Read an Excerpt
Marc drew the wool cloak about his shoulders and leaned toward his campfire with a weary groan. He no longer cared if it was night or day, if the desert was sun-scorched or wind-whipped, his belly full or empty. Each day brought him closer to not caring whether he lived at all.
The sun dropped toward the dry hills of Syria like a great gold coin, burning its way across the purpling sky. Usually he welcomed the smoke-coloured shadows that gathered around his camp each evening, but not tonight. He drew in a lungful of dung-scented air. Fifty steps to the west, the king's banner of scarlet and gold fluttered weakly in the dying wind. Were it not for Richard, this hated crusade would be over.
A boot scraped against the ground near him. Marc cocked his ear and reached an aching arm for the sword lying at his side.
"No need, my friend," a hearty voice called. "It is but Roger de Clare." The muscular young man, a forest-green surcoat covering his chain mail shirt, squatted beside Marc's fire. "What news, de Clare?" Marc muttered. "None. The king is worse. The servants are lazy. The scav-enger birds are hungry. All this you know."
Marc nodded without smiling. "Saladin himself sends a healing medicine for the king. At least that is what our spies report."
Roger tipped his head toward the edge of Marc's camp. "They also report Saladin's men lurk in the shadows beyond our firelight and listen to words best left unspoken."
The whole camp knew Richard lay in his tent, sweating with fever, attended by knights and servants. Saladin, as well, knew where Richard and his warriors lay. Every move the Frankish army made, the Saracen leader seemed to know in advance.
Roger cleared his throat. "The king sent word he would speak with you."
Marc groaned. "Again. No man in all Christendom ignores so much good advice. I will go later. I have not yet eaten."
Roger glanced into the crude metal pot hanging over Marc's fire. "Small loss, it would appear."
Marc nodded. Roger de Clare never minced his words, as did other Norman knights. That was one reason Marc toler-ated him. Other Normans, with their greedy gaze on Sicily, Cyprus, even Scotland, could go to the devil.
"Will the king die, do you think?" Roger asked. "I doubt it. Lion Heart is well named."
Again Marc leaned toward his fire. The bowl of boiled grain looked unappetising, but it was all he had.
"Join me, Roger." He gestured toward the bowl of food. "I grow weary of eating alone."
Roger glanced at the warming wheat mixture. "I think not, my friend.Your cooking pot would not feed a hungry rabbit, let alone a friend.And, 'The young man hesitated. "Richard waits.' "Let him wait," Marc grumbled. "I am weary of killing.' "Spies are near," de Clare said in a low voice. "Take care to say nothing of interest to the Saracen."
Marc nodded. His friend rose and propped his hands on his sword belt. "You are too much alone, man. You eat alone, sleep alone. You would fight alone if the king would let you. But, my ill-tempered friend, I will not let you do that."
"Save your advice for the men you command."
Roger scuffed noisily out of the firelight, and Marc closed his eyes. God in heaven, he did not deserve such a friend. Not after Acre. Richard had ordered the massacre, but on that awful, bloody day a part of Marc began to die. The heads of two thousand hostages, women and children, as well as de-fenders, rolled in the blood-soaked sand outside the city. Richard had betrayed them, and then slaughtered them all.
A rustle whispered into his consciousness. Not a footfall, something else. Without thought, he felt for his sword.
The sound came again, closer. Behind him. "Who goes there?' The silence stretched, so profound it seemed to scream. One of Richard's heavy-booted minions? A servant?
Marc lifted the simmering pot off the fire, rose and grasped the hilt of his sword. He had just started to buckle the leather belt around his hips when a movement beyond the flames caught his attention. He stiffened, straining his eyes into the thick night.
Sensing a motion at his back, he spun, sword raised, just as a dark-swathed figure hurtled toward him. Instinctively Marc took a single step forward, and his blade caught the intruder in the throat. A cry, then the man pitched onto the ground at Marc's feet and lay still.
Blood poured from the man's wound, soaking the turban and the silk tunic, oozing over the dark fingers clutching at the torn throat. A Saracen. Probably a spy, this close to the Frankish camp.
A gurgling sound, then nothing. Marc bent closer. Almighty God, what had he done! The man was unarmed.
He turned away in self-loathing, covered his face with his hand. For a moment he thought he would vomit. A warrior's slaughter in battle was his duty as a Christian knight, but striking an unarmed man, even a Saracen, was against the law of God. A whisper of sound brought his head up, every nerve on edge. Somethinginstinct or training, or perhaps the voice of Godmade him twist back toward the dead Arab. A small sobbing like a girl. So, the man had a loyal servant.
