,” she whispered.

  “I didn’t think so.” He touched her cheek with his hand. “I don’t wish it either. It would be too dangerous if it was ever seen. Besides, I fear I have too much self-love. I dislike the thought of relying on a banner to fight my battles.” He looked down at the banner. “Then you’ll have to choose what we’re to do with it. I suppose you could burn it.”

  It wanted to be here.

  “No, I won’t destroy it.” She tucked the banner beneath her arm. “Since you leave the decision to me, I choose to find a safe hiding place and leave it there.”

  “A hiding place…” Ware mused. “They put the lion throne in a safe hiding place and I found it. Hiding places don’t always remain safe.”

  She felt a ripple of disquiet. “Then we must make sure that we find a better place than your Knights Templar.” By the saints, how foolish they were to worry about this. They would never be entirely safe, but Vaden had made sure they all had freedom and opportunity in this new land. Joy suddenly soared through her.

  “We have better things to do than brood about a banner.” She kissed Ware lovingly on the cheek before taking his arm and turning away from Vaden’s now distant figure. “That’s all in the past. Now, about finishing your castle. Since we know we’re more secure than we thought, cannot it wait another winter so that I may have my ship?”

  About the Author

  IRIS JOHANSEN has more than twenty-seven million copies of her books in print and is the New York Times bestselling author of Stalemate, Killer Dreams, On the Run, Countdown, Blind Alley, Firestorm, Fatal Tide, Dead Aim, and more. She lives near Atlanta, Georgia.

  Coming Soon from Bantam Dell…

  The never-before-published sequel

  The Treasure

  available December 2008

  Read on for a sneak peak

  of THE TREASURE…

  THE TREASURE

  Coming from Bantam in December 2008

  MAY 3, 1196

  FORTRESS OF MAYSEF

  NOSAIRI MOUNTAINS

  SYRIA

  HIS POWER WAS WANING, fading like that blood-red sun setting behind the mountains.

  Jabbar Al Nasim’s fists clenched with fury as he gazed out at the sun sinking on the horizon. It should not be. It made no sense that he should be so afflicted. Weakness was for those other fools, not for him.

  Yet he had always known it would come. It had even come for Sinan, the Old Man of the Mountain. But he had always been stronger than the old man in both mind and spirit. Sinan had bent before the yoke, but Nasim had prepared for it.

  Kadar.

  “You sent for me, master?”

  He turned to see Ali Balkir striding along the battlements toward him. The man’s voice was soft, hesitant, and he could see the fear in his face. Nasim felt a jolt of fierce pleasure as he realized the captain had not detected any loss of power. Well, why should he? Nasim had always been master here, in spite of what outsiders thought. Sinan might have been the King of Assassins, feared by kings and warriors alike, but Nasim had been the one who had guided his footsteps. Everyone here at the fortress knew and groveled at his feet.

  And they’d continue to grovel. He would not let this monstrous thing happen to him.

  Balkir took a hurried step back as he saw Nasim’s expression. “Perhaps I was mistaken. I b
eg your forgiveness for intrud—”

  “No, stay. I have a task for you.”

  Balkir drew a relieved breath. “Another attack on the Frankish ships? Gladly. I brought you much gold from my last journey. I will bring you even more this—”

  “Be silent. I wish you to return to Scotland where you left Kadar Ben Arnaud and the foreigners. You are to tell him nothing of what has transpired here. Do not mention me. Tell him only that Sinan is claiming his price. Bring him to me.”

  Balkir’s eyes widened. “Sinan? But Sinan is—”

  “Do you question me?”

  “No, never.” Balkir moistened his lips. “But what if he refuses?”

  Balkir was terrified, Nasim realized, and not of failing him. Nasim had forgotten that Balkir was at the fortress at the time Kadar underwent his training; Balkir knew how adept Kadar was in all the dark arts. More adept than any man Nasim had ever known, and Kadar was only a boy of ten and four when he came to the mountain. How proud Sinan had been of him. What plans he had made for the two of them. He had never realized Nasim had plans of his own for Kadar.

