Authors: Gerri Russell
"Alan tells me you have the gift of sight?" Jessamine said with a gentle smile as though reading her thoughts. "He truly believes your visions will help the Templars find and destroy de la Roche once and for all."
"I have dreams of things that have come to pass." Brianna could not keep from smiling back. There was something about the pregnant woman that reminded her very much of the abbess where her father had sent her to be cured of what he felt was a disease.
Brianna shook off the memory and studied her hostess. Did an iron will lie beneath the woman's genuine kindness as it had the abbess?
"Come, let us get you something to ease your weariness." Jessamine placed her hand on Brianna's arm and guided her toward the raised dais at the front of the hall. "I am familiar with dreams of prophecy."
Brianna startled at her words. "Do you have visions as well?"
She shook her head as they approached the table. "I was the keeper of a prophecy that brought Alan and I together. The prophecy changed both of our lives for the better. Perhaps it will do that for you and Simon as well."
As if he'd heard the statement, Simon turned, his gaze locking with hers. Brianna tore her gaze from his and frowned at Jessamine. "It's not like that between Simon and me."
Jessamine nodded thoughtfully. "I had thought … oh, never mind." She led Brianna to the table on the dais and signaled for her to take the chair next to her own. "It is my most ardent hope then that your dreams will help the Templars overcome their greatest foe."
"Mine as well," Brianna glanced uneasily about the chamber. All these people and so many others needed her dreams to guide them. She swallowed back a moment's fear. What if she let them down?
"You have strength, Brianna. More than I've ever seen in a woman before," Jessamine said as though reading Brianna's thoughts, her doubts.
"Sometimes I fear it is just my stubborn pride that guides me."
Jessamine laughed. "It is more than that, my new friend. Even I, who am no seer, can tell you are different — special." Jessamine's gaze met Brianna's. "You are a blessing."
Brianna felt her throat thicken. "Thank you, Jessamine."
"Now, we must set you to rights so that you may dream these dreams of yours." Jessamine poured a tankard of ale from the pitcher on the table and handed it to Brianna. "Try this. It is made with honey and has a reviving quality to it."
Brianna took a deep drink, letting the warming liquid slip down her throat. The ale was sweeter than other ales she'd tasted. And her hostess was right. She did feel less fatigued even after only one swallow. "Thank you for giving us shelter tonight. Sleep, and I hope, the necessary dreams, will find me now without having to worry about our safety outside."
"Let's get you fed so you may retire, and with luck, you'll dream the dreams you need to free this country from de la Roche's terror."
Brianna found herself staring at the ceiling of the bedchamber she shared with Abigail. Her friend had fallen asleep immediately. Hours later, Brianna still had not. She'd tried relaxing into the soft heather ticking beneath her. When that hadn't worked, she strolled about the chamber, praying for weariness to overtake her. When that had failed, she had moved to the small shuttered window and had opened the latch to allow the night air to brush her heated cheeks.
From the tower in which she was housed, she could see the lists below. Four torches had been set at the corners of the field, illuminating the now empty area that would be used by the castle's knights to practice their warring skills.
As Brianna gazed down at the open space, an idea came to her. Silently, so as not to wake Abigail, she dressed then slipped her sword soundlessly into her scabbard. Practicing her warrior's skills would serve as a way to help her find the sleep she so desperately sought.
Smiling, she hurried through the silent corridor and down the stairs. Brianna hesitated at the open doorway that led into the great hall where Simon and Kaden supposedly slept with the castle's other knights. Only soft snores greeted her as she slipped past the doorway, heading outside.
The moon hovered full and round above the mountains to the east and the cool night air brought a shiver from her. But Brianna knew she would warm herself in a moment with her efforts in the lists. She could go through the motions of a mock battle against an invisible enemy as she had during so many other practice sessions in her early days, before the Templars.
Sorrow streaked through her for a heartbeat and her steps faltered at the reminder of her folly. She was here in the lists tonight to force herself past the point of exhaustion so she might dream about a man who had disguised himself. She knew how she had disguised herself and infiltrated the ranks of the Templars. Would she be able to figure out how de la Roche had achieved the same end?
She had to.
Brianna entered the lists and drew her sword. She held her weapon out before her and bowed to her invisible enemy. "To the death or first blood?" she asked.
Brianna gripped her sword and spun toward the voice. Simon stood not two paces away. By the light of the torches she could see him fully. "What are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same thing. Aren't you supposed to be sleeping, or dreaming, or having a vision or whatever it is you do to give us the information we need?"
She lowered her weapon. "I still cannot sleep. I thought a bit of practice might help tire me." At the sight of Simon, her tension eased. Why? Did she truly find his presence comforting? Or was it that he understood the kind of pressure she was under to start them on their way.
"Would you like a true opponent, not just the air?" he asked.
She smiled. He knew her so well. A challenge would ease her mind. "If you dare," she replied.
"I dare that and much more."
Brianna raised her sword, waiting for Simon to draw his weapon.
