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Authors: Jo Ann Ferguson

No Price Too High

BOOK: No Price Too High
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No Price Too High

A Novel

Jo Ann Ferguson

For Amy Garvey and Kate Duffy
—

thanks for giving me a chance to share these stories
.

ONE

Tyre—1191

“Guide our way through the trials ahead of us, and …”

At a shout, Melisande Chapeleine looked over her shoulder. Why was Geoffrey bellowing when her brother should be asking for a blessing on their journey, too?

She put her hands on the prie-dieu and tried to rise. She dropped back to her knees, wincing. The chain mail beneath her gown must weigh a stone. Gritting her teeth, she pushed herself to her feet. The sword in its etched scabbard, shorter by half than the broadsword Geoffrey wore, struck her leg.

She touched the white cross on her black surcoat. Many had been shocked when she took the vow of a Hospitaller as her brother and father had before her, but she had been sure she must follow them to the Holy Land. With ten of her father's bravest knights, she had traveled from England to Tyre.


Dieu le veult
!” she whispered. Because God willed it, she had taken the vow to tend the wounds of the Crusade's warriors. She had pledged to see evil banished from this most sacred land.

Another shout tore her from her thoughts. Geoffrey was as vexing as he had been when she arrived yesterday. With a sigh, she went down to the center courtyard.

Melisande's fingers lingered on the carved newel while she looked into the garden. It was filled with flowers as glorious and alien as the tiles along the walls. Nothing reminded her of home, save for Geoffrey's temper. The sun seared through her veil and her hair, which was a subdued copy of her brother's fiery locks. Although she wished to hurry to his side, the mail slowed each step.

“This is the height of madness!” Geoffrey snarled. “If I had wanted to go to Acre and watch the walls, I could have left with Father.”

“Lady Melisande is your sister,” came back a deeper voice. “You cannot let her travel alone.”

Melisande rounded the stone fountain to see Raymond Vaudrey trying to soothe her brother. Lord Vaudrey had opened his house to her as he had for her brother. He displayed his splendid furnishings and well-trained servants, which should have been beyond the grasp of a Crusader. She had had to bite her tongue more than once during the evening meal so she did not remind him and Geoffrey of that.

Geoffrey said, “She can travel alone back to Heathwyre.”

“Nonsense,” Melisande replied.

Both men turned. Lord Vaudrey's flaxen hair glowed in the sunshine. Geoffrey had the sturdy build of their father and was taller than their host. He was dressed for travel, but clearly planned to escort her only to the harbor.

Lord Vaudrey bowed over her hand. “You look well rested, milady.”

“Thanks to you, milord.”

Geoffrey scowled. “You did not have Father's blessing to take the Crusader's vow, Melisande, and he will be outraged.”

“I spoke to Father of my intentions before you left Heathwyre.”

“And did he give you his permission?”

“He did not tell me I should not.”

He laughed shortly. “You act as if you are his heir, Melisande.”

Wishing they were not having this argument in front of Lord Vaudrey, she said, “I am sorry, milord, to bring discord into your home.”

“No one as lovely as you could bring anything but delight.” He glanced at her brother, who was turning red. “Geoffrey and I have been friends since we met on our way here. To be honest, more like brothers, which urges me to treat you as a sister. You should heed his advice.”

“Tell her the way is dangerous, Raymond,” Geoffrey urged. “Mayhap she will heed
you
.”

“I understand the peril,” she said, pricked by her brother's sarcasm, “but I am a Hospitaller. It is my obligation and honor to serve.”

Not for the first time, she wished Father were here. She yearned for his counsel. Her father weighed all sides of a problem before making a decision. That vexed Geoffrey, who had no patience with Father.

Lord Vaudrey stepped aside as a knight from Heathwyre brought Melisande's black horse. “Saladin has amassed his troops around Acre, so when your men arrive, they will be fighting a battle at their back.”

“Then all the more reason for us to hurry.”

Geoffrey grasped her elbow. “When will you heed the words of those wiser than you? You should linger here.”

“And do what?” She gestured to the men waiting by the door to the street. “Shall you feed them? Where can they practice their skills?” Taking the reins from Sir Gerard, who led the men-at-arms, she asked, “Do you ride with us, Geoffrey, or do you remain within the walls of Tyre?”

Again he reddened. “Why should I go with you?”

Lord Vaudrey asked quietly, “What would be said if you remain here while your sister rides into that danger?”

“That I showed wisdom?”

Melisande ignored him. “What danger?”

“The hills beyond the coast are filled with bandits.”

“Bandits?” She smiled. “The men of Heathwyre do not cower before thieves.”

“Your men are a match for any but one. When this bandit strikes, he does so with cold and deadly precision. The Franks call him
Renard du Vent
.”

A shiver raced along her spine. This bandit with the name “Fox of the Wind” brought fear to Lord Vaudrey's eyes. Her hands trembled when she was tossed up into the saddle, and she settled the reins in her lap.

“I have men promised to the king.” She raised her voice to reach the knights.

“Do not be foolish, milady.
Renard du Vent
strikes with the speed of a storm and then vanishes into his stronghold in the hills.” Lord Vaudrey looked at her brother. “Tell her, Geoffrey.”

“I must go,” she said quietly.

“Go then.” Geoffrey gave a diffident wave. “Be a saint if you wish, sister.”

Heat scorched her cheeks. “We shall not forsake our vows to enjoy this life of comfort and luxury.”

“I have worked hard for what I have here. We both have worked hard, haven't we, Raymond?” He laughed. “I did not take a friar's vow of poverty.”

Turning her horse toward the gate, Melisande said, “I shall not set aside my vow until I have fulfilled it. I bid you farewell, milords.”

“Will you let her go without you?” Lord Vaudrey cried.