  All wasted when Kadar had left the dark path and rejected Sinan to live with the foreigners. What a fool the Old Man had been to let him go.

  But it was not too late. What Sinan had lost, Nasim could reclaim.

  If Kadar did not die as the others had died.

  Well, if he died, he died. Kadar was only a man; it was the power that was important.

  “He won’t refuse,” Nasim said. “He gave Sinan his word in exchange for the lives of the foreigners.”

  “What if he does?”

  “You are questioning me,” Nasim said with dangerous softness.

  Balkir turned pale. “No, master. Of course he won’t refuse. Not if you say he won’t. I only—”

  “Be gone.” Nasim waved his hand. “Set sail at once.”

  Balkir nodded jerkily and backed away from him. “I will bring him. Whether or not he wishes to come I will force—”

  The words cut off abruptly as Nasim turned his back on him. The man was only trying to gain respect in his eyes. He would have no more chance against Kadar if he tried to use force than he would against Nasim, and he probably knew it.

  But he wouldn’t have to use force. Kadar would come. Not only because of his promise but because he would know what would result if he didn’t. Sinan had spared the lives of Lord Ware, his woman, Thea, and the child Selene and given them all a new life in Scotland. Nasim had permitted the foolishness because he had wanted to keep Kadar safe until it was time to use him.

  But no one would be more aware than Kadar that the safety Sinan had given could always be taken away.

  Kadar had shown a baffling softness toward his friend Lord Ware and a stranger bond with the child Selene. Such emotions were common on the bright path, but Nasim had taught Kadar better. It seemed fitting that he be caught in his master’s noose because he’d ignored his teachings.

  The fortress gate was opening and Balkir rode through it. He kicked his horse into a dead run down the mountain. He would be in Hafir in a few days and set sail as soon as he could stock his ship, the Dark Star.

  Nasim turned back to the setting sun. It had descended almost below the horizon now, darkness was closing in. But it would return tomorrow, blasting all before it with its power.

  And so would Nasim.

  His gaze shifted north toward the sea. Kadar was across that sea in that cold land of Scotland, playing at being one of them, the fools, the bright ones. But it would be just a matter of months before he would be here. Nasim had waited five years. He could wait a little longer. Yet an odd eagerness was beginning to replace his rage and desperation. He wanted him here now.

  He felt the power rising within him and he closed his eyes and sent the call forth.

  “Kadar.”

  AUGUST 4, 1196

  MONTDHU, SCOTLAND

  “SHE’S BEING VERY FOOLISH.” Thea frowned as she watched Selene across the great hall. “I don’t like this, Ware.”

  “Neither does Kadar,” Ware said cheerfully as he took a sip of his wine. “I’m rather enjoying it. It’s interesting to see our cool Kadar disconcerted.”

  “Will it also be interesting if Kadar decides to slaughter that poor man at whom she’s smiling?” Thea asked tartly. “Or Lord Kenneth, who she partnered in the last country dance?”

  “Yes.” He smiled teasingly at her. “It’s been far too peaceful here for the last few years. I could use a little diversion.”

  “Blood and war are not diversions except to warriors like you.” Her frown deepened. “And I thought you very happy here at Montdhu. You did not complain.”

  He lifted her hand and kissed the palm. “How would I dare with such a termagant of a wife.”

  “Don’t tease. Have you been unhappy?”

  “Only when you robbed me of craftsmen for my castle so that you could have them build a ship for your silk trade.”

  “I needed that ship. What good is it to produce fine silks if you can’t sell them? It wasn’t sensible to—” She shook her head. “You know I was right, and you have your castle now. It’s as fine and strong as you could want. Everyone at the feast tonight has told you they have never seen a more secure fortress.”

  His smile faded. “And we might well have need of our fortress soon.”

  She frowned. “Have you heard news from the Holy Land?”

  He shook his head. “But we walk a fine line, Thea. We’ve been lucky to have these years to prepare.”

