The voice was soft, yet piercing. Nadira strained her eyes to see the source, but all around her the flickering torches revealed no presence beyond her own. She did not know what was proper in the presence of a priestess. Kneel? Curtsy? She shifted uncomfortably, unable to answer, confused and she admitted to herself, frightened.
Nadira did not hesitate but stepped forward; relieved to be given a command she could easily follow.
“Nadira. You do not escape so easily. Stand and look at me.”
Nadira leaned forward to take the hand, which was dry and cool to the touch. She allowed the older woman to lead her up the shallow steps to an opening in the stone wall which had been hidden in the deep shadows.
She shook her arm and the tinkle of tiny bells echoed in the chamber. Her bracelets summoned a young girl with an ewer and goblets, followed by another with a tray of fruit. The priestess said nothing until the girls had retreated, then she gestured toward the tray.
Nadira was too nervous to be hungry, but there was no thought of disobedience. She plucked a grape with one hand and lifted the goblet with the other. The liquid was sweet, almost cloying, and the grape was sharply tart. Her eyes watered at the contrast. The priestess laughed softly.
Nadira set down her glass. “Many years?” she asked.
“I came because I was summoned by a beautiful voice in my head. I came because I was brought here by a man I respect and admire. I came because I am curious, and I want answers to my questions. I do not intend to stay beyond my purpose.”
“A dark man,” she smiled. “Handsome and strong.” She frowned. “And damaged. His body and his soul. Violent. Even vicious…”
The dark eyes focused on her. “Do you deny his fervent desire for a vengeance even I tremble to describe?”
“Do you deny that this brutality lives in his heart? That it consumes his mind and tears at his soul?”
The priestess continued, “Do you think that linking your life to the life of this vicious man will not consume your own soul? That you will escape corruption? You must break that bond to save yourself. He is beyond your help. Your ties to him are based on false emotional beliefs.”
The voice of the priestess became soft and cajoling.
Nadira could not respond. The images the priestess evoked twisted her heart and clutched at her throat.
“Stop. Please stop.” Nadira wept, thinking of Alisdair and his laughter, Garreth and his strong arms, William’s soft eyes and gentle voice. She met the priestess’ gaze. “Not all men…”
Nadira closed her eyes. How could I have not seen this coming? Because I saw myself as the wife of a man, with the duties of a wife. That is why. She opened her eyes.
“And you will. But first you must be rid of this man.”
“Do you not carry a great secret?”
“Do you not know exactly what this man needs to ease his pain, yet you withhold it?”
“Why? You are his woman? Then he owns you. You break the bond of man and wife by withholding this knowledge.” The priestess turned her head with a sly smile. “You defy your own logic.”
The priestess pointed a long finger at her.
Her eyes became far away again.
Her face twisted with puzzlement.
“And you have desired to have this man’s body be joined with yours…”
“…but both of you have denied the yearning of your flesh. Why?” The priestess turned questioning eyes upon her and they demanded an answer.
“He will not take my body. He fears my death. I will not take his body, for I will not torment him with his fear. I will say to you, now, that I know I will not become with child unless it suits me, and I know I will not perish bringing it into the world. He will not hear these truths, though. His fear screams too loudly in his ears.”
“No!” Nadira leapt to her feet. “No prophecies! Please! Please, no…” She fell to the floor and covered her ears, but the priestess’ voice was inside her now.
Nadira rolled herself over on the stone floor and gazed with exhausted resignation at the dark ceiling.
The last word echoed off the walls and faded to silence. Nadira closed her eyes and breathed the perfumed air into her body. She did not expect an answer from the priestess. She was too busy asking herself what it was she really wanted. Do I give up my love and my friends to focus my life on the pursuit of knowledge? Do I return to the world of violence and greed to exist as a servant to others? Even as a free woman I would be servant to customers. As a wife to a man, as mother to a child. There is no true freedom outside these walls.
“’Cannot a priestess have her own?’” She laughed again, harder this time. “In all my years no novice, no acolyte, nor priestess, has ever suggested she needed a kept-man in her quarters. Never.”
“It has happened now.”
She extended a hand to help Nadira to her feet.
The priestess continued, “Tell him, or not. The decision is yours. You can do remarkable things, Nadira the Precious One. But you cannot turn a wolf into a lap dog.”
“This small brown one, however.” The priestess paused. “This one…he is yours as much as the tall dark one. He is a lap dog that you are turning into a wolf. He loves you and cannot have you. He takes risks and his soul becomes darker with his need and frustration,” she smiled, “ yet he will not place his seed inside you either. What is it with you, Precious One, that these men withhold their manly desires when you are present?”
