They were packed and on the trail soon after sunrise the next morning. The road narrowed as they climbed in altitude and became not much more than a path. The men often dismounted to guide the animals around treacherous curves. The sun seemed to jump in all directions, first rising in the east, and then seeming to appear in the south, then the north. The switchbacks confused Nadira so badly she stopped trying to keep track of their progress.
By late afternoon Montrose had them camp beside a tiny mountain stream. They were sheltered from the path by an old tree on its stony bank. They did not build a fire, nor did they waste any time talking. Instead, while the sun remained above the horizon they took out their swords, knives, and daggers and sharpened them with whetstones pulled from the baggage. Nadira cut the bread and cheese and passed the food around. She filled the water skins from the stream and helped move the horses to better forage that grew between the sharp rocks. She was watched silently the whole time as the zing zing zing of the whetstones rung against the steel.
The moon shone bright enough to see clearly the road in front and behind them, but Nadira could not relax this night. She turned over and wiggled in the thin grass, hoping to find a comfortable position on the hard ground. No matter how she lay, a stone gouged her flesh. A few paces in front of her Montrose sat quietly facing the road in the direction they had come. She knew his ears were doing most of the work even with the bright moon to aid his eyes. Every time she curled one way or the other, his head cocked in her direction. Alisdair could not sleep either. After some time tossing about and grunting, he gave up trying and joined Montrose on watch. Nadira lay still, listening.
“What are you thinkin’, Rob?”
Montrose turned his body to include Alisdair in his field of vision. “I’m thinking about Richard,” he said shortly.
“Aye.” There was a lengthy silence before Nadira heard Alisdair ask, “Are you going to send word to the laird about it?”
“Rob, you know…” Alisdair was shaking his head.
“No. Let him think we are both dead.” Nadira saw Montrose relax. He rolled from his sitting position to lie back on the grass – arms behind his head, looking at the moon. Alisdair took up the sentry position, resting his scabbard across his knees.
“Yer a fool, man. The Kemberly estate will be yours when the laird’s dead. You have Montrose now, from the duke for saving his life. You could go home. Leave off this foolish mission. Richard is dead”, he crossed himself, “his quest dies with him. You know it. If the laird thinks you’re dead too, then the rents will stop coming. We’ll starve.”
“If you want to go home, then go. I will not force you.”
“I’ll not leave you, Rob, and nor will the others. But, I want to be sure we all know what we’re doin’ here.
“Richard wanted that book. I’m going to get it. That’s what we’re doing here.”
Nadira heard Montrose shift his position again.
“Have you learned anything more from the lass?”
“She’s told me what she knows.”
“Talking to you is like pullin’ teeth, Rob. Damn it. Tell me what you plan to do now!”
Lord Montrose answered his friend softly, his voice a murmur, but still it carried clearly to Nadira, holding her breath behind him.
“I will finish my task. I will do Richard’s bidding, but I will burn the cursed book when I get my hands on it.”
“And when you’ve destroyed it?” Alisdair’s voice was lower now, too.
“There’s Massey to deal with.”
“Aye, and then?”
“What think you of…Istanbul?”
Alisdair coughed. “I remember the verra fine whores.”
Montrose laughed, but it was a sad sound.
Nadira awoke long before dawn when she felt Marcus roll onto her, his elbow digging painfully into her ribs. He apologized before he got up from his bedding, pulling her to her feet with a strong arm. He passed his hands chastely up and down the sides of her body from her shoulders to her hips.
“Did I crush anything?” His voice was soft and low, a hint of a smile beneath the black beard.
Nadira shook her head, pulling bits of dry grass from her dark braid.
He bent double, rolled his bedding with hers. “I spend days keeping you from harm only to squash you myself,” he joked, his blue eyes twinkling.
