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The port city of El-Arish, on the much-disputed border between the Caliphate of Cairo and the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Anno Domini 1152
Her entire face hidden behind a veil after the style of women of the East, Lady Jocelyn tipped a nod toward the wretch who'd been hauled from the slave pens. It took two burly guards armed with pikes to prod the man onto the auction block. Despite his shackles, he was of a size to be reckoned with.
Her castellan's protest was low and for her ears only. Sir Hugh had journeyed to Outremer years ago with Jocelyn's grandfather. He was somewhat grizzled of late but had lost little of his strength and none of his ability to wield a sword. Like Jocelyn, he'd donned Eastern garb for this dangerous excursion across the ever-fluctuating border between the two kingdoms. His hooded robe shielded most of his face as he leaned closer to the lady he'd sworn to serve.
"But look at the bruises on that one's arms and face. They bespeak a stubborn, intractable nature. He'll never bend to your will."
"He has no choice. Not if he wishes his freedom."
That was true enough. Ever since the Pope had declared a second Crusade seven years ago, thousands upon thousands of would-be warriors for Christ had swelled the ranks of pilgrims making the perilous journey to the Holy Land. Even Louis VII of France and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had answered the call. Although they'd returned to France after a somewhat less than successful campaign, their daring exploitsand scandalous affairshad become the stuff of legend in Outremer.
Unfortunately, the ranks of those who preyed on travelers making the hazardous trek had swelled as well. So many pilgrims and Crusaders had fallen victim to brigands and pirates that the slave markets from Cairo to Damascus were flooded with pale-skinned Franks. Even here, on the very border of the Latin kingdom that had been their destination when they had set out months or years ago, so many came on the auction block that prices had dropped like lead weights.
Jocelyn wished fervently she could buy them all. She and her grandfather before her had sent agents to purchase many of these hapless captives until tensions escalated and the Fatamids of Egypt had closed their borders. It was a measure of her desperation that she'd made this risky foray to purchase a slave she could use to achieve her ends.
If she could use him. Her castellan seemed most doubtful.
"But look at him," Sir Hugh urged. "For all his bruises, he is roped with muscle and sinew."
He was indeed! Through the slit in her veil, Joc-elyn inspected the slave on the auction block. Beneath his matted hair and filthy beard no doubt crawling with lice, he displayed a body that told her this was no mere pilgrim. No lowly plowman or tradesman eager to win everlasting salvation by answering the Pope's call. Such muscled shoulders, such a flat belly and taut, corded thighs bespoke years of hard training and rigorous discipline. He'd swung a sword, she guessed shrewdly, and swung it often.
But it was his stance that intrigued her. Shoulders square, chin angled, he stood with his feet spread as far as his leg irons would allow and looked out on the noisy crowd with disdain in his astonishingly blue eyes. If she must use a slave to achieve her purposes, she decided, she would as lief not use a sniveling, cowardly one.
Then his gaze caught hers, or seemed to. Scorn rippled across his face and curled his lip. Jocelyn bristled at the sneer even as she acknowledged the reason behind it. Veiled and robed in a voluminous cloak as she was, he took her for a woman of the East. Come, like the other females in the noisy crowd, to inspect and taunt the latest Frankish captives put on the block.
Ever after Jocelyn would wonder whether it was the contempt on his face that sealed his fateand hers. Or whether her decision was driven by the contrariness that had so delighted her grandfather and caused a long succession of nurses to shake their heads in dismay. Whatever the reason, she'd made her choice. This one would serve her purposes, she vowed silently, say he or nay he.
And despite his rags and matted hair, she had to admit this tall, unbending captive was more pleasing to the eye than most males. Certainly more pleasing than the first man she'd been promised to in marriage. Dark and most dour of visage, Lord Reynaud could have counted forty winters to her five at the time of their betrothal. But he'd brought Jocelyn sweets and baubles, and she had accepted without question that she would wed a man closer to her grandfather's age than hers.