Again Marc turned away. The words of regret that sprang to his lips died the instant he opened his mouth. He need not apologise to a Saracen, much less to a Saracen's servant.
He turned away, toward the fire, and suddenly a warm weight dropped onto his back. One thin arm crooked about his neck and the blade of a dagger pressed into his throat.
"Qaatil!" shouted a thin voice, choked with hatred. Before Marc could throw him off, the knife nicked his skin; a dribble of warm liquid ran down the neck of his tunic.
"Taraka." He spoke in Arabic, but the boy did not let go. Instead he clung to Marc's back, the hand gripping the dagger flailing to find a vulnerable spot. He grabbed the servant's upper arm and twisted, hard.
With a yelp, the slight figure tumbled off and sprawled on the ground. The dagger skittered out of his fingers. A skinny hand grabbed for it, but Marc stomped his boot onto the blade, pinning it to the hard ground.
"Go." He gestured toward the shadowy edge of his camp. "I will not harm you." Without thinking, he spoke the words in the Frankish tongue.
"I will kill you.'The low voice replied with a tremor. "I will take revenge if it is the last thing I do on this earth. God knows I speak truly."
A servant boy who spoke Norman French? "Who are you?' Marc demanded.
The boy darted a glance at the dagger caught under Marc's dropped into a crouch, his forearm still imprisoned in Marc's grip. Tears streaked the lad's dirty face.
Marc bent and scooped up the knife. The hilt was silver, beautifully incised, with a single jewel embedded into the metal. A ruby, big as a sparrow's egg.
"Where did you get this?"
The hunched figure twitched but said nothing. "Answer me!" He slid his fingers down to the boy's wrist and squeezed. "Where did you get this blade?"
The trembling servant glanced down at the dead Arab. "It belongs to me."
"And I am the prince of Samarkand. Speak the truth!' "I am no thief.' "So you say, boy. Where did you get this blade?'
So, the Arab had been armed. A spy? It mattered not, since death now sat on the man's chest.
But the boy mattered. The boy might be only half-grown, but the wiry young Arab had tried to attack him, kill him, even. Marc reached down, caught the neck of the youth's dust-smeared tunic and yanked him upright.
"Who are you?" He expected the boy to cringe, but he straightened and looked boldly into Marc's face. "I am, Soray.' "And who is that man on the ground?' "That is my lord. His name is Khalil al-Din."
Marc tightened his grip on the tunic. "A servant? You are his servant?"
"I am his servant."
Marc released him. It made no sense. Was a Saracen servant so devoted to his master that he would commit murder on his behalf?
"You are lying."
The boy tensed. "No, lord. I do not lie."
Marc shook his head. He knew a lie when he heard one. Still, he could not linger; the king awaited him.
master." He tramped out of the circle of firelight, the dagger still clenched in his fist, to the tent where Richard waited.
Soraya crossed her arms over her waist and watched the tall knight stride off into the dark. He had a cold, hard look about him, a darkness in his face that frightened her. Not one word of regret, not even a prayer for the man he had struck down with his thoughtless blow.
Shaking with sobs, she knelt at Khalil's side and bowed her head. "Uncle, I swear to you I will avenge your death. And I will also complete your missionI will make sure that Saladin's written message is delivered to King Richard. But for both these tasks I must get your dagger back. God willing, I will do it this very night." She reached out and pressed her fingers over his eyelids. Choking back a cry of anguish, she straightened Khalil's limbs and kissed both his cold cheeks.
I cannot bear for the Frankish barbarian to touch you.
I cannot allow him to lay you in the ground without the proper words.
She stood up, her hands clenched at her sides. Tearing her barian had no tent, only a meager fire and one cooking pot. She peered inside the vessel. Surely a man so large must eat more than that little bit of noxious-looking paste!
An iron helmet and a chain mail shirt were partially stuffed into a filthy hemp bag. Beside it lay a rolled-up blanket, secured with a leather belt blackened with age. Ugh. These Franks were worse than pigs.
She lifted her head, listening. The knight would return soon. When he did, she would be ready. She must snatch the dagger away from him and strike before he could react. She would not give up until the miserable Frank lay lifeless beside her uncle.
And as to her other quest, the message she needed to deliver? All in good time. She would see to that once she had retrieved her dagger and dealt with the man who had killed her beloved uncle. It would be difficult to demand her weapon back from the Frank without saying why she needed itbut she was to tell no one of the message except the king. She added more dung to the fire, carefully positioned the blanket before it and lifted it away in a prearranged signal.