Authors: Miriam Minger
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Medieval, #General, #Historical Fiction, #Romance, #Historical Romance
As the soldiers fought to control the crusader's
flailing limbs, Leila glanced up from his shoulder.
She gasped in amazement.
The crusader's eyes were open and fixed on her face,
the astonishingly blue depths ablaze with incredible pain. She felt a rush of
pity but remained undaunted. She must continue with the procedure if there was
any hope of staunching the flow of blood.
Leila applied the searing iron to the wound again and
again while the crusader's hideous screams echoed in the small cell.
Soon the air reeked with the sweet, sickening smell of
singed flesh, and she swallowed against a sudden wave of nausea, blinked
several times, and then concentrated more fully on her task. She knew the
crusader would be scarred for life, but there was nothing to be done about it.
She was grateful when his cries died away, his head lolling back on the
"Excellent, Leila. Use the smaller iron to seal
the wound completely."
She did as her father bade her, using a fresh rod, and
felt a curious mix of accomplishment, exhaustion, and relief when she finally
straightened up. She smiled faintly at her father when she saw the approval
shining in his dark eyes.
"You have done well,"
said proudly. "Extremely well. The crusader may yet have a chance."
He uttered low commands to the clearly shaken soldiers while he slathered a healing
ointment on the closed wound. "Go at once, all of you. We need a large
cask of cool drinking water and as many buckets of warm water as the four of
you can carry. And we'll need two more cots and fresh bedding."
"But what of the prisoner, esteemed one?"
asked the leader, his expression
, has ordered that we remain
with him at all times—"
"You can plainly see my patient is no more likely
to rise from this cot than a dead man is to cast off his shroud,"
interrupted impatiently. "This wound is only
one of his ills. Add heat exhaustion and exposure, and you may judge correctly
that he will not stand for days, let alone fight. Now be quick about your
tasks, or Governor
will surely hear of your
refusal to assist me. It is his hope that the crusader will survive this day.
The man is worth a great ransom if he lives."
So that was it, Leila thought as the soldiers
respectfully bowed their
heads and then
quickly left the cell. No wonder her father had been summoned to attend to this
man, rather than the physicians who ordinarily treated the prison's wretched
inmates. His great medical skill was only called upon for special prisoners,
and truly this case was most extraordinary.
With this new knowledge, the thousand questions reeling
in her mind only multiplied.
She glanced at the crusader, sprawled like a sleeping
giant on the cot and wearing only an odd pair of short trousers. He was still
except for his breathing, his skin glistening with heavy perspiration in the
lamplight, yet even now she sensed an incredible strength radiating from him.
She recalled other male patients who had braved this
procedure, men who usually looked more dead than alive when the hot irons were
finally withdrawn. Not so this man. He appeared indestructible.
Suddenly she doubted her father's confident words and
decided the soldiers should be anxious. She would not be surprised if this
crusader regained consciousness at any moment and rose up to fight them all
Leila felt her heart lurch when his thick, dark lashes
flickered slightly, and she took a step backward, fearing he might do just
that. But he did not. Inexplicably fascinated by him, she moved closer.
She was struck by the color of his long,
shoulder-length hair which, now that she had a chance to study it, was more a
rich brown that had been streaked by the sun than fully blond. Despite its
matted appearance, it had almost a metallic sheen, like spun silver or the
bright, reflective steel of fabled Damascus swords.
Leila found herself absorbed by the rugged symmetry of
his features: thick, winged brows; a straight well-shaped nose that nonetheless
appeared to have been broken once for the slight imperfection across the
bridge; a mouth that was hard, yet sensuously curved . . .
He was quite handsome, for a barbarian.
The realization stunned her. She generally held to a
far different standard of male beauty, more like Jamal's. With his dark
fathomless eyes and midnight hair, her betrothed was truly the most beautiful
man she had ever seen.
Until now, she amended honestly.
On second thought, this crusader could easily rival
Jamal if the two were to stand side by side. He looked as she imagined the
ruthless Viking warriors in her father's history books may have appeared,
mighty and virile. She had always thought the Arab chroniclers had greatly
exaggerated their descriptions of such men, but it was clear now that she had
This man might have stepped from those very pages. He
was well over six feet tall, probably six and a half, his massive physique a
perfect match to his unequaled height. Were all crusaders like giants compared
with other men?
Once again many questions flooded her mind, melding
with a sense of irritation that she could become so easily engrossed in studying
the crusader's masculine attributes. Yet she could not stop herself from
looking at him.
How had he come to be captured? He had to be a complete
fool to have ventured into Syrian lands, or perhaps his lust for plunder had
overwhelmed his better judgment.
Then again, these Christian barbarians were mad in the
first place to cross the seas in hopes of conquering the vast Arab Empire. How
could they harbor such misguided illusions when they were outnumbered by
and so undeniably inferior to the men whose
culture they wished to destroy?
"Leila, I will need bandages,"
requested, casting a curious sideways glance in her
"Yes, Father," she answered, embarrassed that
she had to be reminded again of her duties.
She searched through the leather bags until she found
the rolled linen, along with several vials containing the powdered medicines
she judged her father would wish to administer to their valuable patient. She
set everything on the edge of the cot, venturing at last to voice her nagging
"Tell me, Father. Where did the soldiers capture
"The Lebanese border, in the foothills north of
replied, using a wine-soaked cloth to cleanse away the filth, blood, and sweat
around the wound. "There were four other crusader knights in his party, a
dozen men-at-arms, and several native Christians for guides, but the others
were all killed in the surprise attack. This man survived only because he
escaped into the hills, hiding there for many days until he was captured this
ordered that he be taken
alive and held for ransom."
