Under cloudy skies, they made their way in silence to the stables and were lucky enough to encounter no one. Juliana kept watch while Robert saddled the horses and muffled their hooves with rags. He handed her the mare’s reins, then pointed toward an exit at the back of the stables.
“But the gate is over there,” she whispered.
“Aye, and ’twill be watched. We must find a postern and leave that way,” he whispered back.
“And if that, too, is watched?”
“’Tis likely to have only one guard, if that, and I can deal silently with one man.”
Taking care to be quiet and watch for guards, they made their way along the wall until they found the unguarded postern. The gate opened with very little noise. Leading the horses, they picked their way carefully over the rocky ground that separated the country home from the hills a league distant.
They had covered half the distance when a shout went up from the house.
“Our departure is discovered. We must hurry.” Robert grasped Juliana about the waist and lifted her into her saddle, then bent to remove the cloth from the horses’ hooves and tossed the rags behind a nearby bush.
“At least we still have the cover of the clouds. They do not yet know where we are.”
“But not for long.” Robert leapt to his saddle and pointed toward the sky.
Juliana followed his gesture to see the moon edging out from behind its cloudy curtain.
“The moment that moonlight strikes your white horse we will be as visible as if we had a beacon to light the way.”
Juliana wasted no time in reply but set her mare to a ground-eating lope.
Robert sent his destrier thundering after her, praying they would reach the hills in time to lose their pursuers. He held to the pace of her smaller mount, using himself and his larger horse to shelter Juliana. So swift a ride over unfamiliar terrain in the dark held as many dangers as a hoard of pursuers. One misstep could break a neck, but given the consequences of being caught, a broken neck was worth the risk.
They raced onward. Still, the sounds of pursuit grew closer with each stride. He could see the mare was tiring. Arrows flew past his head. As Juliana’s steed continued to fail, he shifted the reins to one hand and with the other plucked her from her saddle to place her facing him on the broad pommel of his saddle.
“Hold on,” he yelled.
He waited only to feel her arms tighten around his waist, then urged the destrier to even greater speed. Fury washed through him. He wanted to kill the men who placed Juliana in such danger. But first he had to get her to safety.
Mother of God, help us find cover quickly. He headed away from the trail to Palermo, hoping to create false confidence in their pursuers. He knew quite well where he was, but they would believe him to be lost. To make the deception work, he must first elude them.
The howls from the pack of men sounded entirely too close. Robert spied a dip in the hillside and rode hard for it. He splashed over a small stream and turned to follow a rocky cleft that time had carved in the hill. Sharp cliffs rose on both sides, blocking the moonlight.
The pursuers’ shouts echoed off the walls of the passage. He dodged between a pair of rocks, away from the stream and out of sight of the pack. He had to find shelter soon. His gelding could not keep this pace for much longer.
“On your left. I think I see a space.” Juliana’s words flew at him. “It’s behind us now.”
Robert hauled on the reins, guiding the horse at her direction. A bush blocked the way. He shifted his weight and tightened his thighs until the destrier leapt and cleared the bush. They hit the ground with a jarring thud and nearly ran headlong into the cliff face. He reined in hard, and the gelding turned, missing the wall by a hair. The awkward movement threw Robert off balance, and he crashed against the stone. Juliana grunted at the impact.
Robert complied, spying the narrow gorge in that moment. He ordered the steed into the space. Instantly, the sounds of pursuit became muffled. With moonlight blocked, the gorge was darker than pitch. The horse had to step with slow care.
Dotted with boulders and brush, eventually the way broadened. The moon cast huge shadows and distorted perception. Sounds of pursuit had ceased some time ago. But rage still flooded Robert. Half of him wished the pack would catch them so he could gut each and every one of the men. The saner half knew he would be lucky to get Juliana back to the beguinage in one piece. Robert moved from rock to bush to rock, winding and shifting his path in an attempt to confuse any followers. Sometime later, he stumbled upon a shallow cave.
