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Authors: Elizabeth Elliott

THE WARLORD

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THE WARLORD
By
Elizabeth Elliott

 

 

"YOU'LL MARRY ME WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT," said Kenric. The King of England had gifted him with Tess of Remmington, and he had every intention of keeping her. He paused to give her a brief, chilling smile of triumph. "Or do you dare defy our king's command?"

Tess struggled to recover her composure under the baron's icy glare. Ruthless power emanated from the man who stood before her. There wasn't a trace of warmth in the cold black eyes that
glared
down at her, nor the barest hint of gentleness in that clenched jaw. Their eyes met again and this time she didn't miss the meaning behind his fierce expression. Why, he was trying to intimidate her!

He was succeeding.

She felt a shiver run down her spine. She was snared by those eyes as surely as any trapped prey. They held her captive, the power she sensed there absolute, capable of forcing anyone to submit to his will. Surprisingly, the emotions whirling through her were the complete opposite of the fear and horror she should be experiencing. It was the strangest thing, but she had an indescribable urge to stand closer to the warlord—to touch him…

 

 

THE WARLORD

Elizabeth Eliott

 

 

Bantam Books

New York
Toronto
London Sydney Auckland

 

THE WARLORD

A Bantam
Fanfare
Book / July 1995

fanfare
and the portrayal of a boxed "ff" are trademark of Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

 

All rights reserved
.

Copyright
© 1995
by Linda Kay Crippes
.

Cover art copyright © 1995 by

 

ISBN 0-553-56910-4

 

Published simultaneously in the United States and Canada

 

PRINTED IN THE
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

 

To Nancy Fulton, cyberfriend extraordinaire.

 

Special thanks to my friends in the Litforum and

RWA Online for their invaluable advice

and
encouragement.

The Warlord
 
Prologue

The Holy Lands, 1278

 

Very little remained of the ancient city.
The work of countless generations was reduced to rubble in a battle that lasted little more than three days. Skeletons of walls and buildings that had stood since the time of Christ rose in a shadow of their former glory, silhouetted against the dawn of a desert sky. Tendrils of smoke snaked upward from the smoldering ashes to join the hazy cloak that shrouded the city.

A lone knight rode through what remained of an archway, over smashed gates that had barred the enemy for a thousand years. Scattered among the tumbled stones and burnt timbers were the people who once lived there, their bodies a mute testimony to the battle that had raged through the city the day before.

With the sights and sounds of battle still fresh in memory, the knight didn't appear disturbed by the carnage that surrounded him. His warhorse picked a careful path through the rubble, the animal alert to his footing even though his head hung low with exhaustion.

Kenric of Montague's dark face remained expressionless, the knight as unmoved by these deaths as the countless others he'd witnessed in the three years he'd been on Crusade in the Holy Lands. The people of Al' Abar had refused to surrender. Their city had been besieged until nothing remained of their defenses and no single structure stood whole that would provide any shelter. They had died. Such events had been repeated too many times over the years for Kenric to feel anything more than the bone-deep fatigue that followed a long battle.

Kenric's armor and that of his horse were covered with ashes, crusty with sweat, the leather stiff with dried blood. Another tunic ruined, he thought idly, gazing down at the once white garment with the scarlet cross emblazoned on his chest. Only the stitches that outlined the cross distinguished the holy emblem from the rest of the mutilated fabric. Luckily, this time none of the blood was
his own
. With an annoyed sigh, he nudged his horse forward again when the animal ambled to a weary halt.

He saw the shield first, three golden lions on a fiery red field. It lay just outside the ruins of what might have been the home of a prosperous merchant. The half-naked body of a woman lay next to the shield. The soldier Kenric was looking for lay facedown just a pace from the woman, with the body of a young Arab boy sprawled half on top of the soldier.

Kenric considered the scene with the dispassionate logic of one who can no longer be shocked by the atrocities of war. The boy was probably the woman's son or brother. He'd likely saved her from the first knight, but others had finished what the first had begun.

Kenric dismounted and nudged the knight's body with the tip of his boot, rolling the corpse onto its back. He reached inside the soldier's hauberk and removed a gold necklace with an efficient jerk. Next he took a ring from the dead man's hand and placed both items safely inside his hauberk before he remounted and turned the horse toward the edge of the city.

