They were still chasing her. Josephine felt them just as she felt the horse’s heartbeat echoing through galloping hooves. Her lungs clutched at every breath, sucking at the rushing wind; fear lodged in her throat.
She stole a glance behind her. A vision of dark men on angry horses flashed in the moonlight. They were gaining on her. Clutching the reins in her trembling hands, she pressed her knees against the sides of the horse, urging it onward. She had never liked horses, but tonight she blessed her father for teaching her to ride.
Father. Tears welled up in her eyes. She could see him standing over mother’s fallen body. He raised his sword, challenging the murderers, and his eyes urged her to run. She obeyed, dashing to the stables and saddling the mare, leaving him there to die.
Josephine leaned down low like he taught her, and the ground flew by beneath her. At the corner of her vision, she spotted a black stain in the darkness of the night, but when she looked directly at it, the shadow disappeared. She might have thought it a trick of the moon’s light if not for the way her heart trembled. Clenching her teeth, she bit into her lip and blood filled her mouth with the taste of her fear.
Was it one of them left on the road to guard against escape? It was no matter. She was past him now. Steam rose from the horse’s breath, and lather dripped from its lips. It could not travel much further. She spurred the horse onward, praying it would outlast the assassins.
Why? It was a question that burned in her soul. Her father was a simple merchant. Her sisters were younger than her, and she used to play hide and seek with them in the hills behind their house. Her mother would sometimes bake a pie and put it in the window to cool, a soothing scent that welcomed them home from their play. Why would anyone want them dead? Why would the murderers turn their blades on innocent children?
The riders were gaining on her, and in the pounding of the hooves, she could hear her sister’s scream. The scream awoke her to murder, and she could smell death approaching in the stench of blood and urine. Again, she saw her father raising his sword in challenge, buying time for his daughter to escape. And this time, she heard the scream of his death as she rode from the estate.
She must escape these men. Father had given his life for her, and she would not fail him. She scanned the hills looking for something, anything that would give her hope. Just past where the road bent around a large hill, she spotted a twinkle of light. She thought it might be a star hanging low on the horizon, but it burned orange, not white. Torchlight! It revitalized muscles drained from fear, and she urged the mare onward. The riders were close now. Turning her head, she could make out the faces that glared back at her.
The horse galloped around the bend in the road, and she saw the old monastery. Josephine gasped. Even under the sparse light of the moon, the signs of ruin overshadowed the building. Had it not been for the lit torches perched on either side of the entrance, she would have thought the monastery closed, long since abandoned. Her horse burst toward the monastery with renewed strength.
Thankfully, the iron gate was open. The horse flew through the gate and down the path. The men were very close now. She only had a few precious seconds. She jumped from her horse, her ankle twisting when she hit the ground, but she ignored the pain in a wild dash up the stairs.
"Help!" she screamed, her voice barely audible over her fists pounding against the wooden doors. "Please help me!"
The riders were through the gate now. The horses slowed as they approached, their riders wary. She continued to slam her fists against the wood with her head half-turned to stare at the riders in horror. Would they cut her down right here, so close to sanctuary?
They flowed off their horses, hands drifting to the long, curved swords at their belts. They were clad in darkness, black cloaks cradling their bodies and black scarves covering their mouths. The flickering torchlight reflected a dire warning in their eyes.
"Please!" Josephine slammed both fists against the door with all her might. Tears streamed down her face, and her body quaked with fear. The last of her strength ebbed from her body. "Please..."
The doors opened, and she fell to the feet of a man. She looked up into a face cloaked in shadows and could make out nothing save two eyes that glowed red in the torchlight. A chill ran through her. She trembled in pure terror, and then the darkness took her.
Geoffrey Furnivall spared the young woman a quick glance before stepping over her collapsed form to face the riders. He folded his arms across a wide chest, the worn hilt of a great broadsword sticking up from his waist. He drew back the hood of his cloak, revealing a scarred face, devoid of emotion. The man stared at the riders, daring them to approach.
