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Nicholas de Burgh kept one hand on the hilt of his sword and a wary eye on the company around him. He had been in worse places, but not many, and this inn might give even his brothers pause. Although the de Burghs were fearless, they weren't stupid, and Nicholas blamed a bout of recklessness for his presence here.
The stench of drink and vomit filled his nostrils, for these lodgings made no claim to cleanliness, a fact that seemed lost on the others who gathered in the dim common room. Indeed, those around him had the hardened air of men likely to do murder for a handful of coins.
Except for one.
It was the sight of that singular fellow that caused Nicholas to linger. Barely more than a boy, the stranger wore the distinctive robe of the Hospitallers and probably had returned from a stint of fighting in the Holy Land. Although a knight, his limp and seeming lack of a squire made him vulnerable to the thieves, whores and gamblers who frequented these places.
The boy's eyes were bright with either too much wine or some kind of fever, which might account for his lack of judgement. Or maybe he was so glad to be back in England that he forgot there were plenty of dangers right here at home.
Whatever the reason, he appeared oblivious to the threats around him and Nicholas was determined to warn him. But as Nicholas stepped forwards, a Templar pushed ahead to capture the lad's attention. Although there were rumours of feuding between the military orders, these two were soon deep in conversation, leaving Nicholas free to go. Yet there was something about the Templar that made him hesitate
Nicholas surged to his feet as the inevitable fight broke out beside him. Ducking when a cup of wine sailed by his head, he dodged the dark liquid that splattered against the wall and kept to the perimeter while making his way through the growing melee. When a bench overturned in his path with a loud thud, he leapt over it, avoiding a candle that fell to the floor with a hiss, its light extinguished.
Reaching the door, Nicholas turned to scan the room, but he could not find the Hospitaller or the Templar, even lying amongst the filthy rushes. There was no sign of the knights outside, either, but Nicholas did not remain, for he was eager to put some distance between himself and the inn before the brawlers spilled out.
Keeping an eye on the entrance, he took to the road, but he had only gone a short way before a figure emerged from the shadows to veer into his path. The slight young man would prove little threat to an armed knight and Nicholas did not halt, but fell into step beside him. 'Keeping watch, Guy?'
'I told you those lodgings stank of trouble,' his squire said.
'Which is why I quit the place,' Nicholas answered smoothly. 'Despite what you might think, I still value my neck.'
Guy shot him a chary glance and Nicholas held up a hand to forestall any further discussion. His squire frowned, but said nothing, and in the ensuing silence, a noise erupted nearby, too close to be the echoes from the inn. Halting his steps, Nicholas inclined his head towards a narrow lane, piled with refuse.
Ignoring Guy's protest, Nicholas crept forwards and heard the unmistakable sound of a fist connecting with flesh and bone. Inching around the corner of an abandoned cot, he peered into the darkness and saw the white robe of the Templar visible ahead. By the man's stance, Nicholas would guess he had someone by the throat, presumably the Hospitaller he had befriended earlier.
'Where is it?' demanded the Templar, if that's what he was. Although the order of the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon was not what it once had been, surely its members were not practising petty thievery. But whoever or whatever he might be, Nicholas had no intention of standing by while he assaulted a seemingly innocent fellow knight.
'Hold,' Nicholas called, drawing his sword. But the knave only thrust the Hospitaller towards him, forcing Nicholas to grab at the stumbling form or let the young man fall.
'Danger,' he whispered. 'Must help Emery.'
Muttering an assurance, Nicholas shifted the injured man to Guy, so he could give chase. But the lane was so narrow and dark that he could not move quickly and soon he was faced with a stone wall. Since the Templar must have come this way, as well, Nicholas sheathed his sword and started climbing, hoping that an open drain or worse did not lie on the other side.
Although he could see little from the top, the drop was not a long one and Nicholas managed to land on his feet. But the Templar was waiting in the shadows, sword in hand. Dancing away from the blade, Nicholas narrowly avoided its bite while drawing his own weapon. Although the sound of metal upon metal rang out in the stillness, it did not rouse an audience. The area seemed deserted, and who would dare interfere with two knights? For whether a Templar or not, the man Nicholas was fighting was well trained.