  Ware was still looking over his shoulder, Thea thought sadly. Well, who could blame him? They had fled the wrath of the Knights Templar to come to this land, and if the Knights found out that Ware was not dead, as they thought, they would be unrelenting in their persecution. Ware and Thea had almost been captured before their journey started. It had been Kadar who had bargained with Sinan, the head of the assassins, to lend them a ship to take them to Scotland. But that was the past, and Thea would not have Ware moody tonight when he had so much to celebrate.

  “We’re not lucky, we’re intelligent. And the Knights Templar are foolish beyond belief if they think you would betray them. It makes me angry every time I think of it. Now drink your wine and enjoy this evening. We’ve made a new life and everything is fine.”

  He lifted his cup. “Then why are you letting the fact that your sister is smiling prettily at Lord Douglas upset you?”

  “Because Kadar hasn’t taken his eyes off her all evening.” Her gaze returned to her sister. Selene’s pale-gold silk gown made her dark red hair glow with hidden fires, and her green eyes shone with vitality—and recklessness. The little devil knew exactly what she was doing, Thea thought crossly. Selene was impulsive at times, but this was not such an occasion. Her every action tonight was meant to provoke Kadar. “And I didn’t invite the entire countryside to see your splendid new castle so that she could expose them to mayhem.”

  “Tell her. Selene loves you. She won’t want you unhappy.”

  “I will.” She rose to her feet and strode down the hall toward the great hearth, before which Selene was holding court. Ware was right: Selene might be willful, but she had a tender heart. She would never intentionally hurt anyone she loved. All Thea had to do was confront her sister, express her distress, and the problem would be solved.

  Maybe.

  “Don’t stop her, Thea.”

  She glanced over her shoulder to see Kadar behind her. He had been leaning against the far pillar only seconds ago, but she was accustomed to the swift silence of his movements.

  “Stop her?” She smiled. “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “And don’t lie to me either.” Kadar’s lips tightened. “I’m a little too bad-tempered tonight to deal in pretense.” He took her arm and led her toward the nearest corner of the hall. “And you’ve never done it well. You’re burdened with a pure and honest soul.”

  “And I suppose you’re the devil himself.”

  He sm
iled. “Only a disciple.”

  “Nonsense.”

  “Well, perhaps only half devil. I’ve never been able to convince you of my sinful character. You never wanted to see that side of me.”

  “You’re kind and generous and our very dear friend.”

  “Oh, yes, which proves what good judgment you have.”

  “And arrogant, stubborn, and with no sense of humility.”

  He inclined his head. “But I’ve the virtue of patience, my lady, which should outweigh all my other vices.”

  “Stop mocking.” She turned to face him. “You’re angry with Selene.”

  “Am I?”

  “You know you are. You’ve been watching her all evening.”

  “And you’ve been watching me.” One side of his lips lifted in a half smile. “I was wondering whether you’d decide to attack me or Selene.”

  “I have no intention of attacking anyone.” She stared directly into his eyes. “Do you?”

  “Not at the moment. I’ve just told you how patient I am.”

  Relief surged through her. “She doesn’t mean anything. She’s just amusing herself.”

  “She means something.” He glanced back toward the hearth. “She means to torment and hurt me and drive me to the edge.” His tone was without expression. “She does it very well, doesn’t she?”

  “It’s your fault. Why don’t you offer for her? You know Ware and I have wanted the two of you to wed for this past year. Selene is ten and seven. It’s past time she had a husband.”

  “I’m flattered you’d consider a humble bastard like myself worthy of her.”

  “You are not flattered. You know your own worth.”

  “Of course, but the world would say it was a poor match. Selene is a lady of a fine house now.”

  “Only because you helped us escape from the Holy Land and start again. Selene was a slave in the House of Nicholas and only a child when you bought her freedom as a favor to me. She was destined to spend her life embroidering his splendid silks and being given to his customers for their pleasure. You saved her, Kadar. Do you think she would ever look at another man if you let her come close to you?”