Instead of drawing his sword, he walked away toward several benches along the side of the list. He strode back toward her after reaching for two long poles. He offered her what she now recognized as a quarterstaff. "I have no wish to kill you with my sword. Quarterstaffs will be safer. Put your weapon away."
Brianna sheathed her sword before she accepted the staff. "That's very kind of you, but you need not spare me. I can hold my own against you no matter the weapon."
He laughed. "We shall see about that."
Brianna glowered at the man. "I promise not to hurt you either." She turned the staff in her hands. Finding the balance off, she strode toward a rock not too far from her and laid her staff along the edge. She drew her sword. With both hands, she brought the weapon down against the wood, taking a handbreadth from the end. She sheathed her weapon and picked up the quarterstaff once more. Another twist of the staff confirmed the weapon was the proper length and balance for her height. "Now, we battle," she said, joining Simon in the center of the lists.
He laughed as he circled her.
Brianna kept her staff at an angle across her body just as Simon swung his quarterstaff. She misjudged the distance he could reach, knowing her mistake too late as he swept her off her feet. With a groan, she hit the ground. Her head rang from the blow resonating through her, and her eyes refused to focus. She heard a sound coming toward her. She rolled. A heartbeat later, Simon's staff tapped the hard-packed earth where she had been seconds before.
She scrambled to her feet, grabbing her staff by one end and swung it. He held up his staff, blocking the hit, but her blow sent him stumbling back several paces. Surprise widened his eyes. "You've improved since we last sparred with quarterstaffs." His mouth tightened and he came at her again.
Brianna met each swing of his quarterstaff. He was taller than she was, and his staff longer than hers, but she was quicker. That was her advantage, and she used it.
Round and round they went, striking and feinting. She watched Simon's hands closely, gauging his next move. But he moved to strike high, then went low, knocking her off her feet when he scooped the staff around and hit the back of her knees. She hit the ground hard.
As he leapt forward to press the staff to her throat, she raised her staff and caught him in the belly. She pushed hard, forcing him to her left. Using one end, she swung, striking him in the chest this time. He fell. From the ground, she shifted her hands and mimicked his move, slashing the quarterstaff against the back of his legs when he struggled to stand. She rolled away from him as he hit the ground with a thud.
Jumping up, she readied herself for the next attack, but Simon remained on the ground with his eyes closed. She inched toward him. Wary of being tricked, she reached out with her staff and poked him. He did not move. She batted his quarterstaff away from his right hand and lifted the appendage. It fell back to the ground lifeless.
"Simon?" She drifted closer. "Simon, did I hurt you?" She leaned down. His hands shot up and grasped her arms.
He pulled her down hard against his chest. Her staff fell and came to rest just out of arm's reach. His gaze narrowed on her face. "It is unique to find a woman who can wield a sword and a staff as well as any man."
"I practice as often as you do," she replied coolly.
"You are a decent warrior … for a woman." His grip lessened enough for her to roll away from him. She gained her feet.
Brianna snapped up her staff and curled her fingers around the solid wood. "Does it give you solace to believe my skills are inferior to yours when both of us know—"
Simon was on his feet in a heartbeat. He grasped the staff on either side of her hands. He raised it with one quick motion to rest beneath her chin. He brought his face forward until he was only a handbreadth from her.
She tried to shove the staff down, but he was too strong. She took a step back. He matched it. She edged to the left. He followed. He kept the distance between them the same no matter what she did to try to avoid him. Finally, he pushed her back until the stone of the castle stopped their progression.
She lifted her chin and met his suddenly fiery gaze. "Remember it was you who challenged me."
He brought his face closer. "Because I want you to understand you are a good warrior, but even good warriors have a weakness. De la Roche will find what yours is and use it against you. So be forewarned and be prepared."
"I have no weakness."
He lowered the staff to her chest and stepped even closer. She hardly dared to breathe as she became aware of every hard angle of him against her. His muscular legs pressed against her skirt and she felt the force of his breathing move the rigid bulk of his chest against the softness of her own.
His gaze dropped from her eyes to her lips a moment before his mouth clamped over hers. At first there was anger in his kiss. She tried to turn her head away, but found she physically could not. He jerked the staff out of her hands and tossed it aside while his lips continued their punishing exploration.
She brought her hands up to press against his chest and tried to stamp on his foot. But he shifted his threatened appendage to the left and pulled her closer. A soft groan escaped his lips. She used his momentary distraction and tried again. She stomped down hard.
He broke the kiss and muttered a curse. His hold lessened and she twisted out of his grasp. She dove for her staff. He followed and grabbed her arm. He spun her to face him. "That wasn't very ladylike."
"There's no need to insult me." She brought her elbow up against his thumb, breaking his hold. She grabbed his shoulders before he could recover and gave a half turn. Simon flipped easily over her hip and hit the ground for a second time that night. He groaned, closed his eyes, and did not move.
This time she kept her distance. She would not fall for that trick twice. "Get up and dust yourself off like a man."
His eyes snapped open. "How did you do that?"