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Lion s Bride 6
His smile faded. “You will have to ask him.”
“I don’t have to ask.” Sensuality breathed in every line of Ware of Dundragon’s body. He would not have been able to bear abstinence. “He is no monk.”
“Not now.” Kadar tilted his head. “I’ve told you what danger Ware was fleeing. What are you running from, Thea of Dimas?”
She stiffened at the sudden attack. She had been so absorbed in unraveling the complex personality of Kadar and trying to comprehend the astonishing truth he had told her regarding Lord Ware that she had been caught off guard. “I came here to open my own house of embroidery.”
“A laudable ambition. But this land is hard for a woman alone.”
“All lands are hard for a woman alone, but I have a skill that’s respected here. I’ll be able to find a place for myself until I have enough money to open my own house. The Damascenes have been trading embroideries for a long time, and they’re truly excellent.”
“But not as good as yours?”
She shook her head. “They lack imagination. A true artist designs as well as executes. The Damascenes are still doing the same embroideries they did a century ago.”
“How long have you been a craftsman?”
“Since I was a very small child. I can’t remember anything else. They first put me to knotting rugs, but my mother convinced him I would be better at embroidery.”
Every answer led to another trap. The only safety was in not answering at all. She turned away from the cages and moved toward the window. The grounds of the castle were not all stone walls and fortress, as she had thought. To the north stretched a long green, abounding with grass and trees, that fell off abruptly into a steep cliff. “You can see very far from this tower.” Her gaze traveled back to the mountains. “What are those houses to the south?”
“That’s the village of Jedha. All of the servants and soldiers here at Dundragon were brought from there. Dundragon was given to Ware as payment for services by a Frank lord who found this land too unsafe for his taste. When he went back to France, he took all his people with him, and Ware had to recruit his officers and soldiers from among the Muslims.” He shook his head. “The lords who hired Ware could use the excuse that any tool is justified when fighting Satan, but no one wanted to offend the Knights Templar by actually going over to the renegade’s camp. It’s a dangerous practice to ally yourself with the Temple’s enemies.”
“Yet you did it.”
“I told you, I had no choice. He belongs to me. Besides, living in the shadows with Ware has taught me as much as I learned from the Old Man of the Mountain.”
Shadows. But this day seemed bright and clear and without threat. “He surely should be back before dark.”
“Yes. If God wills.” He joined her at the window, his gaze fixed on the mountain. “If he’s not, I’ll go searching for him.”
Again that intimation of danger. She didn’t understand any of these people. Kadar, whom she had thought kind and gentle, had been taught by murderers. Lord Ware, whom she knew to be brutal and ruthless, had evidently risked much to seek out her mulberry leaves. Nothing was clear or reasonable in this new life into which she had been tossed.
But this disarray was better than the suffocating orderliness in the House of Nicholas. The serenity and concentration that abounded there were necessary to produce fine embroideries, but not the strictures of a cage. Here at Dundragon, she had more freedom, and once she left, the chaos would disappear entirely from her life. She would only have to be patient.
“You can trust us, you know,” Kadar said quietly. “We know what it is to be hunted.”
She could not trust anyone. She did not have the right when Selene was also at risk.
When she did not answer, Kadar turned away from the window. “It’s going to be a long day. Would you like to play a game of chess?”
“I don’t know how to play chess.”
“You prefer another game?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know how to play any games.”
“Ah, but games are very important. They stretch the mind and ease the heart.”
“I don’t need them. I have my work.”
He took her elbow and urged her toward the door. “I think you need them more than most people. Come, I will teach you chess.”
Ware finally found a grove of mulberry trees after noon of that day. It was not soon enough for him. He was hot, his head was aching and his temper correspondingly raw.
He sliced a huge branch off a tree with one stroke of his sword and watched it fall to the ground. He dismounted, then began plucking the leaves and throwing them into the basket.
Mother of Christ, he felt like a damsel picking flowers on May Day. This was no task for a knight.
How much was enough? Every time he bent down, his helmeted head felt as if it were going to roll off. He finished stripping the branch. He glowered at the contents of the basket; the leaves barely covered the bottom. He cut another branch and then another.
Enough. If that wasn’t sufficient, the damn worms could starve to death. He closed the lid and lifted the basket back onto the saddle.
He was being watched.
He froze in the act of fastening the basket, every muscle rigid.
He always knew when it was Vaden. The bond between them had never been broken; it had only become twisted. God, how ironic to die like this. Not in battle, but gathering leaves for a bunch of silkworms.
He leaned his head on the saddle, waiting. Jesus, he was weary of it all. It seemed as if he had been waiting a lifetime for this final moment. He suddenly felt a wild, reckless desire for it to be over.
He whirled on his heel, tore off his helmet, and gazed up at the rocky hillside. “Here I am, Vaden,” he shouted. “A clear shot. Aim for the eye. It’s surer than trying to find an opening in the armor.”
But he had seen one of Vaden’s arrows find such an opening. He possessed strength, a steady hand, and a deadly eye. Vaden was the finest bowman Ware had ever known.