The black riders paused, glancing at each other in silent communication. Their prey was in sight, but Geoffrey could see doubt crack their confidence. He drew his broadsword. The iron blade scratched against the leather scabbard, hissing out a dire warning.
"You dare stand before the Templar?"
The black riders turned their eyes to one man in the center. The knight, standing protectively over the collapsed woman, knew this one was different from the others. There was no fear in this one’s eyes, only annoyance. He watched the leader’s hands hover near the two blades hanging at his waist, his fingers dancing across the hilts. A tense moment passed and the man’s lips cracked into a smile. He nodded to the knight, and signaled to his companions.
Geoffrey watched the assassins retreat into the night. "Micah?" he whispered, feeling an unseen presence in the darkness of the monastery.
A young monk in plain, brown robes stepped through the doorway. The monk’s mousy brown hair matched his robes and his eyes. He ran a nervous hand over the neat bald spot cut in a perfect circle at the top of his head. "I heard a noise and came to investigate."
"Very good." Geoffrey slid the broadsword back into its scabbard and took a step toward the unconscious woman lying on the steps of the temple. He contemplated the woman, his thick mustache twitching with his thoughts. "We will need a room readied for our unexpected guest."
"Yes, sir," Micah said, scurrying back into the temple.
"Is that wise, Geoffrey?" came a soft, musical voice.
The voice held the faint trace of a French accent, and Geoffrey recognized it at once. He turned his head and watched his friend materialize from the night. "What else are we to do, Gerard?" he asked. "You saw the men?" He motioned his head in the direction of their retreat.
"Yes," Gerard de St. Amand replied. His long, black hair danced in the wind and he ran a hand through it, sweeping it out of his face. He pulled it into a tight ponytail and bound it with a strip of leather. "I spotted the chase on the south road."
"You know who they are?"
"Isma’ilites." Gerard hissed the word with disdain.
"The Old Man’s assassins." Geoffrey nodded. "We must know what interest he has in the girl. He has been very active as of late. We must know more of his plans."
Geoffrey shook his head cutting off his friend’s objection. He knew what Gerard would say. The woman represented danger, not of assassins, but another danger they could ill afford. Yet, this was their duty, and they were sworn to it. He bent down and took the girl in his arms, lifting her with ease, as if she weighed no more than the flowers patterned on her dress. "She will come to no harm," he said, stepping into the temple. "At least, not on this night. See to her horse and meet me in the study."
He entered the monastery, and Micah met him on the stairs. "The guest chambers in the northeast wing." Geoffrey carried the woman into the room and laid her gently on the bed. He wrapped the blankets around her and bowed his head. "Lord, protect her," he whispered, "And deliver her from evil so that she may know your glory."
He backed out of the room and closed the door, and heard a growl down the hall. "Fresh meat?" The thick, burly voice of Edward Conyers spoke malice. The big man raised a hairy arm to scratch roughly at his cheek.
Geoffrey Furnivall glared a warning at Edward.
"She is not to be harmed," Geoffrey said.
"Your private play thing?"
Geoffrey raised his arm and put his hand on the taller man’s chest. "She is not to be harmed." He pushed, sending the man stumbling backward into the wall. Staring at Edward, he dared the larger man to disobey.
Edward’s stare met his in defiance. Geoffrey recognized the lust, and he held the stare until it faded. Edward snarled and looked away.
"Follow me," Geoffrey said. He turned and walked down the hall, Micah trailing after him. With a final, aggravated glance at the closed door, Edward followed in their footsteps.
"Sit," he beckoned when they reached the private study. Gerard was already there, and Geoffrey remained standing while the two knights took their seats at the table. Micah hovered at the doorway caught between wanting to stay and knowing he should leave. Geoffrey gave him a quick smile and indicated with a nod that he could remain.
"The men chasing her, as Gerard noted, were Isma’ilites," Geoffrey said. "We do not know what they want from her, but they chased her some distance. The nearest village is two leagues south of here. It must have been a valuable prize for them to have followed her that great a distance."