The others were moving about as well, gathering the horses and loading them with bedding and tools. The two boys worked the pack animals while Garreth, already mounted, rode alone up the trail in front of them. Nadira waited until Marcus was ready with his horse, but instead of hauling her up beside him as he had always done before, he led her to one of the packhorses. The pack was smaller than usual and placed in such a way as to leave room for her on the animal’s back.
“You’ll ride the dapple today.” He said shortly as he handed her up and took the animal’s lead. His eyes no longer twinkled at her.
“He has no bridle,” Nadira answered, worried. She fingered the rough mane.
“I’ll lead him through the pass,” Marcus indicated the road ahead with a long arm. “If there is trouble, jump down and hide. Brigands want the animals and supplies first. We will find you again soon enough,” he said.
Nadira noticed he was wearing his heavy helm with the nose plate instead of his lighter one. A knot tightened in her middle as she wound the dapple’s mane into a noose around her hand. First?
“Do you expect trouble?” she asked in a very small voice.
“Every time,” he answered shortly.
Marcus took the halter rope and led her to his own charger. The horses lined up single file, making the ascent with Marcus last, leading her horse. She kept looking behind her as the trail twisted and turned on itself. She wondered if brigands attacked from the rear. Would they have placed her in that much danger if that were so?
The poor footing slowed the horses; their hooves slid on the smooth rock where there was no soil. She gripped the bit of mane in her hands tightly. Ahead she could see the men craning their necks as they came over the top of the rise. Montrose raised an arm and they all stopped. The men rose in their stirrups and she felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck.
A sharp cry startled all the horses. Nadira clung tightly with arms and legs as her animal shied away from a dozen dark forms emerging from behind boulders and trees. She knew the brigands must be men, but the figures coming toward them appeared more like beasts. Animal skins covered their shoulders and heads. Naked arms brandished small axes and large clubs. Some of them had swords.
She quickly counted fifteen attackers before Marcus’s broad back blocked her sight. He reined his mount to cover her but didn’t take his eyes off the wild men. He wrenched her down from the dapple with one heave of his arm, his charger backing against the pull on the bit. Nadira clutched his arm until her feet contacted the ground and she felt him push her away toward the side of the trail. She fled toward a gully shallowly carved by rainwater and snowmelt. The cleft was not deep enough to conceal her body, but when crouched behind a low outcropping of stone she could remain hidden from the path. She peered around the rock when she heard the first clash of steel. Axes went up, swords slashed down.
Nadira wanted to close her eyes, but could not. The sound of impact echoed off the stones around her. She watched, frozen, as five hairy men separated from the others to pursue the fleeing animals. They spread out trying to surround the packhorses and impede their flight to the tree line. In the other direction she saw the boys Evan and Hagen disappear into the woods.
The men in the road were standing and falling, leaping and staggering, always accompanied by the ring of metal. She could not watch the conflict and remain hidden at the same time; so she pressed herself smaller between two outcroppings of rock, ducking as one of the brigands turned toward her hiding place. It was colder in the shade where the sun had not touched the ground. Nadira welcomed the shadow. She crouched, arms around her knees behind the biggest boulder. She could stay here, unseen. Please let this be a safe place.
A scream jolted that hope out of her mind. She debated whether peeking was more dangerous than not knowing what was happening. She made her decision quickly. Raising herself to the top of the stone, her heart pounding loudly in her ears, she lifted herself just enough to lean to the side and see the edge of the trail. The fighting mass of men crowded closer to her rocks. A head lay severed some distance away. She ducked down quickly. Too close. They are too close. She felt sick.
Another scream, then a thud.
Any moment she might be discovered. Is it safer here or among the trees? Are there more wild men in the woods? Do they have families hidden there? If she caught a horse could she control it? Marcus had told her to stay put and wait. If her men were defeated, what would happen to her then? Her mind sped through the possibilities one by one. None of them good.
She wanted to see. She had to know. Nadira inched her way around her stone. Her legs tangled in her chemise, the gravel bruised her hands. The sound of steel and the thud of clubs and metal surrounded her. Through a slit in the stones she attained a narrow view of the trail.