Normally Kenric wouldn't bother with such trinkets, but King Edward would be displeased if his nephew's signet ring or cross fell into the hands of infidels. The personal effects would also prove to the king that his nephew died in battle, rather than meeting an inglorious death from one of the many tortures inflicted on Christians by their Arab captors. He knew the bards would compose sorrowful ballads for the young man, full of brave deeds and glory, with no mention that he'd died attempting rape. Kenric doubted his own ballads would be so generous if he fell in battle. No, there were ballads aplenty about Kenric of Montague, and none could be called flattering.

A small group of knights had gathered near the outskirts of the city and one pointed toward Kenric as he emerged from the ruins. The men turned as a whole to watch the approach of their leader, each trying to guess Kenric's mood as he rode from the city. The king was sure to be upset by his favorite nephew's death, but Kenric had shown no more concern over this death than he would for a common footsoldier's. Some wondered what it would take for any emotion to cross the warlord's face.

A young squire hurried forward to hold Kenric's horse as he dismounted, and a knight named Roger Fitz Alan stepped away from the group to greet his leader. A young priest also hurried toward Kenric, the priest and Fitz Alan noticing each other at the same moment. Both men hastened their steps as they tried to be the first to reach the warrior.

"Sir Kenric," the priest called out, waving a pudgy hand in the air.
"A moment of your time."

Kenric ignored the priest and tossed the horse's reins to his squire. "Make sure he has plenty of water, Evard.

And a good brushing.
Be quick about his care. We leave within the hour."

"Aye, milord," the squire murmured, leading the horse away.

"He found out about the de Gravelle brothers," Fitz Alan said, jerking his head toward the priest.

Kenric acknowledged the warning with a slight nod. "Send Simon to make sure the supply carts
are
loaded and ready to move. The scouts returned at daybreak with word that Rashid's army is less than two days' march from here. The men are too worn to face that devil right now. With luck, we will encounter little more than skirmishes before we reach the sea."

Fitz Alan bowed slightly, then turned away to find Simon and carry out Kenric's order.

"Sir Kenric," the priest called again, coming to a halt near Kenric's elbow. His face was flushed by the early morning heat, sweat collecting already in the fleshy folds of his pale neck. Father Vachel drew himself up to his full height of five and a half feet, still looking small and insignificant next to the towering figure of the warlord. "You cannot mean to punish the de Gravelles as I have heard, Sir Kenric. No matter their crime, no Christian deserves such a death."

"Begone, priest." Kenric dismissed Father Vachel with a casual wave of his hand, as if to brush the priest away. He strode purposefully toward the group of knights, leaving the priest behind. The knights were gathered around two men who lay side by side in the sand, stripped naked and staked out spread-eagle. Kenric came to a halt at the feet of the staked men, looking slowly from one man to the other. The expressions on the bound men's faces reflected their fear. Kenric crossed his arms across his broad chest and pronounced their judgment.

"Ranulf and Dominic de Gravelle, 'tis known you conspired to murder me, but instead your poisoned wine killed four of my men. For that you will die."

Kenric gave the de Gravelle brothers a moment to come to terms with their fate. He looked toward the horizon at the rapidly rising sun then his gaze swept across the ruins of the city. "Aye, you will die by the heat of the sun, or at the hands of infidels who will be drawn from across the desert by the smoke that still rises from Al' Abar."

Ranulf de Gravelle clenched his jaw bravely, but Dominic broke down and began to sob, his pleas for mercy nearly incomprehensible. Kenric slowly drew his sword, his dark eyes devoid of emotion. "Or you can die a more honorable death than the one you intended for me."

Dominic continued to wail but Ranulf's eyes narrowed, considering his leader.

"You want to know who hired us," Ranulf stated flatly. He levered his shoulders up, struggling against his bonds to look at his brother's tear-streaked face. After a brief glance his head fell back to the sand in defeat. A quick death was the only mercy they could expect.
Death from a man who should be dead.
Ranulf cursed softly, refusing to reveal the name of the man behind their plot.

"We were approached at court," Dominic blurted out. "We made it known that we were mercenaries and our swords came with a price. My brother and I had no intention of becoming assassins, b-but the reward for your death was too tempting, milord.
Gold, a fine keep, and rich lands.
Ranulf was also promised the dowry that comes with your sister's hand in marriage."

"My father," Kenric stated quietly, his face expressionless. He'd known without being told that the old warlord was behind this scheme. Yet he'd wanted to be sure.

