e fell to his knees on the packed road and swayed toward his long black shadow, his bound arms affording him no leverage. At least they had finally fallen numb. His vision blurred, the pebbles and sand and slivers of dry vegetation all seeming to melt together. He expected a blow to the back of his head at any moment. Adrian Hailsworth only hoped he would be hit hard enough to kill him.
“Get up, Adrian,”
Constantine Gerard ordered as he marched past. Only Constantine could still act the general with a pair of Saracen guards walking leisurely behind him.
Adrian tried to raise his head in time to catch Constantine's gaze; he wanted to say good-bye here, on the road. But he was too slow, too weak, and the Saracens already blocked his line of vision. They looked back at Adrian with knowing smirks, commenting to each other in chuckling voices.
A wide, hulking shadow eclipsed Adrian's own.
“Have no worry!” a jovial voice called out from somewhere above Adrian's head. “I will allow your friend the use of my own horse so that he might join you in the city!”
Adrian let his gaze drop back to the road, his cheek twitching, the ragged strips of his once white undershirt fluttering in the arid breeze. His chest and stomach were crusted with his own blood where Saladin's soldiers had laid beaded whips to his belly, and the hot wind tugged at the cloth where it had dried against his wounds.
The Saracen's horse clip-clopped closer so that Adrian caught a glimpse of the delicately shaped front hooves out of the corner of his right eye. Such fine horses they had here. Adrian's father and older brother would be mad to claim a pair for their stables back in England.
“Have you had enough?” the dark general asked, his voice almost kind. The tone stung Adrian's pride, as it had been none other than this very man who had ordered him whipped, bound. “Will you call out for your god to save you now?”
“I told you,” Adrian rasped, his throat so dry and pinched together that the words were like blades crawling up his insides. “I am no Templar, no soldier. I am a scholâ”
“I witnessed your prowess with my own eyes,” the general interrupted. “It takes great skill to remove a man's head with one blow. You must have much experience.”
“It takes only a sharp blade and a strong arm,” Adrian choked. “My experience is limited to this day.”
“Is that so?” the Saracen mused, but his words were tinged with heavy sarcasm, indicating that he did not believe Adrian's claims. “Then you should know that a soldier never forgets the face of the first man he ever kills. It pleases me to know that he will haunt your dreams. You will remember him forever.”
Adrian's vision threatened to darken completely as the screams in Chastellet's bailey filled his ears once again, the sight of the wall of robed and belted Saracens advancing toward him and Constantine and the handful of Templars left standing. He felt in his numb hands the heavy hilt of the sword pressing into his flesh, slick with sweat. His friends had swung, slashed, yelled; Adrian had stood very still, his sword held before him in a two-handed grip, as the brown face rushed at him, its mouth twisted in a battle cry. The curved scimitar rising, rising . . .
Adrian blinked, bringing himself back to the present. “Your men came into a house I built and slaughtered my friends,” he rasped. Then he tilted his head and looked up at the mounted general. “I couldn't pick his head from the pile, even now.”
The Saracen's boot connected with Adrian's temple, sending him into the sand at the edge of the road. He felt a faint pulling somewhere between his shoulder blades, but it was eclipsed by the blinding pain of the late sun cutting into his dry eyes.
“Though you may in time find it rather unfortunate, I remember exactly who you killed,” the man said in a low, contemptuous tone, and Adrian noticed he was feeding a long coil of rope from the back of his saddle into a loop beneath his hands. “Look around you, infidelâthis is
. We are only ridding our pallets of vermin. With the help of one of your own,” the soldier added slyly.
“That's how you knew when best to strike,” Adrian commented as he struggled to come back to his knees, not in the least surprised. Adrian and Constantine had figured out as much on their own the day Chastellet had come under attack from Saladin's armyâwhen King Baldwin and half the fighting men were away to Tiberius. “It was Felsteppe, was it not? The man who aided you?”
The Saracen clicked his tongue and shook his head, the rope in his hands now fashioned into a circlet at one end, swaying with the horse's even breaths. “So eager to turn on your brother. But no; the man who gave us the detailed plan to bring Chastellet to its knees is not called Felsteppe.”
“It is,” Adrian insisted. “He is one of Baldwin's generals, redheaded andâ”
“Yes, yes,” the soldier interrupted agreeably. “A red-haired general, his nose, long and pointy, yes?”
“Yes,” Adrian said. “Glayer Felsteppe is his name.”
“You are confused.” The Saracen shook his head, as if disappointed for Adrian. “Our mutual friend clearly stated his name was General Constantine Gerard.”
“General Gerard just passed us,” Adrian rasped, his muddled brain fighting to make sense of what the soldier was saying. “He is on this very road, just ahead of us.”
“Is that so?” The Saracen tossed the circlet of rope. It landed expertly around Adrian's body, catching on the ties that held his arms behind him. With a sudden flick, the rope tightened, causing Adrian to realize he hadn't lost all feeling after all. He cried out in agony.
“How convenient for Baldwin that we have his traitor in our captivity. I am certain there shall be a large ransom for him.”
“Constantine did not betray Chastellet,” Adrian whispered, his eyes squeezed shut. He could not fathom how his arms were still attached to his torso. If he'd had any moisture left in his body, his face would have been washed with tears.
