Authors: Gerri Russell
"Your future does not lie here at the convent, Brianna," the abbess said, her voice brusque. "I give you two choices, my child."
Brianna's chin dipped to her chest. The abbess would be rid of her and her visions and warrior ways, just like her father.
"Your old nurse. She visits you now and then, am I not correct?"
Brianna slowly looked up at the unexpected words.
The abbess nodded. "She brings lavender when she comes and kindly donates it to us for our wash days. She seeks my blessings — but I confess mostly she desires my company to learn more of how her old charge prospers here. She oversees an inn, as I recall. I think … yes. There may be a place for you with her."
Brianna swallowed back disappointment. "I have nothing to offer her. I would be nothing less than a burden. At least here I can help with the washing we take in—"
"Your other option is to become what you do not confess. You desire knighthood."
Brianna's mouth worked for a moment before she managed to say the longing that truly was in her heart of hearts as the abbess had called it earlier. "More than anything, aye, I want to be a knight."
"Why? It is not natural for a woman to desire such."
"There is nothing natural about me," Brianna whispered. "Not since I was very little. I have always battled, using sticks as weapons, with my brothers, much to my nurse's dismay. Abigail tried to break me of my unwomanly ways."
"At least Abigail has some sense." Mother Superior didn't quite harrumph; it was more of a sniff, but it spoke volumes.
"What are you offering, Mother?" Brianna asked, almost afraid to hope.
Mother Superior stood and reached for something she had confiscated months ago. She came back around the table and pressed the sword into Brianna's hands. "I know the abbot at Crosswick Abbey. He is looking for men of skill to initiate into the Templar Order."
Brianna gasped at the unbelievable offer. "But I am no man."
"No," the abbess agreed. "But you do have gifts, gifts I can no longer dismiss, gifts that might very well be divinely sent. You must choose with your heart, Brianna, either a life with Abigail or a life of deception and deceit, for only you will bear that stain of sin upon your soul."
Brianna stared down at the metal, too long unpolished. She felt its weight, and could not suppress a shiver of deep longing. Still, she looked up with trepidation. "You would offer me another chance to take up the sword against my father's wishes, fully aware that I must sin against my true nature to secret myself into this Order?"
"I have prayed. This is what God has revealed to me." She signaled Brianna to rise. "I do not understand the ways of the Lord in all things. We do not glory in violence. As women we work to build God's paradise on earth. But we also do not close our eyes to what God has given us. You were given your visions and your skill with a sword for a reason. Now is the time for you to follow where that leads."
Brianna looked down at the sword carefully balanced on her palms then back to the abbess. "You know what my choice must be."
The abbess turned back to the cupboard where she'd only moments ago retrieved the sword and handed Brianna a pile of clothing: breeches, boots, a shirt, and a homespun tunic. "These will aid you in your disguise."
Brianna accepted the garments. "Thank you, Mother," she said past the thickness in her throat. "Thank you for believing in me."
"I send you forth to pray for what is good and right, but also to stand against what is foul and wrong in this world. My wish is that the sword seldom be used," the abbess said with the tiniest hint of a smile, "but if it is, that perhaps it may be used to remind some man who has forgotten God's commandments and is in need of a pointed reminder."
Brianna smiled at the abbess's words, but also at the unexpected turn her life had taken this morning. She had come to do penance. She left following a life-long dream. She would become a knight. "How soon do I leave for Crosswick Abbey?"
"As soon as we can change Sister Brianna into Brother Brendan."
It couldn't be soon enough.
Teba, Spain 1331
"Leave this battlefield immediately." Sir Simon Lockhart, a knight in the Brotherhood of the Scottish Templars, brought his warhorse alongside Brianna's Arabian. 'Twas a horse she'd taken from the Moors as a spoil of war when her own horse had been killed.
Brianna tried to maneuver around Simon, but he blocked her way. The Templar army had advanced on the Moors, yet Simon held her back at the edge of the battlefield. She was one of them — a Knight Templar. She had been for over a year now, despite the fact that the man before her had discovered her true identity in only a few months of her entering the Order. "I'll not abandon my fellow knights," Brianna cried. She turned her mount to the left, only to be met with a wall of horse. They hadn't sent her back to Scotland after they'd discovered her deception; despite the fact that she'd tricked them all, she could fight as well as any man there.
Simon knew that. So why didn't he get out of her way and allow her to help?
"Get … out … of … here," Simon repeated, his tone sharp.
"You know I can hold my own with a sword. You trained me in the Templar ways yourself."
"I was a fool to allow you to continue your journey with us. Had I known the dangers… Nay, Brianna, you must go."
The thunder of hoofbeats crashed against the dry ground, filling the very air. A battle cry rose from forty thousand Moors, its challenge answered by only a hundred men. Brianna's palm tightened around her sword. Her muscles tensed as she leaned forward in her saddle, seeing an opening in the Moor's advance. "Simon, please?"