"How do we know they didn’t jump her somewhere on the road?" Edward interrupted, still scowling from their earlier altercation. His hands rested on top of the table, his fingers tapping out a rhythm against the wood. "She could have been traveling to any number of places."
"There were no bags on her horse, no supplies of any kind. She was not traveling. Her dress is made of a fine material and well stitched. She is not of noble blood, but also not poor. Her father is, perhaps, a prominent citizen of the village, or even a minor merchant of a nearby city, though I doubt she could have evaded them that long."
"It is a wonder she evaded them at all," Gerard said. "The Isma’ilites are not known for their incompetence."
"Aye." Geoffrey nodded. "Two leagues is too great a distance for one girl to have evaded them, which leads me to believe they did not want to catch her."
"That makes no sense," Edward said. "If they did not want her, why would they chase her?"
"Perhaps they wanted something else," Micah whispered.
The others turned to look in the direction of the monk and Geoffrey could see the shy monk become uncomfortable under the weight of their stares. "Go on," he said.
"Perhaps they wanted to see where she would lead them," Micah said. "Though I doubt they expected it to be here."
"Yes." Geoffrey smiled his approval at the monk. "There was blood on her dress, fresh blood, though she had no cuts on her body. The girl fled from foul murder, I suspect. Not finding what they sought on the murdered, the assassins followed her in hopes it would lead to their prize. Instead, she led them here."
"What could the girl have that would interest the Old Man of the Mountain?" Edward asked.
"Not the girl, the family," Gerard corrected. "It is her family’s blood on her dress. She alone escaped, and the assassins, not finding their prize, followed her."
"Still, what does this have to do with us?" Edward asked. "She’s a peasant, after all, and her concerns are not our own."
"If it has to do with the Old Man, it has to do with us," Geoffrey replied. "Don’t be daft, man. You’d think you were still a bandit preying on the weak in England. You are of the Inner Circle now. Learn to use your mind."
"You are no better than I," Edward returned, his fist pounding down on the table emphasizing his words. "You were not higher born. You were excommunicated and had to beg forgiveness from the Bishop the same as I."
Geoffrey’s eyes glittered dangerously. Like many knights, he had once led a sinful life that had caused his excommunication from the church. It was common practice to allow those of noble birth the chance to redeem past sins by taking up the cause of the knights.
"I have atoned for my sins," he said. "I now fight for the glory of God. What do you fight for, Edward?"
"I fight for blood, the same as you," Edward said. "Only I am not too blind to admit it."
"Enough!" Geoffrey said. "I am your superior, do not forget that, Edward. You live by my grace and by my grace alone. Do not challenge me."
Edward shot up from the table, his chair crashing to the ground behind him. "Do not talk down to me. I am not some peasant boy that can be pushed around."
"Gentlemen," Gerard said, moving to stand between them. "We are all three stuck in this dreadful outpost away from the civilized world. We each know the price we paid on our road here. Whether we be angels or devils, let us, at least, keep enough of our humanity not to come to blows over so petty a thing."
Edward growled at him, but grabbed the chair and set it back in its place. With a furious glance at the others, he sat. "I’m thirsty," he said.
"Is..." Micah whispered, his voice wavering and his cheeks flushed red with fear. "Is there anything I can do?"
"No, Micah," Geoffrey said. "I would not ask that of you. You are here to serve, yes, but not in that fashion."
"Thank you, milord," Micah said. He lowered his head and trembled in relief.
"We must learn what the Old Man seeks," Geoffrey said. "I have heard rumor that the Hospitaller have allied with the Isma’ilites. There is no love lost between our brother-knights and us. If the girl has knowledge of something the Old Man wants, then it may very well be something the Hospitaller want as well. We must find out what it is they seek."
"But, she can’t stay here" Edward said.
"Why not?" Geoffrey asked.
"She need never find out, brother," Geoffrey said. "Micah will keep her occupied during the daylight hours. We will question her at sundown on the morrow and decide then what our next step will be."
"Very well," Edward said. "Just make sure she knows nothing when she leaves here. I will not let her knowledge doom us all, Geoffrey. That, too, is our sacred oath."