He stood waiting, head lifted.
No sound. No whir of an arrow in flight.
But Vaden was there. Why didn’t he strike?
He slowly put his helmet back on his head. He waited again before he mounted.
It seemed Vaden was not in the mood for killing this day.
But Vaden was not driven by moods, only by cool reason.
Ware waited once again, giving Vaden another chance, before nudging his horse toward the path leading up the mountain to Dundragon.
He could still loose the arrow.
Vaden kept his vision narrowed on the exact spot in Ware’s back where the armor joined.
He slowly lowered the bow.
If he’d been going to loose that arrow, he would have done so when Ware had been standing staring up at him in despair.
He could have killed him and it would have been over. He could have returned to the Temple, and the secret would have been safe.
The Grand Master would have said not taking that shot was a betrayal of the Temple. With Ware dead and unable to defend Dundragon, he would have given the order for the stronghold to be razed to the ground and all its inhabitants murdered.
Vaden returned the arrow to the quiver on his saddle. He had never been guided by the Grand Master, and he would not be now. He was the chosen executioner, and he would judge for himself who would have to die and who could live. He didn’t know for certain that Ware had revealed to anyone what he had seen in the storehouse. God knew enough blood had been spilled since that night.
He put spurs to his horse and reluctantly veered left to the path leading south. From there he could cut across the valley and be in Acre by tomorrow night. Another message had come from the Grand Master summoning him to a meeting at his encampment outside Acre. He had ignored the first one, but the man’s temper was explosive and erratic, so he had best try to soothe it before irreparable damage was done.
/> He glanced back at the denuded branches on the ground beneath the tree and frowned in puzzlement.
What the devil had Ware been about?
“He’s here!” Kadar pushed back his chair, the game forgotten. “I hear the drawbridge.” He hurried out of the hall.
Thea stood up and followed him. She found she was experiencing the same relief Kadar was exhibiting. She had been conscious of Kadar’s lack of attention for the past two hours, and his worry had been contagious.
Ware was riding through the gates as she came down the steps to the courtyard to stand beside Kadar. The setting sun was behind him, and he was only a massive dark silhouette against a blazing sky as he walked his horse toward them.
Kadar shaded his eyes with his hand as he looked up at Ware. “He didn’t follow?”
“He followed. He held his hand.” He loosened the basket and dropped it to the courtyard. “Your leaves.”
“Why?” Kadar asked.
“How do I know?” He dismounted and turned to Thea. “Are they the right ones?”
She knelt on the stones and opened the lid. She breathed a sigh of relief as she saw the tooth-shaped leaves. “Yes.”
She nodded. “They’ll last me at least a month. By that time I should be settled in Damascus and able to find more.”
“Long before that time.” He turned and moved toward the steps. “I want her out of here, Kadar. I want you both out of here.”
“You’re always so inhospitable.” Kadar followed him toward the steps. “But I forgive you this time. You’re clearly exhausted from picking all those heavy mulberry leaves.”
Ware took off his helmet and faced Kadar. “I shouldn’t have let you stay this long. It’s time for you to go.”
He looked tired, Thea thought. He still held himself with rigid straightness, but deep lines engraved either side of his mouth and fanned out from his eyes, which held a strange hollowness. It was as if the weariness had passed from his body into his soul.
She said impulsively, “You need a bath and a night’s rest.” She jumped to her feet, snatched up her basket, and hurried toward him. “I’ll go tell Jasmine to have water heated.” She turned to Kadar. “Take him to his chamber and get him out of that armor.”
“Kadar doesn’t need to take me anywhere.”
“Nonsense. You look as if you’re going to fall down at any minute.” She glanced at his neck and shook her head. “And your muscles are knotted and twisted. I can help with easing that pain.”
“I have no pain.”
She snorted derisively. “Help him with his armor, Kadar. I have no patience with lies.” She moved past him into the castle and encountered Jasmine coming down the steps. “Hot water for Lord Ware.”
Jasmine gave her a cool glance. “I gave the command when I saw him ride into the courtyard. You don’t have to tell me my duty. I know how to care for my lord. I’ll send for Tasza to attend him.”
“I will attend him.”
“I will send for Tasza,” she repeated.
“No.” She tried to hold on to her temper. “He’s done me a service this day and I’ll be the one to ease him.” As she met Jasmine’s stony expression, her irritation flared. “I’ve no desire to take Tasza’s place in your master’s bed. I merely wish to make him comfortable.”
Jasmine studied her for a moment, and then the faintest smile touched her lips. “Are you a virgin that you don’t know that the best way to make a man comfortable is to rid him of lust?” Then her eyes widened as she read Thea’s expression. “Truly? Your manner was so bold, I thought—” She frowned. “Why did you not tell me? I have better things to do than worry about a threat that doesn’t exist. Tasza need not be concerned about a woman who has no skills.”
Thea stared at her in indignation. “I should not have to tell every passerby on the streets that I’ve never had a man.”
“You should have told this passerby…if you wished a comfortable stay here.” Jasmine proceeded down the stairs. “You may tend my lord. Perhaps you should even couple with him. Once your veil is broken, he will lose interest and Tasza’s skills will shine in contrast.”
