Authors: Gerri Russell
Her mind raced with unanswered questions. Silently, she slipped out of the shelter. She grasped her sword, and securing it about her waist, made her way to the grassy field a hundred paces to the left. She needed to do something to clear her mind and bring the exhaustion her body needed if she were to dream as Simon had asked.
If only she could find sleep.
She drew her sword from her scabbard and balanced it in her hand. She gripped the hilt, feeling the grooves of the metal beneath her palm. It felt right having a sword in her hand. Natural.
Despite the darkness, her gaze drifted to where she knew Rosslyn Castle sat. She was a woman warrior. Why could her father not accept that? Simon had accepted her … eventually. He had accepted her quite readily when he'd thought she was a boy. He'd sparred with her and taught her many things. Until he'd discovered her secret.
That's when everything had changed between them.
Brianna concentrated on the blade in her hand. She drew a deep breath and felt the sword as though it were an extension of her arm. She brought the blade up in a slow, controlled movement, then down, releasing her breath as she did.
Breathing helped to center her as her blade came up, then down, over and over again in a punishing routine she'd developed for herself. She had to keep herself strong and keep her skills sharp, even if she hadn't had any use for them since her return from Teba.
From the shadows at the edge of the field, Simon watched the woman before him as she put her lean muscular body through the primal steps of a dance. Her battle dance. Despite the fact she wore heavy skirts now instead of breeches, he'd seen such movements before. Her lithe movements had captivated him as much then as they did now. Brianna, the woman, the warrior, and if he were honest with himself, his equal on the battlefield.
Simon narrowed his gaze upon her as she danced in and out of the moonlight, bringing her blade up with a swift, sure stroke, then down with the same proficiency. The simple cut of her dress did nothing to hide the curves hidden beneath. The fabric fluttered with each step, only to hug her body with each turn. He stared at her, transfixed. How could he have ever thought she was a boy?
Simon closed his eyes, bracing against the onslaught of emotion flooding him. Deep within himself he must have known the he was a she, for he had been attracted to her from the beginning. And yet he had not realized her deception on some level as well. The first time he'd touched her and a strange spark had passed between them, he'd thought he was going mad. Perhaps he'd taken too many blows to the head.
He had tried explaining his need to be near the new knight "Brendan" as his own desire to train the lad in the ways of the Templars. And when he'd discovered her deception, he had to admit his first thought had been that of gratitude a moment before the rage set in.
He'd been as angry at her as many of the other knights had been. They had wanted to abandon her in Spain, but he couldn't do that. He'd seen a raw vulnerability in her eyes that he'd connected with even then.
That vulnerability was back in her eyes now. Her concentration focused on her movements and on her technique. With all her efforts elsewhere, her guard had dropped, leaving her exposed. And along with the vulnerability he also saw hurt and betrayal. By her father?
The sound of her voice brought him out of his reverie. "I did not mean to disturb you. I saw you slip from the camp and wanted to make certain you were well." What was it about her father that disturbed her so?
She lowered her sword and he could see her chest rise and fall from the effort of her movements. She batted at the sides of her face with the back of her hand. "I am done here." She stiffened and turned away, as though afraid to look at him.
Simon studied her downcast face. She was hanging on to her self-control by a thread, trying so hard to be invincible. But he could see past her facade. And the scared, lonely woman standing before him tore at his heart. He recalled his own moments of doubt as a young man who'd been sent away from home to learn how to become a warrior. He remembered the cold, lonely nights in the monastery, staring into the darkness, praying for something more.
The fear and painful loneliness was something he understood. An almost aching tenderness unfolded within him. He needed to reach out to her, to weave his fingers around hers. He wanted to take her into his arms and, without words, let her know she wasn't as alone as she thought.
"Brianna?" Her name, spoken so gently, hung between them.
Slowly, she lifted her gaze to his. In her eyes he saw a faint, hesitant stirring of hope. "Couldn't sleep?"
She shook her head as she sheathed her weapon. "I thought exhaustion might help."
He curled his fingers at his side, fighting the urge to draw her near. "Did it?"
She released a tired sigh and leaned back against a human-sized boulder at the edge of the field. "Not in the way I needed."
He strode toward her and positioned himself next to her with his back against the rock. Her nearness sent a jolt of warmth down his spine. He looked up at the night sky, seeking a distraction. Above him stretched an inky cloak speckled with thousands upon thousands of stars. "It seems we both failed to attain our goals this eve." He brought his gaze back to her.
She turned her face to him. Even in the meager moonlight he could see the paleness of her skin, the slight lines of worry that bracketed her mouth. "I am sorry my father refused to see you. What did you come to ask him?"
"Are there truly catacombs beneath Rosslyn Chapel?"
She nodded and her lips lifted in a partial smile. "They are deep and many. It's where I used to practice with my old iron sword as a young lady when my father and brothers stopped allowing me to train with them." Her smile faded. "That was until my father caught me and sent me away."
It was his turn to frown. "He sent you away?"
