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He was dressed like one of the thieves, which is why she'd taken him for one of them at first, but the barrow he'd been pushing looked like something the farmers back home used to take their cabbages to market.
And just like the peasants back home, he didn't carry any weapons.
His eyes darted back to the clearing when he heard the two thieves approach, and he became as still as the tree they had chosen for their hiding place.
"What's the password again?" one man asked.
"Open…simsi!" he said, or at least that's what Melisende thought she heard.
The man beside her stiffened as he saw the boulder move. He did not relax until they uttered the evidently magical password again and the boulder closed the entrance to their cave.
"Did you see that?" he breathed.
She gave a sharp nod. "That's the second time I've seen it. The first time was earlier today, when the rest of their band of thieves arrived and went in. I think their chief said there were forty of them, though I didn't think to count them. Then one of the knights who'd fled into the woods when the battle started happened upon them, and they killed him. Those two took his body back to the others. If they found you, they would have killed you just as easily, I am certain."
The man stepped back and bowed. "Then I owe you my life, though I don't even know your name."
She hesitated. Godfrey was gone and so was Zoticus. Did she need to invent a false name, or was she far enough from home that her own would sound false?
Finally, she said, "I am Lady Melisende of Mareschal. I rode with the Crusaders until someone killed them."
A faint blush coloured his cheeks. "So I must offer you my condolences for Lord Mareschal…?"
She laughed. "There is no such lord. My father is Baron of Mareschal. Of all the men who died here yesterday, I only knew one of them well, and I'm not certain even an army could kill him. If he did survive, I'm sure he's far from here already."
The man nodded. "I am Mithra of Dorylaeum, son of Ali Baba from the same city. I am delighted to meet you, Lady Melisende. Did you know you share your name with the Crusader queen, who lives and rules in what you call the Holy City?"
Queen Melisende. No, she had not. "I'm not her," Melisende said.
"No, you are younger and more beautiful," Mithra said.
Now it was her turn to blush. Then a thought struck her. "Do you know her? Perhaps if I could see her, speak to her, she might help me find a way home."
Mithra hung his head. "I fear I have never met a queen, nor been allowed to speak to one. Even if I did know her, I could not take you to her, for there is an army between here and my home. If any soldier saw you…"
"He'd throw me over his shoulder and dump me in the place they're keeping their other prisoners. Their whores," Melisende spat.
"Their slaves," Mithra corrected. "They take the women and children they capture to sell as slaves."
Somehow, Melisende wasn't sure whether that was better or worse.
A rumble shook the ground beneath them. The boulder was moving again.
"Quick, they're coming out. Hide," she said, climbing the nearest tree.
Mithra sprang up beside her, climbing like he was half monkey. Maybe he was.
"I had no idea Crusader ladies could climb trees as well as a woodcutter," Mithra whispered.
"I grew up with a bunch of older brothers, whose every game was to see who could be the fastest, the strongest, the best." She shrugged. "I was the smallest, and the only girl. While never the strongest, I could always climb the highest. It helped no end when I began to learn how to heal, and prepare medicines. Sometimes the best leaves were only to be found at the top of a tree, and there are certain parasitic herbs that twine up a tree so that the only place to collect them is high above the ground. What my brothers didn't realise is that every hour spent in the stillroom or the sickroom is only after many hours spent in the forests and fields – "
She fell silent as the thieves began to emerge.
When they headed for the horses, she searched for the one with her striped sack, but every man was empty handed. Which meant her things were still inside the cave.
Once again, the leader was last, muttering his magic words to close the cave behind him.
"Where to next, Captain?" one thief asked.
The leader thought for a moment, then said, "With armies marching along the trade routes, no merchant will venture out, so all our usual haunts will have slim pickings until the war is done. So, we follow the remnants of the Crusader army. Some of them were surely wounded, and they'll fall behind. We can pick them off as they do. When they next go into battle, we'll be there to take first pick of both what's on the bodies and in the baggage train."
Disgusting scavengers. Preying upon wounded men and fallen soldiers. If bandits like these ever entered her father's lands, her brothers would scour them from the earth. She wished she could do the same here.
If only she were a powerful enchantress, capable of casting spells that incapacitated dozens of men at a time. Or that could turn the tide of battle, transforming defeat into victory.
Instead, even when she did use her magic, she'd managed to lose her last loaf of bread to a common thief.
The thieves mounted up and rode out, walking their horses in single file along a game trail until Melisende could no longer hear the unhurried hoofbeats.
"I counted forty of them. Did you?" Mithra asked.
She'd been so busy raging against them, she'd forgotten to count the thieves. Put to shame by a common woodcutter.
Melisende confessed that she'd been too distracted to do so.
Mithra gave her a sympathetic nod, his eyes dark with concern. "You've been through quite an ordeal. When I think of the other women…why, you are quite remarkable."
Other women now in the hands of the enemy. Women the Crusader knights should have protected, instead of running away like the honourless cowards they were. This crusade was doomed to fail from the beginning. She should not have come.
"Don't cry," Mithra said. "Here, don't you want to see what those thieves keep in their secret cave?"
Actually, she did not much care. Except that her own things were there…
Melisende wiped her eyes. Crying was for children. "We should wait to make sure they don't return. It would not do to be found inside, for surely that boulder is the only way in or out."
Mithra's eyes grew wide. "I had not thought of that. Best we wait, then, as you say, wise Lady Melisende."
That made her laugh. She definitely wasn't wise. Then again, the man might be teasing her. He looked to be about the same age as her brothers, and they liked to tease her all the time.
