Authors: Iris Johansen
MAY 3, 1196
FORTRESS OF MAYSEF
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.
“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 beg 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?”
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
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
He felt the power rising within him, and he closed his eyes and sent the call forth.
AUGUST 4, 1196
“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.
“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 smiled. “Only a disciple.”
“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.”
“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?”
“Don’t interfere, Thea.”
interfere. You know better. She’s worshipped you since she was a child of eleven.”
“Worship? She’s never worshipped me. She knows me too well.” He smiled. “You may not believe in my devilish qualities, but she does. She’s always known what I am. Just as I’ve always known what she is.”
“She’s a hardworking, honest, loving woman who needs a husband.”
“She’s more than that. She’s extraordinary, the light in my darkness. And she’s still not ready for me.”
“Ready? Most women her age have children already.”
“Most women haven’t suffered as she suffered. It scarred her. I can wait until she heals.”
“But can she?” Thea glanced toward the hearth again. Oh, God, Selene was no longer there.
“It’s all right. She and Lord Douglas just left the hall and went out into the courtyard.”
How had he known that? Sometimes it seemed Kadar had eyes in the back of his head.
He bowed. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go and bring her back.”
have violence this night.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t shed blood on the fine new rushes you put down on the floor.” He moved toward the courtyard. “But the stones of the courtyard wash up quite nicely.”
“Don’t follow me, Thea.” His voice was soft but inflexible. “Stay out of it. This is what she wants, what she’s tried to goad me to all evening. Don’t you realize that?”
Where was Kadar? Selene wondered impatiently. She had been out here a good five minutes and he still hadn’t appeared. She didn’t know how long she could keep Lord Douglas from taking her back to the hall. He was a boring, stodgy young man and had been shocked when she’d suggested going out to the courtyard. “It’s a fine night. I do feel much better now that I’ve had a breath of air.”
Lord Douglas looked uneasy. “Then perhaps we should go back inside. Lord Ware would not like us being out here alone. It’s not fitting.”
“In a moment.” Where
he? She had felt his gaze on her all evening. He would have seen—
“The Saracen was watching us,” Lord Douglas said. “I’m sure he will tell Lord Ware.”
“Saracen?” Her gaze flew to his face. “What Saracen?”
“Kadar Ben Arnaud. Isn’t he a Saracen? That’s what they call him.”
“Who are ‘they’?”
He shrugged. “Everyone.”
“Kadar’s mother was Armenian, his father a Frank.”
He nodded. “A Saracen.”
She should be amused that he had put Kadar, who could never be labeled, in a tight little niche. She was not amused. She fiercely resented the faint patronizing note in his voice. “Why not call him a Frank like his father? Why a Saracen?”
“He just seems . . . He’s not like us.”
No more than a panther was like a sheep or a glittering diamond like a moss-covered rock, she thought furiously. “Kadar belongs here. My sister and her husband regard him as a brother.”
“Surely not.” He looked faintly shocked. “Though I’m sure he’s good at what he does. These Saracens are supposed to be fine seamen, and he does your silk trading, doesn’t he?”
She wanted to slap him. “Kadar does more than captain our ship. He’s a part of Montdhu. We’re proud and fortunate to have him here.”
“I didn’t mean to make you—”
She lost track of what he was saying.
Kadar was coming.
She had known he would follow her, but Selene still smothered a leap of excitement as she caught sight of him in the doorway. He was moving slowly, deliberately, almost leisurely down the stairs. This was not good. That wasn’t the response she wanted from him. She took a step closer to Lord Douglas and swayed. “I believe I still feel a little faint.”
He instinctively put a hand on her shoulder to steady her. “Perhaps I should call the lady Thea.”
“No, just stay—”
“Good evening, Lord Douglas.” Kadar was coming toward them. “I believe it’s a little cool out here for Selene. Why don’t you go fetch her cloak?”
“We were just going in,” Lord Douglas said quickly. “Lady Selene felt a little faint and we—”
“Faint?” Kadar’s brows lifted as he paused beside them. “She appears quite robust to me.”
He’s not like us,
Douglas had said.
No, he wasn’t like any of these men who had come to honor Ware tonight. He was like no one Selene had ever met. Now, standing next to heavyset, red-faced Lord Douglas, the differences were glaringly apparent. Kadar’s dark eyes dominated a bronze, comely face that could reflect both humor and intelligence. He was tall, his powerful body deceptively lean, with a grace and confidence the other man lacked. But the differences were not only on the surface. Kadar was as deep and unfathomable as the night sky, and it was no wonder these simple fools could not understand how exceptional he was.
“She was ill,” Lord Douglas repeated.
“But I’m sure she feels better now.” Kadar paused. “So you may remove your hand from her shoulder.”
Selene felt a surge of fierce satisfaction. This was better. Kadar’s tone was soft, but so was the growl of a tiger before it pounced.
Evidently Lord Douglas didn’t miss the threat. He snatched his hand away as if burned. “She was afraid she would—”
“Selene is afraid of nothing.” He smiled at Selene. “Though she should be.”
Oh, yes, this was the Kadar she wanted to rouse. But he was wrong: She was afraid of him in this moment. She hid it as she smiled back at him. “I see nothing to fear. Lord Douglas can protect me.”
“Oh, I don’t think so. Because he’s going to go and fetch your cloak, aren’t you, Lord Douglas?”
Lord Douglas was nervously glancing from one to the other. “Perhaps we should all return—”
“I need a word with the lady Selene. I’m sure you’ll understand.”
Douglas drew a deep breath and then straightened his shoulders. “I feel it my duty to stay until she feels well enough to go back to the hall.”
She hadn’t counted on this. She had thought he would scurry away when Kadar showed his claws. Was he a fool that he couldn’t see the danger Kadar represented? She shivered. “I do feel chilled. Would you please fetch my cloak, Douglas?”
He hesitated and then, to her immense relief, took the out she’d given him. He bowed. “As you wish.”
She watched him hurry across the courtyard.
“You’re usually better at reading people.” Kadar’s gaze was also on Lord Douglas. “He was braver than you thought.”
“Yes.” She didn’t try subterfuge. It never worked with Kadar.
He knew her too well. “Brave or blind. He may be the one lacking in judgment.” She turned to face him, the excitement building. “What would you have done if I hadn’t sent him away?”
“What do you think?”
“I’m asking you.”
“Killed him,” he said casually. “I was very irritated with our young lord. I was considering a knife to the belly. He would have died slowly and painfully.”
“Why were you irritated?”
He smiled. “You know why.”
“He touched you. I’m sure it was by your design, but he still touched you. How did it feel to have his hand on you?”