|Cover art by Samantha Groom
Jewel Under Siege is set in Constantinople in the early spring of 1097. The city is besieged by Crusaders, so Elena thinks she'll be safe from strangers inside the high walls of her own garden...
"The fruit trees trained against all the walls of Elena’s garden were wreathed in blossom. The little blue irises growing behind the arbour were almost in flower, too. They would make a pretty arrangement for Easter Day.
Her mind full of flowers, Elena was an easy target. When a figure erupted from the bushes, she was dragged out of sight in less than a heartbeat. With a hard, cold hand clamped over her mouth, there was no chance to scream.
Fear froze her from head to foot. The man gripping her was breathing quickly, and as his wrist pressed against her cheek she felt his pulse racing. Eyes tight shut, Elena waited for something awful to happen. She couldn’t imagine what could be worse than this, but his overpowering smell of leatherwork and metal dressing was unnerving. She stood stock-still in his grasp until he managed some breathless French.
‘Keep quiet. I won’t hurt you. Understand?’
Somehow, she managed to nod. His fingers relaxed from her mouth. When she didn’t struggle or scream, he dropped his hand. His sigh said he was as glad to let go of her as she was to be free. She moved to get a better view of him, knowing she might need to identify him in future. He was a tall, youngish man, but his gaunt good looks were suffering from famine and war. Leaning heavily against the garden wall, he pressed one hand to his knee. The expression in his dark eyes was hunted and Elena saw that grabbing her had sapped most of his strength.
That gave her the courage to face him. ‘What do you want?’ she said in French.
‘Help–and everyone round here speaks Greek. I don’t.’
That could mean only one thing.
‘You’ve broken in from the Crusader camp!’ Elena said in horror. ‘You’ve come here to steal! And after we were told your people were coming to Constantinople to help us!’
‘It’s not like that. We’re desperate. We need food. Your people are slowly killing us. We’ve been held up outside the city for months. We’re dying out there.’
Elena drew herself up to her full height. No unshaven hulk was going to come into her garden and start twisting the facts to suit himself. ‘Only because your leaders won’t promise that you will behave properly. That’s all our Emperor wants.’
‘I’m starving and injured,’ the young man burst out suddenly. ‘I need help, not an argument about politics!’
Elena stared at him. He was in a bad way, but trying not to show it. His left leg couldn’t support any weight and he was tight-lipped with pain. Leaning against the garden wall he tried to look arrogant and supercilious, but she could see he was on the point of collapse.
‘I’ve had nothing to eat for three days. I managed to get inside the city wall, but climbing over your boundary to get at the fish in your pools was too much. It was mossy and wet. I slipped.’
Elena was horrified. ‘You’ve had no food for three days? Have you had anything to drink?’
‘Rain. That’s all.’ He swayed unsteadily, his gaze piercing her heart. ‘Get me some food? A crust? Anything. Then I’ll go. On my honour. I’m not here to make trouble.’
Elena considered. He looked dangerous, but if she could somehow sidle further out of his reach she knew he'd never catch her again. She wondered if she could trust him, and also whether he could trust her. His clothes were sodden. They clung to his frame in a way that unsettled her. The strange feeling inside her made Elena wonder whether it was only Christian charity that made her want to help him. Mud buttered his cracked and shabby boots, while his teeth chattered in a chill breeze running in off the sea.
‘Does anyone else know you’ve come here?’ she said.
He flicked his head sideways. ‘It’s bad enough that I risked getting caught. I wasn’t going to get my friends involved as well.’
He lost the look of a desperate terrorist, reduced to snatching at innocent women. Now he was dejected, alone and injured in a foreign city. He'd given Elena a bad fright, but seeing the state he was in softened her heart. In case he was playing on her sympathy, she hardened her expression and folded her hands primly in front of her.
‘I’ll go and see what can be done for you. Stay here and don’t move.’
The young Crusader put a hand to his forehead. He couldn’t offer any resistance. Instead, in a gesture of acceptance, he pulled a knife from his belt and handed it to her, handle first.
She accepted his offering warily, and held it at arm’s length. ‘Thank you - I think...'"