“How many times must I tell you? I don’t wish to couple with him.”
“My lord’s chamber is two doors from your own. I will have Omar bring the water. You will find unguents and salves in the chest in the corridor.”
Thea stared after her in helpless exasperation. She felt as if she had tried to stop the flow of a river by standing in its path. Jasmine’s sudden reversal in attitude was just as bewildering as everything else at Dundragon.
Well, at least Jasmine would not hinder her today. Heaven knew if she would change her mind again tomorrow. Thea turned and ran up the steps to find the unguents.
Ware was already in the tub when Thea came into his chamber. His eyes were closed and his head was resting on the high back of the tub.
Kadar, sitting cross-legged on the hearth across the room, smiled at her. “Caution. His temper is not good. If you don’t please him, he’ll probably drown you.”
“I’ve never seen him when his temper was good.” She came brusquely forward, set the salves and unguents on the floor, and moved a stool beside the tub. “So I’ve nothing with which to compare.” She tossed a handful of sweet-smelling leaves into the water. “But at least he will have a pleasant scent.”
“Go away,” Ware said, without opening his eyes. “I have servants aplenty to bathe me.”
“You may bathe yourself. That’s not why I’m here.” She sat down on the stool and poured oil into her palms. “This will hurt at first.”
Kadar instantly rose to his feet. “I think I’ll go order supper brought up. I detest the sound of screams.”
“Coward,” Ware said.
“Sage,” Kadar corrected as he left the room.
Thea’s fingers dug into the bunched muscles of Ware’s neck.
“Ouch!” He tried to turn his head to glare at her.
“Stay still.” Her fingers dug deeper. “The muscles will ease presently.”
“Presently?” He flinched. “You’re trying to torture me.”
“If I were trying to torture you, I’d leave you with these knots. Now be silent and let me work.”
“I’ll have bruises tomorrow.”
“They won’t last. I had bruises when I woke yesterday, and today they’re fading.”
“My shoulders. You were not gentle the night you found me.”
He scowled. “I think you mean to make me feel guilt. I saw no bruises.”
Heat rushed through her as she remembered that insolent glance. “You weren’t looking at my shoulders.”
He was silent a long time. “No, I wasn’t. I was looking at your—Christ! Do you have a dagger back there? That felt like a knife thrust.”
“Good. The pain must come before the easing.”
“Are you sure you’re not just exacting vengeance?”
“I would not do that.” But she had to admit it gave her a certain amount of pleasure to have him helpless in her hands. “I believe in the payment of debts. You did me a great service. I must repay you.”
He gasped as another twinge of agony shot through him. “By trying to drive me mad with pain?”
“No, I told you that I would make you a gift. A tunic with embroidery so beautiful that it will stun everyone who sees it.”
“Keep your gift. I’m a plain man. I would never wear such a garment.”
She thought about it. “Then I’ll make you a banner. A warrior should have his own banner. What design should I embroider on it? A falcon?”
“It doesn’t matter. Save your efforts. I fight for gold, not glory.”
“A banner,” she said firmly. “And every knight in Christendom will envy you.”
“Then they would be fools,” he said with sudden violence. “I’m not a man to be envied.”
She paused in midmotion and then resumed kneading
. “You are rich. You have a fine castle. Surely there are many who would envy you.”
He was silent.
“Well, at any rate, they’ll envy you your banner.”
His muscles relaxed a trifle. “You’re certain you can create something so wondrous?”
He chuckled. “I should not have left you alone with Kadar. He, too, believes he can work miracles.”
“Not miracles. I just do splendid work.” The muscles of his neck were loosening, so she lessened the pressure. “And one should not be modest about one’s work. Someone might believe you less than you are.”
“A terrible fate.”
“Your neck is feeling better?”
“Yes. You have strong hands.” He added deliberately, “Not the hands of a lady who sits at an embroidery loom.”
“I knotted the silk in carpets when I was a child. My mother persuaded Nicholas to let her train me in embroidery, but it was almost too late. She had to work three years to straighten the muscles of my hands and fingers.”
“Children’s hands and bones are not fully formed. When they’re set to working the carpets for long hours, the muscles become cramped and twisted and the hands crippled for anything but the task.”
“Good God. Then why do they set children to do such work?”
“Children’s hands are small and the task is delicate,” she said matter-of-factly. “Everyone uses children for the carpet making.”
“And will you?”
“No, I will not use children at all.” She added with satisfaction, “The muscles are almost unknotted. Now it should begin to feel good.”
“It does.” He was silent a moment. “How did your mother work with your hands?”
“Like this. Every evening she pulled and stretched and kneaded. We were given a rest from the embroidery loom every four hours, and she made me open and close them over and over.”
“Why the devil did she let them put you to that task to begin with?” he asked harshly.
“I think you’re eased.” She started to remove her hands. “I’ll tell Omar to bring more hot—”
His hand shot over his shoulder and caught her wrist, his gaze still straight ahead. “Why?”