"If I was so wise, I would have stayed home, instead of coming here on this foolish crusade," she said.
Mithra looked thoughtful. "My master used to say wisdom comes from experience, making mistakes that you must learn from. The wisest men have made many mistakes."
"Master? Are you a slave?"
Mithra stared at her for a long moment, before he said, "Things must be very different in the north, if you cannot tell the difference between a slave and a free man. Though I suppose being an apprentice is a little like being a slave, for my father paid my master to teach me his trade, which meant working very hard without being paid."
"But…you are a man now, too old to be an apprentice, surely. Most of the boys back home became journeymen younger than my brother was when he was made a squire."
Mithra nodded. "In some trades, it is so. The trade guilds say who is good enough to become a master, but not all trades have a guild in Dorylaeum. Without a guild, we are all either apprentices or merchants. Perhaps if my master had lived a little longer, he would have helped me to become a merchant. Or his son, who would happily have partnered with me in a trade venture."
"How did they die?" Melisende asked.
Mithra's expression darkened. "It is a dark tale, one not fit for a woman's ears, but when the woman has been in battle and survived to tell the tale…perhaps you are made of sterner stuff than the norm."
Melisende didn't think he'd be as impressed if he knew she'd run, climbed a tree and slept through most of the battle, so she merely said, "Tell me."
By the time Mithra told her about his master's death, she wished she could hide her face and weep for these men she had not known. But there was worse to come.
The Seljuks sounded no better than the men she'd marched with.
"Peter counted on the Crusaders to come and save him. Perhaps it is for the best that he did not live to see their defeat," Mithra said sadly.
"I'm not sure any more that a crusade can save anyone. Saving a city by sacking it and killing the inhabitants…I fear they are all mad!"
"So you have no desire to rejoin the crusade, if you could?" Mithra asked.
Melisende shook her head. "The only thing I want now is to go home."
* * *
The silence stretched between them, but Mithra did not know how to break it. If he was trapped in a foreign land, far from home, hiding from an army that wanted to torture and enslave him, he didn't think he would have her calm composure. He'd be anxious to take action, leaving caution behind in the dust, and probably get himself killed.
Yet Melisende had kept them both alive.
"It's been some time. When they left, they talked of catching up to the rest of the Crusader army. They would have had to hurry. It should be safe to see what they keep in their cave now," Melisende said, descending.
He'd been so busy talking to her, he'd completely forgotten about his own curiosity. He mumbled his agreement and climbed down after her.
Lady Melisende moved to stand in the same spot where the thief captain had, took a deep breath, and said, "Open simsi."
Melisende cleared her throat with some annoyance. Louder this time, she repeated, "Open simsi."
The boulder did not move.
Most girls he knew would have given way to anger by now, or at least stamped their feet, but Lady Melisende merely took another breath and asked, "Is there something else the man did to make it open?"
Mithra shrugged. "I think he only said something." She'd been here longer, and heard the incantation more times than he had, so surely she knew it better.
"Perhaps…perhaps it's blood magic, which requires a blood price to work," she said. She took her dagger, pressed the point to her finger and waited until a drop of blood welled up. Then she wiped it on the rock. "Open simsi."
Finally, Mithra said, "I thought he said sesame. You know, like the seed."
She looked puzzled. "What sort of seed?"
"Sesame seed. You know, it's small and straw-coloured. You can press them to make oil that's good to cook with, or you can use the seeds in cooking. Mixed with honey and spices, some of the bakers in town make the most delicious cakes…" He opened his eyes to find her staring at her. "You don't know sesame?"
Melisende shook her head. "We don't have that sort of seed at home. Besides, why would he talk about seeds when he wants a massive rock to move? Simsi is the old word for mountain where I come from. So when he said, 'Open simsi,' he's telling the mountain to open. Isn't there some sort of proverb about mountains moving for a particular prophet? It makes much more sense."
Mithra had to admit what she said was true, but the unmoving stone seemed to say otherwise. "I still think I heard sesame," he said.
"Then you try to command the boulder," Melisende said, folding her arms across her breast.
Mithra did not want to look like a fool, but he wasn't sure he had a choice. The rock hadn't moved for her, so the worst that could happen would be that he might fail, too.
What did it matter? She probably didn't think much of him, anyway. He was nothing but a lowly woodcutter, while she was a lady who lived in some Crusader castle, far to the north, protected by her knightly brothers.
Who would likely run him through with their swords if they saw him speaking to their sister.
Mithra sighed. "Open sesame," he said.
The rock gave an ominous rumble, then rolled aside.
Mithra looked around, worried that someone might have heard it, and know that intruders were about to enter their cave. But no one came.
"I'll go first, shall I? After all, that's best, just in case they've left a guard inside," Mithra said, brandishing his axe as if he was eager to meet his foe, when that was definitely not the case.
But no matter what fear he felt, he could not allow her to come to more danger because of him. He'd opened the cave, after all.Not waiting for Melisende's assent, he descended into the dark.
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A shrewd servant. A penniless young woodcutter. A priceless stolen treasure.
Once upon a time...
Melisende joins a crusade, her head full of glory and victory, only to flee from her first battle. Forced to hide as a housemaid while the enemy army occupies the city she'd hoped to save, she despairs of ever finding her way home.
Mithra plans to settle down with the girl of his dreams, but when the war spills into his city, all dreams of the future are shattered. When he finds a Crusader maiden in the woods and they stumble across a priceless treasure, he thinks his luck might have turned…until he discovers the penalty of stealing from the Forty Thieves.
Can Melisende and Mithra save his family from the Forty Thieves?
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