The Saracen leaned slightly toward him in the saddle, as if eager to impart a great secret. “This I alone know. Which is why he will not live long enough to be bought.” The man regained his regal posture. “Come now, soldierâif you only ask it of Allah, he will give you the strength of ten men. You can walk into Damascus with your dignity and recover in some comfort until you are ransomed.”
Adrian didn't know what the Saracen's plans for him were, but from his treatment thus far, he was very sure they would involve massive pain and torture. And Constantine was going to die. What would it matter if Adrian indulged the dark man's religious delusions with a self-preserving lie? If he played along, perhaps there would be a chance to warn Constantine. A chance to plead their cases to the triumphant Saladin. The ruler was rumored to be reasonable and fair with his prisoners.
The ones who lived, any matter.
But then Adrian's mind was filled with a memory of his father, portly, graying, his beard tugged down into a point where he worried at it with his fist. Adrian knew he bore much of the responsibility for the beard's pointedness. Rather than live a life of relative ease or take the cloth as was expected of him, Herne Hailsworth's younger son had boldly decided to leave his noble home to pursue an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Everyone had thought him a foolâhis father's peers, even his own brother. Quiet, odd Adrian, with his books and his stones and his measure sticks. Adrian remembered vividly the day he'd left, when his father had taken him aside.
Always be who you are, Adrian. Dare not belittle your assets in hopes of avoiding scrutiny, for it is only in bearing his own full weight that a man grows stronger.
Adrian raised his face to look squarely at the Saracen. “
I am not a soldier
. I am a scholar. A philosopher. And if any god existed to stand before me in this moment, after all he has allowed to happen
in his house
, I would spit in his face.”
It was then that Adrian received the blow to his skull that he had been expecting. The hot, brown world of the Damascus Road went silent and black in an instant.
The god who did not exist was merciful in allowing unconsciousness to cling to Adrian as the Saracen soldier kept his word and used the power of his own horse to drag Adrian's limp and battered body the remainder of the way to Damascus.
The sound of ragged sobs stirred Adrian from the depths, and as he became aware of the cold stone beneath his cheek, he realized he was the source of those sobs.
His voice, cawing and raw, echoed as he writhed on the stone floor. Every inch of skin, every muscle, screamed as if they had been painstakingly scored with glowing iron. He tried to tilt his head back as he cried out again, to relieve the drawing torture on the back of his neck and spine, but he felt a wide cuff of iron dig into the base of his skull. His cry intensified.
“Adrian,” a muffled voice called. “Adrian, stop. You must get hold of yourself.”
Adrian thought it was perhaps Constantine who spoke, and so he tried mightily to quiet, to still, so that he could locate his friend. His cries retreated back into his throat, but he could not help the whimpers that escaped him, like dogs straining at their leads. His whole body trembled with such pain that he could not understand how he still lived.
“That's it,” the voice said again, perhaps somewhere behind him. Adrian's ear canals seemed to be swollen together, muting the sounds around him but amplifying the sluggish rush of blood in his skull. “Move beyond it. Can you open your eyes? Come outside yourself.”
Adrian tried to raise his eyelids, but they felt melted shut. Increasing the effort brought another round of jagged sobs, but he was rewarded with a sliver of light that made him cry out again in earnest. He felt thick wetness running down his forehead, his cheeks. He didn't know if it was blood or sweat, although he doubted the latter, as he felt as though he was in the midst of a blizzard.
Adrian tried to say his friend's name, but all that came out was a moan of which the effort and sound pained him so that he began to weep again.
“Get hold of yourself, Adrian!” Constantine demanded, using every nuance of his military tone. “You must not surrender to it. You must fight! If you don't, you shall die.”
It was his friend's last statement that brought Adrian some measure of stillness. He could not see the extent of his injuries, and he knew in some part of his fevered mind that he was only feeling a fraction of the damage that his body was suffering, but he realized that he was only hanging on to life by a fingertip. He could quiet, and then just let the pain slip away. His heart would stop beating, his pupils would contract a final time, and then Adrian Hailsworth, master architect, would simply cease to exist.
He would never again see his brother, or his father. He would never again stride through the green grass of Hereford on his visits home from his travels. He would never see the completion of the great bridge in London, the plans of which he himself had helped conceive before accepting the ill-fated charge of the great fortress Chastellet. It was to have been his final project before taking the position in Oxford, teaching generations of fresh young minds the truth about the world around them, and shining light into the darkness of superstition and myth that gripped the populace of his country.
Now that bright dream, along with his weak physical body, was flickering.
“That's right.” Constantine's voice broke into his dimming thoughts once more. “Be still. Conserve your strength. You are gravely injured, it is true, but now Saladin will preserve us until we can be ransomed or traded. King Baldwin will not forsake us. We must have faith, Adrian.”
While Constantine launched into a murmuring plea to an imaginary creator, Adrian let his friend's hopeful words reach his muddled consciousness. Ransom? Why did that sound false to his ears?
How convenient for Baldwin that we have his traitor in our captivity. He will not live long enough to be bought.
The king would be told that Constantine was the traitor of Chastellet. Perhaps the news had already spread. There would be no ransom.
But Constantine would never know that if Adrian let himself die.
Adrian tuned his ears to the sounds around him again, hearing Constantine's murmuring prayer for Adrian's failing body, for the preservation of Constantine's son and wife, awaiting what was to have been their father and husband's imminent return to England. He fought to crack open his eyes once more.