Keeping to the shadows, he reined to a halt and observed the lay of the land. The cliff face would guard their backs. Approach from the front was restricted by the slim crevasse through which they had just traveled. The place was defensible against a small number. If a large group attacked, he would just have to slit Juliana’s throat to save her a more painful fate and then kill as many of the attackers as possible before he died, too. His breath stopped for a moment at the thought of Juliana dead. The rage that sustained him since her capture faltered in the face of fear that she might die by his hand.
He could not let her die, and if that meant he never took revenge on those who sought to capture her, so be it. Her safety came first. This place was as safe as any other the night would provide.
The horse huffed, drawing in great gulps of air. The destrier needed rest and water. Robert ached in every bone. Juliana must feel ten times his pain. She could scarce be used to such hard riding. She was strangely silent, he thought, as he shifted to help her to the ground.
Blood trickled from a cut on her forehead, where a lump formed. More blood oozed from a band of scrapes across one cheek and dripped down her neck. Below that, from shoulder to wrist of one arm, her sleeve lay in shreds, dotted with flecks of dirt and a darker red.
She slipped sideways, and he caught her before she fell. ’Twas a wonder she had not fallen off during their escape. He struggled to lower them both to the ground. That the horse was too exhausted to object to the awkward process was a dubious blessing.
He carried Juliana into the cave, checked for sign of animal inhabitants, then searched her for more injuries. Try though he might, he could find nothing but scrapes and bruises. What had happened to her? Could he have done anything to prevent it? He knew he could not, and fury rippled through him once more that the monk and his men had dared threaten her well-being. He clenched his fists against the urge to strike out.
He forced gentleness into his hands and made her as comfortable as possible. Then he went back to the horse for his small store of water and a cloth to clean her cuts as best he could. Close inspection of her face showed him parched lips.
Robert soaked a clean corner of the cloth and squeezed a trickle of water between her lips, then passed the dampened rag over her mouth. Her tongue licked out, and a groan issued as she turned her head to follow the moisture.
“Juliana? Can you hear me?”
Her eyelids fluttered open. “Robert,” she croaked and lifted the hand of her uninjured arm to her face. “My head hurts. My whole body hurts, and my arm feels like it is on fire.”
He nearly laughed with relief at her small complaints when he had been so very worried about her. “The skin is scraped, but your arm is whole. Do you know where you are?”
She cast a sideways glance and quirked a brow at him. “Lying in the dirt, more than a day’s ride from Palermo?”
“Good. You have not lost your senses. Do you know what happened? How you scraped your face and tore the skin of your arm to shreds?”
He gave her more water.
“The cliff. When you jumped the bush and turned so quickly, I hit the cliff face with that side of my body and head.”
He nodded. “I should kill that monk and his men for forcing you to this.”
“One against so many?” She gave a dry laugh. “You are a mighty warrior, Robert, but even you could not take out more than one at a time.”
“True.” He had to laugh with her. She was right. “Still, I regret that I cannot wreak vengeance on them. ’Twould ease the pain of failing to save other women from death and destruction.”
Juliana yawned, stretched, and reclined on the ground, cushioning her cheek on her hand. “I am so tired, I thought you spoke of rescuing other women. That’s foolish. There are no other women here.”
He stared at her before turning away. “Sleep. I will keep watch from atop that rock.” He pointed at a man-sized boulder beside the cave. “If you need aught, come to me there. Do not call out. That could alert any searchers to our position.”
“Mmm-hmm.” She nodded but was asleep before he left.
After Robert checked the horse, he tethered him loosely near some sparse grass within sight of both cave and rock. He climbed the rock, finding a sheltered perch from which he could survey the surrounding countryside.
While moonlight faded to dawn, he spent the time plotting what he would do should he ever meet Fra Giovanni again. When he could no longer fight sleep and the day was too hot for their pursuers to continue the search, Robert climbed down and joined Juliana in the cave.
* * *
Blurb: Beguine follower Juliana Verault holds the key to upending the power structure throughout Europe - a letter from the pope that could radically change the church's stance on women - but only if she can dodge the bounty hunter her cousin, King Edward I of England, has sent for her. Sir Robert Clarwyn has never failed to bring home his target before . . . but he has also never encountered a quarry like Lady Juliana.
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