Geoffrey stepped in front of her horse. Fury burned in his blue eyes. “I shall not let you humiliate me.” He called for his horse and his weapons.

Lord Vaudrey smiled. “They await you, my friend, along with a map of the best route to avoid the infidels. I thought you might change your mind.”

“Did you?” He spat the words past his clenched teeth. “Bear witness to this stupidity. No one shall call me a coward.”

“No one shall, Geoffrey,” Melisande said, glancing at Lord Vaudrey, whose grin was broadening. He must have been certain he could goad Geoffrey into coming with her. She should have be grateful, but something unsettled her. She was not sure what, although it had begun when Lord Vaudrey mentioned the name
Renard du Vent
.

She hoped it was not an omen of trouble.

No tales of the power of the sun had prepared Melisande for the heat and swirling sand as they rode south for a second day. “
Dieu le veult
,” she murmured, praying her vow would strengthen her. Fatigue ground into her shoulders as her muscles recalled every stone that had pricked them last night.

Her horse eased through debris at the base of the cliffs. The sound of their passage reverberated oddly. She put her hand on the short blade at her waist, then gasped when Sir Gerard lifted his bow to sight on a distant ridge.

“'Tis nothing,” Melisande called.

“Milady, I heard …”

Geoffrey laughed. “Can you not recognize the echo of our passage?”

“Have sympathy,” she said so the knights would not hear. “They are heeding Lord Vaudrey's warning. They wish to protect us.”

“If you had heeded Raymond, we would not be here.” He hunched, and she wondered if his head still ached from all the wine he had swallowed last night by the fire. Pride alone must have kept him from asking her to fix him a posset this morning.

“How do you fare, Geoffrey?”

His glare was fiercer than the sun's. “Faith, sister! Have sympathy for a man who should be sitting in his friend's house and relishing the sweet kisses of a willing maiden.”

“You need not have come.”

“Can you imagine Father's wrath if I had let you ride into this wilderness alone?” He scanned the shimmering horizon. “We usually pause about a mile from here until the worst of the sun's strength is past.”

“Usually? You've come this way before?”

Instead of answering her, he unfolded Lord Vaudrey's map. “Yes, this is the place.”

“Can we go a few miles farther?”

“Have pity on your men-at-arms.” He raised his mailed glove. “Wearing this chain is like being cooked alive.”

Melisande did not answer as sweat slipped down her spine. Geoffrey would be even more furious if he learned she wore mail beneath her gown.

Dust blew into her face as the wind gathered strength. She hooked her veil over her mouth. If only their ship could have sailed to Acre … That was impossible as long as a chain stretched across the harbor.

Geoffrey called a halt when the trail narrowed between the steep cliffs, then ordered two men to take the vanguard.

“But, Geoffrey,” Melisande began, “you are their liege. You should ride first. It is your—”

“Silence, sister.”

She strained to hear any sound which would mean death, but heard nothing save her thudding heart and the clatter of iron on the stones. Fighting not to cringe when the walls closed in on both sides, she watched the horse ahead of her. As long as it moved forward, there must be room to pass. Again and again, she looked at the top of the cliffs. They were empty.

She sighed with relief when the narrow cleft opened onto a wider valley. They rode close together, wanting comfort in this desolate land. Beneath the lurking hulk of the unforgiving ridges, no one spoke.

Sand ground from the rocks by the wind puffed from the horses' hoofs. It sifted through Melisande's veil and choked her. Bowing her head, she trusted her horse to follow her brother's.

“By God's breath!” Sir Gerard shouted.

Melisande pulled back on the reins as she saw unburied bones. Not only human bones, but the remains of horses where they had fallen.

Sir Gerard dismounted and examined the skulls. He lifted something that glittered.

“What is it?” asked Melisande.

His voice was strained. “A crucifix.”

Geoffrey ordered, “Let us leave this place.”

“We must give them a decent burial,” Melisande said.

“Must you argue with every command I give?”

“These are our brothers. They deserve—”

He sniffed. “Do you think their souls will rest better because we buried the bones the hawks picked clean?”

“Geoffrey, please listen.”

“No. You shall listen to me.” He took her wrist as he leaned toward her, then stiffened. “Lord in heaven, save us!”

She turned. A score of shadows rode from the hills. Shouts filled the air. She pulled her sword as she swung her horse to face the bandits.

“We have been betrayed!” Geoffrey shouted.

“Betrayed?”

“To Tyre. I shall have my vengeance.”

When she looked at him in shock, he slapped the flank of his horse. It exploded back through the narrow passage between the cliffs. The knights stared at her, waiting for her order. The bandits raced closer.

“To Tyre!” she repeated.

A scream slashed the air. The man in front of her fell from his horse. An arrow was deep in his back.

“You cannot help him!” shouted Sir Gerard, motioning for her to follow.

Slapping the flat of her sword against her horse, she raced after the others. They surged through the crevice and into the valley on the far side. Two men flanked her, bent low. Beneath her knees, her horse's sides strained. She wondered how long they could keep up this pace.

A shriek froze her heart in midbeat. She stared at the man beside her. A shaft stuck out of his side. Blood trailed from it. He collapsed to the ground.

Fury blinded her. If they were going to die, let them do it as Hospitallers. She wheeled her horse and shouted to the men. The battle cry of Heathwyre rang in her ears.

Her horse shuddered and missed a step. She flew over its head as it tumbled, an arrow in its leg. Another struck its skull.

“Milady!”

She spun to see Sir Gerard speeding toward her, his hand outstretched.

“Grab hold, milady!” he called. “
Dieu le veult
!” His words escalated to a cry as he was hit and fell, to be trampled by his own horse.

BOOK: No Price Too High
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