Five of the outlaws lay still, their animal skins ripped and bloody, arms and legs askew or detached, their blood pooling on the shale, red rivulets finding their way down the rain tracks to the streams. Her heart tightened as she recognized John lying beside them on his back, his eyes open, mouth gaping. The other men of her party flailed about with glittering steel. All had been unhorsed. They looked like they were tiring. Nadira counted six brigands still struggling against her four. Around her lay a supply of good-sized stones.
She felt around her feet for a stone without taking her eyes from the battle. She tossed it up and down a few times to get the feel for its heft. Maybe. The stones here were irregular and sharp, not rounded like river rock. It was difficult to get a good grip for throwing. She watched as one of the wild men landed a fierce blow with what seemed like the branch of a tree to the back of Marcus’ head. Garreth let out a roar and swung his axe in a wide arc. He avenged his friend with professional accuracy, the axe descending from the sky to cleave the brigand from his shoulder to his hips. The spray from that blow speckled her rock in a grisly pattern. Nadira was too horrified to move. Her hand tightened on her rock.
She watched as Montrose swung his sword backwards to ready it for a vicious slash that would have cleaved his victim in two had it landed. Instead, from behind him and out of his field of vision a wild man was running at full speed, his axe grasped in both hands high over his head, ready for the down stroke. Nadira did not stop to think any more, but stood tall, braced herself with one foot against her boulder and let fly. Her stone struck the advancing attacker square between the eyes, interrupting the deadly stroke, but not stopping it. She watched with dismay as the axe came down under Montrose’s arm, slicing him and knocking him to the ground. Worse, the attacker wheeled about and came for her with a roar, the axe rising again, his other hand to the gash in his face.
Nadira backed against her boulder, crouching down, but never taking her eyes from the wild man. She felt the ground blindly for another missile. The brigand grew larger and larger until he filled her field of vision. His black teeth were bared, blood streamed from his nose and from his forehead where her stone had cut him. His hairy arm was now high over his head.
Nadira could not move; her hand clutched a stone too heavy for her to lift. She followed with her eyes the swing of steel up higher and higher. There were no sounds in her ears; no air seemed to flow into her body.
As the axe reached the top of its arc, it seemed to Nadira that a circle of darkness moved in on her from all sides. She heard herself screaming, as though her mouth and throat were a separate and distant part of her body. She told herself to run, puzzled by her inability to move. She could not even blink until a hot splash of blood slapped her face.
The stink and the shock whipped her into motion. Her arms and legs now obeyed her commands. Her hand went to her throat, foolishly feeling for the gaping wound she expected, but her neck was whole. She wavered. At her feet lay the bear-like brigand, or half of him, anyway. Montrose bent over him, gasping. One hand was on his ribs, the other leaning on the pommel of his dark sword. Tentatively Nadira took in a breath. Yes, I can breathe. Another breath. She wiped her nose with her sleeve.
“My lord...” Her voice was a mere croak, her hand unbelieving, returned to her throat. His helmet and face were red with gore, his short beard matted with bits of flesh. His eyes shone a wild blue and white from behind a mask of death. Nadira reached out to touch him, hardly believing he was real. White teeth flashed at her from behind the dark mouth.
“You hurt?” He turned his head and spat, then wiped his hand across his nose and mouth, gathering up the residue of a man’s life and flicking it distastefully to the ground. His fingers left pale tracks across his face.
She shook her head, speechless.
He reached for her and she allowed him to take her elbow in his gloved hand and steer her toward the path. The brigands that remained alive had fled. Together with Montrose, Nadira climbed over the broken stone and slid down to the road where the bodies lay in grotesque clumps in an obscene embrace. Montrose grasped a wild man’s corpse by the hair and pulled it off John’s body, kicking it with his boot until it rolled free. Nadira rushed to kneel at John’s side. Alisdair and Garreth towered over her, back to back, swords ready.