She nodded. "To a convent. He was determined to make me a lady, one way or another. When Abigail's teachings failed, he thought the sisters might have better luck." A lost, almost tortured expression passed through her eyes.
"I didn't know."
She shrugged and pushed away from the rock. "There are many things you don't know about me."
He stared into her huge, pain-darkened eyes and felt as if he were drowning in the need to hold her. She stood right beside him, so close and yet distinctly separate, alone as always, untouchable. And now he understood the pain that was ever-present in her eyes. She waited for the world to attack her, to blindside her, to betray her yet again.
He moved awkwardly toward her as pain snagged his heart. She expected him to betray her as well. "I didn't understand before, but I do now."
Even in the darkness he could see the shimmer of tears in her eyes. "I don't want to talk about this anymore."
Neither did he. He needed distance if he were to keep his thoughts focused on their mission. Simon drew a sharp breath of the cool night air into his lungs, the coolness reminding him with crystal clarity what his true purpose was: to locate de la Roche and stop him from harming anyone else. Both he and Brianna had a task to do. That duty allowed for no interference from their past. He straightened and pushed away from the rock. "Do you think you are tired enough to dream now?"
She turned away. "The only way to find out is to try to sleep."
"Then let's return to camp," he said, his words sharper than he'd meant them to be. Her dreams were the key to their success.
And nothing else besides finding de la Roche mattered. Nothing at all.
By dawn, Brianna had yet to fall asleep, let alone to dream. Simon forced back his disappointment as he, Brianna, Kaden, and Abigail prepared to ride out. They had only just mounted their horses when Simon noticed a haze of coiling gray smoke in the east that rose against the pink hues of dawn.
"What is that?" Kaden asked beside him.
Simon could only stare into the distance as he felt the color drain from his face. A knot of fear tightened his stomach. It couldn't be…
Brianna brought her horse alongside his, gazing at the black smoke rising in the distance. "The morning air carries the scent of—"
"Death," he filled in, as pain engulfed him. He knew what that smoke meant. He knew who was responsible. "We must hurry." He kicked his horse into a gallop.
Brianna kept pace beside him. Kaden and Abigail followed.
"What is it?" Brianna asked.
"De la Roche." Pain throbbed at the base of Simon's neck.
"How can you know that from the sight of smoke?"
His fingers tightened around the reins in his hand until his knuckles turned white from the force. "It's the scent of burning flesh that tells me it's him."
Her eyes went wide. "He's burning the countryside?"
Brianna fell silent as their four horses flew over the open terrain. Desperation constricted Simon's chest, yet he couldn't help but glance at the woman beside him. She rode with remarkable skill. And despite the horror he knew his words must have evoked in her mind, a look of determination settled across her delicate features.
They had reached the crest of a hill when the punishing flames came into sight against the backdrop of the small village of Roslin at the bottom of the hill. One figure stood erect, tied to a stake. Flames lapped cruelly at the human form engulfed within.
"Abigail and Brianna, stay back. Kaden and I shall—"
A cry of distress sounded beside him. Brianna bolted forward.
"Brianna, nay!" Simon's heart pounded wildly as he saw Brianna's slim form outlined against the red-orange flames. At her approach, seven men leapt from the bushes.
Simon spurred his horse toward those who would kill them.
Brianna must have sensed the danger. She drew her sword and expertly dispatched two men before they realized she'd drawn her weapon.
Simon joined the battle, his heart hammering as he watched Brianna engage the men with skill that was deadly and precise. He fought one attacker after another, yet despite the danger, his focus remained on her, on the way she and her horse moved as one, as though in the steps of a macabre dance. Five new opponents rushed forward on foot. Simon watched her back between a trio of trees. She'd cornered herself. His heart sank — until it buoyed again when he saw she'd made it impossible for more than two men to come at her at once. She deflected their blows with grace and ease. He'd never seen anything like it, like her, wild red hair catching the wind, the silver streak of her weapon as it slashed through the empty space to catch their foes. One by one the men fell. The echo of steel died away until the only sound remaining was their own harsh breathing as it mixed with that of the horses.
A heartbeat later, Brianna slid from her horse. She sheathed her weapon as she ran toward the flaming timbers.
"Where are you going?" Simon slid from his horse and in two steps he gained on her. He gripped her arm and pulled her back against his chest.
"We must help that poor man."
"Brianna," Simon whispered against her ear, holding her close. His gaze strayed to the blackened figure bound to the stake. His throat tightened and he couldn't swallow. "We are too late." Smoke stung his eyes, seared his lungs.
She stopped fighting as his words sank home. "De la Roche?" she asked, her voice raw with emotion.
"Aye. He tortures then burns the Templars he captures," Simon said as he studied the woman beside him. Her eyes glittered brightly in the glare of the fire.
Behind them, hoofbeats sounded. Simon's hand tightened on his weapon only to relax once again as he saw it was Kaden and Abigail who approached. "I'll retrieve the body," Kaden said.