Dominic nodded uncertainly. "Baron Montague calls you a bastard.
A spawn of the Devil.
He grows old and sickly, but he is determined that your younger brother, Guy, inherit his lands and title. He hoped that you would die here in the Holy Lands, as so many others have. Indeed, 'tis known the infidels search you out on a battlefield for the glory of your death. Even they have a price on your head. Yet you will not die. When he learned that the king intended to call you home, Baron Montague arranged for us to journey here and join your army."

"Was my brother, Guy, involved in this scheme?"

"I cannot say," Dominic admitted. "The boy was at none of our meetings."

"Was anyone else involved?"

"Nay, just Ranulf and myself.
But I would have you know that the plot to poison the wine was Ranulf's, not mine," Dominic confessed. "I beg you, have mercy, milord. I had no wish to involve myself in this blood feud and told Ranulf so."

"But you did not tell me, did you, Dominic?" Kenric asked mildly. "You knew of his plot yet remained silent, thus four men are dead. You will pay the same price for treachery."

"You've wasted your breath, Brother
dear
," Ranulf said sarcastically, though hatred blazed from his eyes toward Kenric of Montague.

"You should have died," Ranulf told Kenric, his voice a harsh, defeated whisper. "What keeps you alive?"

"God's will," Kenric lied. His emotionless gaze moved slowly from Ranulf to Dominic. Dominic's eyes grew round and wide with complete terror as the warlord's sword moved toward his neck. Pinned to the ground, Dominic could do nothing to escape his fate, say nothing more to sway his executioner. Ranulf's shout to face death bravely was drowned out by Dominic's screams.

Kenric turned and stalked away from the de Gravelles, his mood grim.
Four men dead by treachery, now another two by his own hand.
And the ruins of a city at his back, filled with corpses. Kenric mentally calculated his losses, already planning the knights and soldiers he would move into new positions to replace those who would never leave Al' Abar. His mind conjured images of the dead, men who laughed, drank, and boasted of their skills until they were silenced forever beneath the relentless sun of this hellish place. Yet there were others just like them to take their place.
Knights and soldiers, all intent on gold and glory.
They would die the same deaths as those who went before them.

And Ranulf de Gravelle wondered how Kenric could survive amidst so much death. The answer was so simple, it was laughable. There was no fear of death left in Kenric. He'd faced the Grim Reaper each day of his life for the past three years and had grown accustomed to the specter's constant presence. It was that acceptance of Death that kept Kenric alive, as much as his skill with a sword. A warrior who fought without fear made few mistakes, his mind intent only on tactics and strategy.

Aye, Kenric knew his worth to king and country. He had all the characteristics of a perfect warrior; a body molded from childhood to the art of combat, a mind educated to the military strategies of a thousand years and countless cultures, and a heart robbed of its soul long ago. Such a warrior left only death and destruction in his path, an instrument of Death itself. There was no thought of glory or honor in this warrior, no gloating or boasts, just calm acceptance. Another battle won. Another would follow soon enough.

Kenric headed toward a blue and white striped tent, the only tent remaining of the battle camp that had stood outside the city for nearly a fortnight. After a quick meal and change of clothes, he would order the army forward, back toward the sea, back to
England.
And another war.

Aye, Baron Montague was right to fear his return. The old man knew that Kenric's power would only increase when the king sent him to join the war in
Wales. As the king's favored henchman, Kenric would not be so easy to murder in
England, or even in the mist-shrouded forests of
Wales. He just might live long enough to inherit the lands Baron Montague fought so desperately to keep from him.

"Sir Kenric!" the priest shouted. He rushed forward again to tug on Kenric's sleeve, trying to bring the warlord to a halt. Kenric merely shrugged his arm away and continued without breaking stride.

"You begin to annoy me, priest. Best say your blessings over Al' Abar and find your donkey. We do not tarry here."

"You did not give the de Gravelles an opportunity to confess their sins, to meet their Maker with a clear conscience," Father Vachel said defiantly, though he seemed appeased by the justice meted out to the traitors. To leave them here alive would have been the greater sin.

"I heard their confession," Kenric replied, unconcerned.

"You speak blasphemy!"

Kenric
shrugged,
his attention on his army's preparations to move out. "Take a walk through the streets of the city, priest. Count how many lie dead there, none with benefit of priestly confessions to meet their deaths."

" 'Tis
not the same. Those few of your knights who died gave their lives bravely in battle and had no need for confessions," Father Vachel said reasonably. "And the infidels of this city were not entitled to confession. They died by God's will."

BOOK: THE WARLORD
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