Was this the battle she'd had visions of since the age of seven — the battle in which she would turn the tide? A shiver of anticipation rippled along her spine. Her gift of sight had shown her the path. She had prepared, and she was ready. She would save the Brotherhood.
Wasn't that what her visions had revealed time and time again? She and her sword would save her own brothers, as well as the man before her. Her visions had revealed it all. And she trusted her visions even if Simon did not. "You deny me my destiny?"
"Your destiny was never to be a Templar. 'Tis unnatural for a woman to fight as you do," he growled. "Hasn't enough been stripped from you in the past weeks? Must you now lose your life as well?"
They had taken everything from her once they'd discovered her deception. They'd punished her all right. They'd removed any record of her from the Order. They'd taken her Templar tunic; thankfully, they'd allowed her to keep her sword, but that and her pride were all she had left. They'd taken away the only purpose she had left in this life: to be a knight.
The hiss of blades being drawn from their scabbards brought her back to the moment. She felt the weight of her own drawn weapon in her hand and prepared to charge into the fray. "Let me fight. I'm not afraid."
"You should be."
Brianna's gaze moved beyond Simon to a surging tide of black that rippled toward them. The Templars were outnumbered. A desperate yearning built inside her chest. They might be few, but they were mighty. She twisted back to Simon. "You might not believe it, but it is my destiny to be in this battle, to fight alongside the Brotherhood."
"You will not die today.
, Brianna, do as I say."
She caught her breath. He'd pleaded with her. Simon never pleaded with anyone. Her gaze moved beyond Simon to the wave of black that swallowed the flecks of white and red. Brianna could not hold back a gasp at the sheer violence of the confrontation. Hooked swords came down, leaving death in their wake. She gripped her sword, desperate to help. The smell of blood and death reached out to her. "Let me pass," she cried, feeling as though she were strangling, suffocating.
The tide of black surged ever closer. The cries of the wounded, the screech of the horses added to the cacophony of sound. The Moors pushed the Templars back, devouring them like a dark and foreign beast.
"Simon, they are dying. We must help the Brotherhood. My own two brothers are in that chaos." A great cry of despair welled up in her chest, filled her lungs, her throat. How could she make him understand? This battle was what she'd been born for? Why else would she have terrifying visions unless she was meant to do something about them?
Simon brought his horse close to hers, making the newly acquired animal quiver. "I'm your superior officer. You will leave the field of battle." His gaze had been dark before, but now it turned to liquid steel. "That is an order." His horse pressed her back, farther from the fighting. Her horse quaked in response.
The enemy drew closer. Dust lay heavy in the air and fine grit filled her mouth. Brianna steeled herself. "You cannot mean for me to run." Her voice cracked. Sweet heavens! Brianna clenched her jaw. She was not a silly female to be ordered about. She was a fighter, a warrior.
"Do as I say, or I'll kill you myself." Simon drew his sword.
"You wouldn't," she gasped, leaning back in her saddle. At her actions, her horse skittered nervously backward.
A sick wave of agony passed across his features and then was gone. "If they capture you, what you'll suffer will be so much worse than death. I cannot allow that."
Her grip tightened on her reins, causing her horse to dance closer to Simon.
His blade snapped out and came to rest beneath her chin. "We are losing this battle, can you not see that? I'll not lose you as well."
She startled at the intensity and meaning of his words. "We've not lost this battle yet. You cannot know that we will." Again, a hint of desperation entered her voice. "Please, Simon, allow me to fight. I
protect my brothers."
"Protect them with prayer." His blade vanished from the underside of her chin. In the next instant, he brought the flat of his sword down against her horse's flank. Hard.
Her Arabian shrieked, then bolted, propelling her away from the battlefield as a wave of black-turbaned Moors slammed into the space she'd just occupied.
Brianna tried to pull back on the terrified horse's reins, to turn the fleeing animal around. But the high-spirited horse panicked and gave her no heed as it darted up the hill separating the Templars from the tiny town of Teba.
"Nay!" Brianna cried. She twisted to look back. Templar blood spilled into the dry earth. Shouts resonated against the hills in the distance, turning her blood cold. Her gaze moved to Simon. He reeled around as six men engaged him at once. Simon struck one to the ground. The others sliced his torso, his legs, his horse. The horse went down. Simon followed. Brianna's breath caught in her throat as she watched him pull his dirk free, twist then thrust up, taking another Moor to the ground with him.
He blocked the swords of the others, blocked and blocked again. Brianna clutched the hilt of her sword in her palm. If only she could help Simon; if only she could help them all.
As her horse raced up the hillside still terrified by the sights and sound behind it, she could see far below. Her heart stopped at the sight of the massacre. Her body went numb. Her mind refused to follow. A single sob escaped her.
Her brethren were crushed, destroyed. She hadn't had the chance to help them or to die beside them. Her visions had been for naught. She turned away from the sight of blood and death that would forever be imprinted on her mind.
Simon had saved her life by forcing her away. She would never forgive him for it.