“What made them flee?” she whispered.
“All the horses run off.” Alisdair answered as he scanned the tree line.
John was dead. His throat had been slashed along one side, crimson colored his leather shirt. Montrose knelt by his friend. He pulled his gauntlets off one by one and gently closed John’s eyes, then squeezed his shoulder. Nadira staggered to her feet, tripping on her bloody skirts, and stumbled to the other familiar body in the dirt.
Marcus lay on his back, his eyes closed. His face was so pale that the scar was invisible. Nadira pressed her fingers under his thick beard where jaw met neck. She felt a flutter. He lives. Hot tears welled up in her eyes. She heard Montrose lower himself beside her with a creak of leather and the scrape of steel. The smell of sweat and blood sickened her. She was afraid to look at him. Montrose put his hand on Marcus’ throat too. His other hand smoothed the dark hair back from the wounded man’s brow, leaving a bloody smear on the pale flesh. Nadira sniffed as the tears dripped into her nose. Montrose turned his head toward her, his blue eyes dark.
“He is still alive,” he said softly.
“Yes,” she sobbed.
Montrose glanced over the horizon before turning back to Marcus. Nadira felt him squeeze her arm. She rubbed her face with her sleeve and sniffed hard. Marcus had many slight wounds on his body and it was difficult to tell how much of the blood that covered him was his own. His eyes remained closed even when she touched the lids. She laid her palm along his cheek before sliding her hand over his temple and along the crest of his skull to the back of his head. Montrose watched her carefully. She felt his eyes on her as she found what she feared. A large swelling had already begun. When he saw the look of dismay on her face Montrose put his hand there too. He sighed and sat back on his heels. He did not look at her as he spoke but scanned the distant tree line.
“Garreth!” Montrose called as he rose. “Give me your axe! Now lift him up….carefully, carefully.”
Garreth bent down. She helped Montrose lift Marcus into Garreth’s arms.
“Alisdair …” Montrose scanned the tree line again.
Alisdair craned his neck to examine Marcus, then looked at Nadira. There was no humor in the blue eyes now. His cheek twitched then he waved a bloody glove at the tree line.
“The horses will head downhill and toward water. I say we walk down now.” He waited while Montrose made a final sweep of the mountaintop. Nothing moved.
Montrose nodded, “Let’s go.”
Alisdair led them, his hand on his sword but Nadira did not feel safe. She followed closely on his heels beside Garreth. She heard Montrose’s boots crunching the stones behind her as she continued to glance around. Should they be attacked now, she knew they would be savaged if not completely overcome. Nadira moved closer to Garreth and put her fingers through his belt so he could pull her along. She needed the support.
They left the trail, making a crossing through the birch and beech. Before they entered the trees, Nadira remembered with a start that the party was one short. She looked over her shoulder at John’s body lying in the road behind them. Montrose caught her gaze. “It can’t be helped,” he said quietly. She saw a glistening red line on his breeches from his hip to his boot. She had not noticed it before, perhaps because he is doused in blood, she thought wryly, but now she remembered the great slashing blow he took from her attacker. Only his own blood was bright, the blood of his enemies was drying dark on his body. She released Garreth and stepped beside him.
“You are wounded too,” she said, trying to see under his arm as they continued down the mountain.
“But I am not dead.”
Nadira looked at his face, puzzled by his response. He shifted the axe head to the other shoulder and turned the blade up so she couldn’t see him. “I will see to it when we camp next,” he said quietly. “You must attend to Marcus.”
Nadira was doubtful that Marcus would live, but she would not speak those words. He does not think so, either, but I will not be the first to say it. Her eyes rested on his leg again. The blood was running into his boot.
The path became difficult as the drop became even steeper. Nadira tried to help brace Garreth over the rough ground as he picked his way down. There was no sign of another attack. They saw nothing move save for the large black birds flying in the opposite direction. She knew where they were going.