'Who are you?' the Templar demanded, echoing Nicholas's thoughts.
'A knight who takes his oath seriously,' Nicholas answered. 'And where lies your allegiance, brother?'
The Templar laughed, as though amused or even relieved by Nicholas's outrage. 'No concern of yours, stranger,' the Templar said. 'You'd do better to mind your own businessand your back.'
The taunt had barely left the man's lips when Nicholas felt a blow. If he'd been himself, he might have heard the approach of another, even above the clang of the swords, or guessed that the knave spoke to distract him. In years past, he would never have been so easily ambushed, Nicholas thought, before falling to the ground.
Emery Montbard jerked awake, her heart pounding, and wondered what had roused her from sleep. She glanced around her small dwelling and saw nothing amiss in the darkness. And yet something had disturbed her slumber, so she lay still, alert to the slightest sound. And then she heard it: a thump outside, as though something was in her garden and no small animal, either. Had a cow wandered in to trample her neat rows?
Emery rose and hurried to the narrow window, ready to shout at the creature, only to swallow her cry. For it was no four-legged beast that lurched towards her shelter, but the hulking form of a man. The nearby Hospitaller commandery, an unwanted presence that loomed so large over her life now seemed too far away, should she need to summon aid.
Perhaps one of the workers there or even one of the brethren had helped himself to the wine and gone astray. Emery hesitated to believe that the intrusion was deliberate, but there was always the possibility that a stranger had learned of her solitary existence here. Just as the thought sent a chill running through her and she began to wonder how to defend herself, the man lifted his face, moonlight revealing features well known and beloved.
'Gerard!' Emery uttered her brother's name in astonishment. Although he did not answer and seemed unaware of her hail, Emery hesitated to call out. Instead, she rushed to the door and threw it open, only to find that he had collapsed upon the ground. Alarmed, Emery dropped down beside him.
'What is it? Are you hurt?' His lashes fluttered open and closed again, as though in confirmation. And though loath to leave him, Emery knew he would be better served by his order.
'Don't move. I will summon the brothers,' she said, but when she would have risen, his hand closed over her wrist with surprising strength.
'No,' Gerard muttered. 'Beware, Em. I've put you in danger. Trust no one.'
'But you need help.'
At her protest, his grip grew tighter. 'Promise me,' he whispered. His eyes were bright even in the darkness, but was it intensity or fever that burned in them?
When Emery nodded her agreement, his hand dropped away and his eyes closed, his strength seemingly expended on his speech. Trust no one. The warning hung in the air, making the ensuing silence eerie, and suddenly the familiar landscape of the night took on an eerie cast, as though the shadows under the trees hid unknown threats.
A stray breeze fluttered the leaves above, and Emery held her breath, listening hard for the sound of pursuita soft footfall or the thud of a horse's hoof against the earthbut all she heard was the wind and the pounding of her own heart.
And if something was out there, watching in the darkness, there was little she could do from where she crouched by her brother, unprotected. The thought finally roused her to action, and Emery rose to her feet, dragging Gerard with her to the relative safety of her small dwelling.
Once inside, she barred the door and turned her attention back to her brother. Stoking the fire, she put some water on to heat and studied him by the light of the flames. He was bruised about the throat and face, including a cut lip, but the wound she found upon his thigh was most worrisome. 'Twas a gash that had not healed properly and she hurried to tend it. Was this what had brought him back from the Holy Land?
Having received no word from her brother for nearly a year, Emery had feared the worst. Yet her relief at seeing him was tempered by the circumstances of his appearance. Had he returned home without leave? Emery frowned, for those who disobeyed their superiors faced expulsion or even excommunication from the church itself.
But what else would cause him to shun the help of his fellow Hospitallers? Shaking her head, Emery told herself that Gerard might not be aware of what he was saying. Her first task was to heal him, so she cleaned out the gash, then brewed a tisane that settled him into a fitful sleep. Weary herself, Emery leaned against the side of her narrow bed, resting her head upon her brother's arm.