"But the soldiers gravely injured him," Leila
said, helping her father wrap a thick bandage across the crusader's broad
shoulder, underneath his arm, and up again until the wound was securely bound. "
a strange way to spare a life."
"Yes, he most likely would have died but for that
padded vest he wore and his chain mail, which lessened the blow."
"Chain mail?" Leila followed her father's
gaze to the mysterious pile of iron rings lying upon the floor. At last she was
able to guess their use.
"The crusader's armor,"
explained, confirming her suspicion. "It covered him from head to foot,
protecting him from worse injury. This man fought like an enraged lion when
they finally found him, slaying three soldiers before they could bring him down
with that blow to his shoulder."
Leila felt a surge of baffling excitement as she
imagined the violent and bloody scene. "But why he is so valuable, Father?
Is he a rich man? An important one?"
said, studying her.
Leila's cheeks burned at his perusal, a rare sensation,
but she met his gaze steadily. "If we are to cure this crusader for
ransoming, a most unusual case as you said yourself, Father,
surely I might know why the governor values him so."
chuckled to himself. "You
were always an inquisitive one. A very good thing in our profession." He
picked up one of the opaque vials she had set upon the cot, opened it, and
sniffed lightly to discern the contents. "Letters from the Mongol
, addressed to Lord
Edward of England, were found on several of the dead men."
Leila gasped. "To Lord Edward, the English prince
who arrived last year at the Christian port of Acre with his thousand
replied. "No doubt Lord Edward awaits those letters from Anatolia most
impatiently." His tone grew harsh. "Fool. He does not know he waits
"Then this man must be one of his most trusted
knights to undertake such a long and dangerous mission," Leila speculated.
"Perhaps he is even a friend whose safe return would be much rewarded."
believes this crusader and his companions were
personal envoys sent by Lord Edward to the Mongol dogs, who are obviously still
seeking to join forces against our indomitable Sultan
It seems they have not learned from the hard lessons of the past that one
cannot defeat what one cannot count. We are as innumerable as grains of desert
sand, as strong as the wind that shapes the dunes and causes great storms to
block out the sun. Even united against us, their efforts are futile." His
voice dripped with disdain. "It is a pity the other knights were slain
before the letters were found. Governor
have had four times the ransom from this reckless English prince."
Leila fell silent, pondering her father's words.
Truly, the Christian crusaders were an incomprehensible
lot. Fools and madmen, all of them. No wonder her mother had wasted few words
on the life she had known in England. Any country which bred such men must be a
very strange place indeed and hardly worth remembering—
The soldiers' sudden noisy entrance startled her. Her
thoughts flew back to the crisis at hand as the men set brimming buckets next
to the cot. Some of the water sloshed onto the floor and soaked her open-toed
sandals, yet she gave little notice as the cell bustled with activity.
Following her father's lead and taking care to avoid
the fresh bandage, Leila took a wet sponge and began washing the crusader to
remove all sweat and grime and to cool his feverish body. She could feel the
hardness of his muscles through the sponge, and an unsettling sensation of heat
built inside her with each slow stroke upon his flesh.
Leila hoped her father didn't notice that her hand was
trembling. She forced herself to think rationally as they discussed other scars
the crusader possessed: a deep,
on his right thigh; an ugly eight-inch mark over his ribs, long ago healed;
numerous nicks and scratches. Clearly he was a battle-seasoned warrior who had
already survived several serious injuries.
They bathed him from head to foot. Leila's flushed
discomfort increased when they removed his short trousers, baring his powerful
body completely. Shocked by her feelings, she quickly reminded herself that she
was a physician's apprentice and accustomed to such sights as a flaccid male
organ, no matter how large.
She wasn't used to the crusader's profuse body hair, however;
in Arab society such hair was considered offensive, and both men and women were
ritually shaved of body hair at their baths. Her mother had adopted the custom
request, and Leila had never known
anything different. She was as smooth as pearly satin down to her toes, and she
liked it that way.
This crusader, on the other hand, was a testimony to
his barbaric culture. His limbs were covered with soft downy hair, his chest
thickly matted, and the dark brown thatch between his thighs was positively indecent.
It was also utterly fascinating, Leila thought with
chagrin, surprised at
. Despite her unseemly
urge to watch, she modestly averted her eyes while her father cleaned that
Lastly, with the soldiers' help, they lifted the crusader
from the soiled cot onto two larger ones placed side by side and made up with
clean bedding and soft pillows for his head. At
command, the hinged door covering the cell's only window was unlocked and
opened to reveal thick, impenetrable iron bars. Still, it did not take long for
the balmy night breeze to freshen the small room. A small square of incense was
dropped into the brazier to further sweeten the air.
Leila inhaled the aromatic frankincense while she mixed
powdered medications in a pestle under her father's watchful eye: equal parts
seed, tamarind, and star
thistle. She knew well that when combined, these ingredients would do much to
arrest the crusader's fever. She carefully stiffed in small amounts of water
until the mixture formed a thin paste, then she poured her father's suggested
dosage into a cup of cool drinking water and added a spoonful of almond oil and
honey to mask the bitter taste.
"I will hold his head, Leila. Administer only a
third of a
cautioned her as she knelt by the cot.