"How foolish my plan is?" Duncan repeated, astonished into bellowing by her brash statement. He didn't understand why he wanted to know what she was talking about, but he did. Hell, she'd just insulted him. He would have killed a man for less. Yet the innocent look on her face, and the sincerity in her voice, indicated she wasn't even aware of her transgression.
Madelyne thought Duncan looked as if he wanted to strangle her. She fought the urge to close her eyes against his intimidating stare. "If you came for me, then you've wasted your time."
"You believe your value isn't worthy enough for my attention?" Duncan asked.
"Of course. In my brother's eyes, I have no value. 'Tis a fact I'm well aware of," she added so matter-of-factly, Duncan knew she believed what she said. "And you are certain to die tonight. Aye, you're outnumbered, by at least four to one by my count. There's a second soldier's keep in the bailey below us, with over a hundred soldiers sleeping there. They will hear the fight. What think you of that?" she asked, aware she was now wringing her hands but unable to stop herself.
Duncan stood there, staring at her with a puzzled expression on his face. Madelyne prayed the news she'd just shared with him about the second soldier's keep would force him to see the folly of his plan.
Her prayers were in vain. When the baron finally reacted, it wasn't at all what Madelyne expected. He merely shrugged.
The gesture infuriated her. The foolish warrior was clearly bent on dying.
"It was a false prayer to think you'd walk away from this, no matter what the odds, wasn't it?" Madelyne asked.
"It was," Duncan answered. A warm glint entered his eyes, surprising Madelyne. It was gone before she could even react. Was the baron laughing at her?
She didn't have the courage to ask him. Duncan continued to stare at her another long moment. Then he shook his head, turned, and started to walk toward Louddon's home. He'd obviously decided he'd wasted enough time on her.
There wasn't the least hint of his intent now. Why, he could have been paying a social call if one judged by the mild look on his face and the slow, unhurried pace.
Madelyne knew better. She was suddenly so filled with dread, she thought she was going to be sick. She could feel the bile rising, burning a path all the way up to her throat. Madelyne took deep, gulping breaths while she frantically worked to undo the knots binding her hands. Panic made the task impossible, for Madelyne had just realized there were servants sleeping inside. She doubted Duncan's soldiers would concern themselves with killing only those armed against them. Louddon certainly wouldn't have made that distinction.
She knew she was going to die soon. That fact couldn't be undone; she was Louddon's sister. But if she could save innocent lives before her own death, wouldn't that act of kindness give her existence some purpose? Dear God, wouldn't saving one person make her life matter… to someone?
Madelyne continued to struggle with the rope while she watched the baron. When he reached the steps and turned back to face his men, his true purpose was obvious. Aye, his expression showed his fury.
Duncan slowly raised his sword into the air. And then his voice rang out with such force as to surely penetrate the stone walls surrounding them. His words of purpose were unmistakable.
The screams of battle tortured Madelyne. Her mind pictured what she couldn't see, trapping her within a purgatory of obscene thoughts. She had never actually witnessed a battle before, only heard exaggerated tales of cunning and prowess from boasting victorious soldiers. But none of those stories included the descriptions of the killings, and when the fighting soldiers spilled out into the courtyard, Madelyne's mental purgatory turned into a living hell, with the blood of the victims transformed into her captor's fire of revenge.
Although the numbers heavily favored Louddon's men, Madelyne soon realized they were ill prepared to fight Duncan's well-trained soldiers. She watched as one of her brother's soldiers raised his sword against the baron and lost his life because of it, witnessed another eager soldier thrust his lance forward and then stare in stupefaction when both lance and arm were severed from his body. An ear-piercing scream of agony followed the assault as the soldier pitched forward to the ground now soaked with his own blood.
Madelyne's stomach lurched over the atrocities; she closed her eyes to block out the horror, but the images continued to haunt her.
A boy Madelyne thought might have been Duncan's squire ran over to stand next to Madelyne. He had bright yellow hair and was of medium height, and so thick with muscles as to appear fat. He pulled a dagger and held it in front of him.
He paid her little heed, keeping his gaze directed on Duncan, but Madelyne thought he positioned himself to protect her. She had seen Duncan motion to the boy a short time before.
Madelyne desperately tried to focus on the squire's face. He chewed nervously on his bottom lip. She wasn't certain if the action was caused by fear or excitement. And then he suddenly bolted, leaving her unattended again.