The warmth of the contact, after she had been isolated for so long, was comforting, but soon Gerard jerked against her cheek, crying out. Although Emery leaned close, she could make little sense of what he said except the words 'Saracen' and 'Templar', which were spoken in such dire tones that she looked over her shoulder, half-expecting to see another's presence.
When Gerard grew silent once more, Emery was relieved, but the bouts of muttering continued, including oft-repeated alarms about the Templar and the Saracen. Once he seemed to be lucid and awake, rousing Emery from her doze with his urgency. 'The parcel I sent you, where is it?' he asked, gripping her arm.
'Parcel? I know of no parcel,' Emery said.
Gerard released her with a groan. 'We are lost,' he whispered, turning his face away.
'Why? What has happened?' Emery asked.
But her brother closed his eyes again, and Emery wondered whether he was aware of his own speech. She worried that he needed the more skilled care of the brothers at the commandery, even though it was not a hospital. But his warning rang in her ears, and, selfishly, she was not ready to hand her sibling over to brethren who might remove him from her reach.
She'd wait until morn, and then see.
Emery came awake slowly, blinking in bafflement at her surroundings before she realised that she was lying on the floor. Had she fallen in her sleep? The question had barely flitted through her mind when the memory of the night's events came rushing back. She jerked upright to look at the bed, but it was empty, and she glanced about with uncertainty. Had it all been a dream? Her heart clenched at the thought that she had imagined her brother's appearance.
Maybe he had stepped outside, Emery thought, rising to her feet. But as she scanned the small area, she could find no signs of Gerard having been there at all. The cloth she had used to wash his wounds was gone, and the bowl that had held the water lay empty, as did the cup. Although the pot in which she had brewed the tisane hung over the dying fire, no herbs remained.
How could she have visualised his visit so vividly? Emery raised her hands to her face in confusion, only to lower them again as something caught her eye. 'Twas a small detail, but one that could not be done away with while she slept. Under her fingernails lay proof of her brother's appearance, for they were stained with his blood.
But why would Gerard go to so much trouble to eliminate all evidence of his presence? For one startling moment, Emery wondered if unseen foes had carried him off, but she shook her head in denial. Surely no intruders could have entered without her knowledge. Her brother must have left on his own, without even a goodbye after they had been parted for so long. But why?
Trust no one.
Gerard's words came to mind abruptly, along with the cryptic warnings he had issued during the hours he had lain abed. But Emery had thought her brother raving, perhaps with some fever, which made his disappearance all the more alarming. The thought roused her to action and she went to the door, hoping to find him outside. But the pale light of the coming dawn revealed nothing and the small grove was silent except for the calls of birds.
What was she to do? Emery hesitated, leery of leaving the relative safety of her dwelling, yet Gerard might still be close by, too ill to travel, chased by demons of his own making. Or, worse, he could be fleeing some real threat. Emery shivered. Either way, it would be better for her brother if she found him, so she hurried back inside to dress properly.
Reaching for her plain kirtle, Emery once again glanced at the bed, only to spy something lying there, amongst the covers. Stretching out her hand, Emery fingered what looked to be a heavy piece of parchment, but 'twas like nothing she had ever seen before.
It was longhalf a foot, she guessedyet narrow, and was completely covered by a brightly coloured drawing such as those seen in manuscripts. In fact, at first she thought that it must have been cut from a book, yet the edges bore no trace of such abuse.
Eyeing the illustration itself, Emery realised that the pretty pattern surrounded a central figure that appeared to be a large black snake, curving ominously. Or was it a sword? Emery shivered at the vaguely threatening image. Had the object fallen from Gerard's things, or had he left it there deliberately as some kind of message?
She studied it more carefully, looking for anything else that might be hidden amongst the depictions of flowers and leaves, and soon she found it. A phrase had been written beneath the snake that anyone else might think the part of the illustration, but Emery knew her brother's hand and the words chilled her.
Trust no one.