It was her duty, after all. From the time she was old enough to grasp such matters, Jocelyn had understood that she must contract an alliance with a knight strong enough to hold the lands and massive, fortified castle overlooking the Mediterranean Sea that were her birthright. Lord Reynaud had been just such a fearsome warrior.
When he had taken an arrow through the eye at the siege of Antioch, Jocelyn's grandfather had sought another mate for her. A much younger lord this time, but no less valiant. Laughing, merry-eyed Geoffrey de Lusignan had been the embodiment of all Jocelyn's girlish dreams. She had made her vows eagerly, but she had been deemed still too young to consummate the marriage. Her heart had near broke when Geoffrey, too, went down in battle.
She'd matured rapidly in mind and body after that. So much so that her grandsire had agreed it was time she went to a husband's bed. He'd been negotiating yet another strategic alliance when he had succumbed to a bloody flux of the bowels and his grieving granddaughter had became ward to Baldwin the Third, King of Jerusalem.
And what a turbulent wardship it had been! Twelve months and more of political wrangling, with Jocelyn caught squarely in the middle.
Only a little older than Jocelyn herself, Baldwin had spent most of those twelve months defending his kingdom against the enemies who besieged it on all sides. At the same time, he'd been forced to struggle mightily to wrest power from his mother. Queen Melisande had ruled the Kingdom of Jerusalem for more than two decades and was loath to relinquish the reins now that her son had come of age. So intense had their struggle become that Baldwin had been forced to besiege his lady mother and her loyal followers in Jerusalem before they'd worked out a tentative peace.
As one of the wealthiest heiresses in the kingdom, Jocelyn had become a pawnnay, a hapless mousebatted between the paws of those two royal lions. So many matches had been proposed for her before being struck down by either the king or his strong-willed mother that she'd lost count.
But this last .
By all that was holy, this last! And to think both Melisande and her son favored the match!
Beneath her enveloping cloak, a shudder rippled down Jocelyn's spine. She understood the twisted politics that pitted kin against kin and Christian against other Christians in a kingdom struggling mightily for its very survival. She should, having been born and bred in the turbulent East. What's more, she fully acknowledged the need for strategic alliances wherever possible with powerful Saracen lords.
But she would be damned if she would go meekly into the bed of the Emir of Damascus. Ali ben Haydar was known throughout the East for his predilection for tender young virgins. Once he'd pierced their maiden's shield, he consigned them to his harem and rarely, if ever, called them to his bed again. At last count, more than three hundred of his wives and concubines languished in luxurious boredom.
Not Jocelyn! Baldwin and his mother could find another untried maid to send to the emir's bed. She would use this unkempt slave as the instrument of her delivery from the harem.
"That one," she instructed Sir Hugh. "Go quickly. Offer gold to the auctioneer before he opens the bidding to all. I want to be back across the border before dark."
Jocelyn had acted as chatelaine for her grandfather almost from the day she'd put off short skirts and could totter around the castle at his heels. Her vassals and servants knew her every gesture, her every tone. This one brooked no further argument, even from the knight who'd served as castellan to both her and her grandsire.
Sir Hugh signaled to the equerries who'd accompanied them across the border. He'd chosen each man carefully. Of Eastern descent, they wore their native robes to disguise the fact they'd sworn allegiance to a Frankish lord. Jocelyn's grandfather had enlisted many such men in his service, and they now served her with fierce, unswerving devotion. Such were the convoluted, complex and ever-changing loyalties of Outremer.
"Sulim, you and Omar will come with me," Hugh ordered. "Hanrah, escort our lady back to the horses and wait for me there."
Jocelyn threw a last look at her prospective purchase. The slanting afternoon sun cast his body in bronze. His tall, square-shouldered and most defiant body.
A spear of doubt lanced through her. And something else. Something that tightened her chest and stirred an unfamiliar heat low in her belly.