“No. Forgive me. I see the scars on the back of the brown one, the scars on the soul of the dark one. It is no laughing matter. But I will tell you that I have never seen this before, and I have lived nearly ninety years. I have never seen men deny themselves a thing that they wanted. In this world, men struggle to take what they want. They lie, murder and steal to get it. Those that don’t get their desire regret that they have been bested by others and mete out their anger and frustration on the weak and innocent. This is what I have seen. You come here to learn the knowledge of the ancients, Precious One, and on your first day you teach the ancient one a new lesson. Go now. Come back on the morrow. Come back. We will share what we know. Both of us.”
Nadira took his hand and he led her down the path to the sea and along the shore back to the city. As they walked in silence she looked up at him. He had aged more than the others since Richard’s death. Gray hairs were entwined in his golden braid that hung down his back to his belt. Deep wrinkles creased his eyes and the skin on his arms was no longer tight, but seemed to cover his flesh like a loose tunic.
“Yes. I am eager to get there, too.”
“I met with her. It is good.”
Montrose was alone in the room when Garreth pushed the door open for her. He was sitting on the low stool, his weapons laid out in a series of shining lines on the bed beside him. It was warm in the room and he had removed his shirt, it lay folded neatly beside his horn cup on the table.
He looked up as she entered and gave her a soft smile in greeting, but did not cease the back and forth motion of his hands.
“Did you meet with her?” His voice was low and deep, slow and steady. He did not look up for her answers, concentrating his cloth on the joints of the steel where the hilt joined the blade.
He glanced up for a moment, the blue eyes merry, the black lashes framing them in peace now. He was happy. This work with the instruments of death gave him peace. Nadira wondered at such a thing. He returned to his polishing, turning the blade to work on the other side. He dipped his cloth in the small bowl beside him.
Nadira laughed softly. “She did.”
She watched him work for a long moment. The warm Mediterranean sun had bronzed him about his shoulders. The muscles of his arms and back moved to and fro with his work. The dark curling hairs of his chest and arms glistened with the heat and with his labor.
She had promised to cut it weeks ago, but loved the curls that only appeared when it had grown long enough to touch his shoulders. With a twinge of guilt, she saw now that the length annoyed him. I will cut it for him soon, she promised herself. It gets caught in the links of his mail.
“What is it, Little One?”
He smiled, flashing his white teeth. “As am I. I never want to shut a heavy door against the freezing rain and biting wind again. This weather is delightful.”
He went back to his polishing.
She looked at the little arsenal on the bed. No. Three daggers of different lengths lined up beside a shorter and lighter sword, all waiting for their turn to be lovingly polished and protected from rust before one day fouling themselves in the gore of an unlucky man.
His mail shirt hung over the back of the only chair in the room, its glittering links testifying to the care he had already spent on it. It had to be continually oiled to protect him from the blows from other men who would try to take his life. Her throat tightened. This wolf will never be a lap dog.
“What is it? Tell me.”
He picked her up and carried her to the bed. She curled in his lap and sniffed until he handed her a clean cloth for her face. He smelled of honey and warmth and his arms were solid against her body. She put her arms around his neck and pressed her cheek against his, feeling comfort in the rough stubble.
She answered him, “I must lose what I found to gain it back again. It makes no sense, yet it is a real truth.”
She tried to smile, but her face was too tight. “It is you who needs what I have to provide. Giving it to you, I may kill you. But not giving it to you, I will certainly kill you.”
“I love you.” A tear tracked down her cheek.
“I love you, but I must send you away, and I cannot follow to protect you.”
“Send me away?” Now the voice was hard, and his hands tightened even further on her waist.
“Massey,” she breathed, “is in Alexandria.”
“Alexandria,” he murmured.
“How do you know this?”
She held him tighter, not knowing what his response might be. He made a strange choking sound, so she clutched him with all her strength, thinking now he would fling her to the floor as he leapt up, but again he did not. He did not rise from the bed. Instead, his chin dropped to his chest.
“He does not blame you for his death. He knows what he did.” Montrose nodded, his gaze unfocused. She continued, knowing he was thinking of Richard. “He is content there. He says there is a library the size of the whole world and he is reading every book.” This brought a sad smile to his face. “But…” She hesitated.
Nadira squirmed. “Must you go to Alexandria, then? Must you return violence with violence?” Was he as vicious as the priestess said?
He said slowly, “I cannot let him live.”
Montrose continued, “He will wreak havoc on the lives of many more, killing, stealing, cheating until he is stopped. Can you think of it that way? Does that give you comfort?”
She nodded. “Go then. Will you take Alisdair and Garreth?”
“No. Of course not. No. That was a foolish question.”
“No. I will go to the temple while you are away.”
“I have only been invited to learn and study.”
“I am not your wife.” She tipped her head sideways, challenging him with this fact. “I remain, these many months, a reluctant virgin.”
“But it should be easy.” She kissed him and ran her hands over his body, feeling both his reluctance and his desire.
The sword and knives fell to the floor with dull clanks as he swept them from the bed with one arm and lay her down with the other.
“I will,” she told him, digging her fingers into the thick muscles of his arms.
“Almost,” she whispered. “I can feel it…”