had been sharpened so often that it was wafer thin.

Angling his wrist, he struck at the wall, the full force of his right arm behind the blow. A blue spark flashed briefly, illuminating the weapon’s destruction as it shattered. Within the lean strength of his fingers, the grip came apart. He dropped the pieces on the ground, dusted his hands free of fragments and looked steadily at the drunk.

The man swallowed and licked his lips. ‘I was just leaving,’ he said and, clutching a bunched handful of his torn chausses, started hobbling away. He paused once and looked over his shoulder, but Renard still watched him, and with a grunt and a bemused shake of his head, he gave up and shambled off.

The drums pulsed sensuously. A cricket chirred on the wall beside Renard and there was a mark in the stone where the dagger had struck. He gazed at the pieces in the dust and felt uneasy. Nothing that could be pinned down and given form or reason, but he found himself wishing he had chosen not to visit the Scimitar tonight and almost followed the drunkard out into the street.

‘Renard?’ hissed de Lorys from the doorway.

He swung round.

‘Are you going to be out there all night? You’re missing the new dancer!’ He sounded as excited as a child.

The impulse to flee receded. Smiling ruefully at his own misgivings, Renard returned to the crowded interior of the tavern.

Being tall, he could see over the heads of most men. Ancelin was an exception and in his line of vision, but he eased in front of him, elbowing him in the belly when he protested. As he took his first glimpse of the Scimitar’s new dancing girl, he received his second shock of the night.

‘Is she not a beauty?’ muttered de Lorys.

‘Oh definitely,’ Renard responded with more than a hint of dry sarcasm. Beneath the mesh headdress with its head-band of bezants, her kohl-lined eyes were huge and dark, and her garments were of silk fabric, spangled with stars. Her mouth was sultry and as red as blood, and beneath her headdress, the hair that whipped her undulating body was the colour of sun-whitened wheat. Her skin was not the fair or rosy kind that typically accompanied such hair, but was as golden as spilt honey.

The dance she performed for Madam FitzUrse’s gawping customers was of the usual erotic order, guaranteed to send any newcomer to Outremer out of his mind with lust and fill with delight those who had only a passing acquaintance with the land. Men more experienced, who might usually have walked yawning, were riveted by her striking looks and by the way she cast her eyes around the throng like a lioness backed into a corner, one paw raised to strike.

Bells tinkled on her ankles and silver zills chinked between her forefinger and thumb. Her hips moved in a sinuous, hypnotic gyration.

‘Oh God!’ groaned de Lorys in agony as she whirled and the tempo increased. She threw back her head and arched her throat, and the headdress swung and flashed. Torchlight shimmered on her tinselled garments. Her eyes roved contemptuously over her sweating, lusting audience, her pupils as wide and dark as those of a night- hunter. She licked her red, red lips and smiled.

Renard found himself responding and dropped his gaze. On first arriving in Antioch, he had gorged himself on dancing girls, unable to believe his good fortune; gorged until he was sick of the very sight of them and they held no appeal for him. As time passed, his appetite had returned, but these days he consumed in cautious moderation. He felt that he should be using caution now. The dish before him was certainly edible, but so hot that it would likely scorch the fingerprints off anyone attempting to do so, and half a mark was too steep a price to pay for burnt fingers. He shifted restlessly. Men were tossing coins on the floor around her stamping feet. Her fingers fanned over her body, imitating those of a lover and she fell to her knees, hair sweeping the floor as the drums pounded to their climax.

Renard could not help himself. He raised his head and looked at her. Her lids had been closed, but as the final throb of sound resonated and died, she opened them and met Renard stare for stare, and he saw that her eyes were not brown as he had thought, but a blue as rich and deep as the sky beyond the stars.

The Scimitar erupted with roars of appreciation, loud whistles, thumped tables, bellows for more. Coins showered upon the panting, sinuous girl. A drunken young idiot made a grab for her and was snatched away by the scruff. She gained her feet in one lithe movement and lowered lashes that were thick and black, spiky with soot and gum. The drum beat lightly. She danced among the scattered coins, stooping gracefully here and there to collect them up.

Renard’s throat was dry and his palms sweating. He wiped them on his tunic and, turning abruptly away, forced a path through the avid crowd of men. Madam FitzUrse gave him a knowing smile and tipped wine from the pitcher she was holding until his cup brimmed.

‘Well, what do you think of her, my lord?’

Renard took three long swallows to prevent the drink from spilling. ‘She’s a good dancer,’ he said diffidently.

Amused, she mopped a puddle of wine from the trestle. ‘Aye, she’s that, and more if you’ve a mind.’

‘Half a mark.’ He cocked her a bright look. ‘Why so expensive?’

‘Why don’t you ask her to show you?’

‘And risk being stabbed in my dignity?’ he snorted. ‘I think not.’

She pursed her lips and then shrugged. ‘Ah well, if you’re not in the mood, I’m not the one to force you.’ Turning at a shout from her husband, she gestured that she was coming, and patted Renard’s shoulder. ‘Her name’s Olwen. If you change your mind, the payment is half to her and half to me.’

Renard sat down at the trestle to drink. Another girl was dancing now, slender and dark as a dockside cat. His view was more than half blocked but he had no real inclination. Olwen. A Welsh name for a Scandinavian-fair girl who handled a dagger like a man and danced like a sinning angel in a brothel and drinking house frequented by the knights and soldiers of Prince Raymond’s guard. An enigma to be treated with the utmost wariness, if not abstained from completely.

He finished his drink and made to leave, but his cup was pushed back at him and refilled with rich ksara wine. Surprised he stared beyond the lip of the pitcher and a gold-bangled wrist into the dark sapphire eyes of the dancing girl. Their colour was emphasised by the gown she had changed into — damask silk cut in the Frankish style and as deep as midnight.

‘Stay,’ she commanded, giving him the predatory look of a cat at a mousehole.

Renard’s skin prickled. ‘Is this free, or do I have to pay half a mark?’ he challenged, but did as she said.

Her gown rustled, releasing the waft of an exotic, spicy perfume as she sat down next to him. ‘Half a mark? Is that what she told you?’ She jerked her chin at Madam FitzUrse who was watching them with a smug smile.

‘I said I was not interested.’

‘You lied.’ Her voice was a compound of smoke and cream, and held more than a hint of scornful amusement. She extended a taloned forefinger and drew her nail gently over the back of his hand. ‘Men always lie.’ She gave him a slow, wild smile.

Her shoulder rested against his. The neck of her gown was decorously fastened but accentuated rather than concealed her figure. The warmth of her perfume rose from between her breasts. Renard realised that his body, independent of his mind, was gradually being wound up taut like the rope on a mangonel. He could feel the long pressure of her thigh against his and her forefinger in gentle dalliance on his wrist. He shifted away from her. ‘Where did you learn to fight with a knife?’ he asked abruptly.

She picked up his cup and took a long, slow swallow of the wine. ‘I was born with one in my hand.’

‘And your name is Olwen?’

‘Sometimes.’ Lowering the cup, she looked at him. ‘And yours?’

He stretched his legs beneath the bench. ‘That depends on the woman,’ he said with a smile. It was like a sword fight, he thought; each of them trying to strike beneath the other’s guard. ‘Cullwch perhaps?’

A pink tint stained her face. ‘You know the tales?’

‘My grandfather used to recite them to me. He was part Welsh, and I grew up on the Welsh borders surrounded by bards and storytellers. Cullwch and Olwen was a frequent one.’

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