Untried maid though she was, she recognized the odd sensation. No girl could grow to womanhood in a crowded keep without understanding what drove dairymaids to lift their skirts to stable hands and knights to rut with willing kitchen wenches. It was lust, pure and simple, of a sort that would earn Jocelyn a heavy penance from the castle priest when she confessed it.
If she confessed it. Her plan was so dangerous, her intentions so outrageous, that she'd confided them to no one but Sir Hugh. Her conscience wouldn't allow her to put any other of her people at risk, not even the kindly, if somewhat absentminded, priest who served as her confessor.
Suddenly, the enormity of what she contemplated almost overwhelmed her. Dear sweet savior! Was she mad to even think that she might change the course of her future? That she could defy a king? Torn, she came within a breath of abandoning the scheme Sir Hugh kept insisting was foolhardy and hazardous in the extreme.
But her castellan had already left her side and was threading his way through the crowd to the auctioneer's table. Jocelyn bit her lip, wavered a moment more, then turned on her heel.
Simon de Rhys ignored the raw agony of his wounds and stood rigid with shame. Flies swarmed around his head and bit at the oozing lash marks on his back. Wrist and ankle cuffs cut into his flesh. He said not a word as a sun-weathered man draped from head to foot in a hooded cloak dropped coins into the palm of the slave merchant. Yet of all the indignities he'd suffered in the past year, this was the worst.
He'd answered the call, albeit reluctantly, when summoned to the sickbed of the father whose scheming ways had lost the family both lands and honor.
He'd listened in cynical disbelief when Gervase de Rhys had rasped that he regretted his many sins and had pledged his youngest son to the Knights Templar as penance.
He'd done his damnedest to ignore that pledge until the saintly Bishop of Clairvaux had pointed out that Simon would imperil his own soul if he didn't fulfill his father's vow.
And he'd fought like a wild beast when pirates had overrun the ship transporting him and a boatload of other travelers to the Holy Land, then endured the vicious bite of a lead-tipped lash as his captors tried to whip him into submission. But this.
This scraped away what little was left of his pride. Jaw tight, he tried not to think of the rich prizes his strong arm had won in tournaments. Nor of the ransoms he'd collected from the knights he'd bested in battle. He was no longer Simon de Rhys, champion in more lists than he could count. He'd turned all his earthly possessions over to the Church, as required of members of the Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. And this despite the fact he was as yet only an aspirant to the order. There hadn't been time for him to undergo the Templars' secret initiation rituals before he took ship to the Holy Land. Now he was a slave to the very infidels he'd sworn to defeat! The bitter, inescapable fact ate at him like sharp-beaked ravens pecking at his entrails.
Stiff of spine, he ignored the heckling noises from the crowd as coins changed hands, ignored the pain of his lacerated back, ignored all until his new master beckoned imperiously for him to follow. Chains clanking, he hobbled back to the pens crammed with despairing captives.
Once there, the slave master struck off his leg irons. He refused to wince as the man knocked the pins from the cuffs with callous indifference, but fiery pain seared his bruised and bloodied ankles. Teeth gritted, Simon locked his hands together and contemplated a last, desperate act. He was too weak from lack of sustenance to acquit himself in a full-pitched battle, but he could still swing his wrist chain in a deadly arc.
He would not get far. Not in this crowded marketplace. Simon accepted that. But he would die fighting, as he'd sworn to do when he'd accepted the burden of his sire's pledge. He had intertwined his fingers and was poised for attack when his new master issued a terse command.
Simon blinked. Had he heard aright? Had the man addressed him in his own tongue? In a pure accent that marked him unmistakably as a Frank?
"Who are you?"
"You will learn in good time," the man growled. "Come, we must make haste."
Simon's thoughts chased around and around, like a dog after its own tail. He could still swing the length of wrist chain. Still crush a skull or two or three before he was taken down. Or he could follow this man and see where he led.
He led to a small but well-armed cavalcade waiting in the shadow of the city's walls. Simon's pulse leaped at his first glimpse of a midnight-black Arabian steed that looked as though he would run with the wind. It leaped again when he saw who straddled the courser's back.