She turned to look at Duncan, noticed that he'd dropped his shield, and then watched the squire race over to retrieve it for his lord. In his haste the squire dropped his own dagger.
Madelyne ran over, took hold of the dagger, and then hurried back to the post in case Duncan came for her. She knelt on the ground, her cloak hiding her action, and began to cut the rope binding her hands together. The acrid smell of smoke reached her. She looked up just in time to see a belch of fire explode through the open doorway of the castle. Servants now mingled with fighting men, trying to gain their freedom as they darted toward the gates. The fire chased after them, scorching the air.
Simon, first son of the Saxon reeve and an old man now, made his way over to Madelyne. Tears streamed down his leathered face, his thick shoulders stooped forward with despair. "I thought they'd done you in, milady," he whispered as he helped her to her feet.
The servant took the dagger from her and quickly cut through the rope. Once she was freed, she cupped the sides of his shoulders. "Save yourself, Simon. This battle isn't yours. Hurry now, away from here. Your family needs you."
"Go, before it's too late," Madelyne implored him.
Her voice was harsh with fear. Simon was a good godfearing man who had showed her kindness in the past. He was trapped, as were the other servants, by position and heritage, tied by law to Louddon's land, and that was sentence enough for any man to bear. God couldn't be so cruel as to demand his life as well.
"Come with me, Lady Madelyne," Simon begged. "I will hide you."
Madelyne shook her head, denying him. "You have a better chance without me, Simon. The baron would come after me. Please, don't argue," she hurried to add when she saw he was about to protest again. "Go." She screamed the order and gave it additional emphasis when she pushed against Simon's shoulders.
"The Lord protect you," Simon whispered. He handed her the dagger and turned to make his way to the gates. The old man had gotten only a few feet away from his mistress when he was knocked down to the ground by Duncan's brother. Gilard, in his haste to attack another of Louddon's soldiers, accidentally bumped into the servant. Simon made it back to his knees, when Gilard suddenly turned, as if he'd just realized there was another enemy closer at hand.
Gilard's intent was obvious to Madelyne. She screamed a warning and ran over to stand in front of Simon, using her body to shield the servant from Gilard's blade.
"Stand aside," Gilard yelled, his sword raised.
"Nay," Madelyne shouted back. "You'll have to kill me to get to him."
Gilard immediately raised his sword higher, suggesting he'd do just that. His face was mottled with fury. She thought Gilard was more than capable of killing her without suffering a moment's remorse.
Duncan saw what was taking place. He immediately started running toward Madelyne. Gilard's temper was known to be fierce, yet Duncan didn't worry that his brother would harm Madelyne. Gilard would die before breaking a command. Brother or not, Duncan was Baron of Wexton holdings and Gilard his vassal. Gilard would honor that bond. And Duncan had been most specific. Madelyne belonged to him. No one was to touch her. No one.
The other servants, nearly thirty in all, also witnessed what was happening. Those not close enough to freedom hastened over to stand as a group behind Simon for protection.
Madelyne met Gilard's furious stare with a composed expression, a tranquility that belied the destruction going on inside her.
Duncan reached his brother's side just in time to observe Madelyne's bizarre action. His captive slowly lifted her hand to her hair and then pushed the thick mass of curls away from the side of her neck. In a voice that sounded quite calm, she suggested that Gilard thrust his blade there, and if he pleased, to be quick about it.
Gilard looked stunned over Madelyne's reaction to his bluff. He slowly lowered his sword until its bloodied point was facing the ground.
Madelyne's expression didn't change. She turned her attention to Duncan.
"Does your hatred for Louddon extend to his servants? Do you kill innocent men and women because they're bound by law to serve my brother?"
Before Duncan could form an answer, Madelyne turned her back on him. She took hold of Simon's hand and helped him to his feet. "I've heard that Baron Wexton is an honorable man, Simon. Stand beside me. We'll face him together, dear friend."
Turning back to Duncan, she added, "And we shall see if this lord is honorable or if he be no different from Louddon."
Madelyne suddenly realized she held the dagger in her other hand. She hid the evidence behind her back until she felt a tear in the lining of her cloak, and then slipped the knife inside, praying the hem was strong enough to hold it. To cover her action, she shouted, "Every one of these good people has tried to protect me from my brother, and I'll die before I see you touch them. 'Tis your choice."
Duncan's voice was filled with contempt when he answered her challenge. "Unlike your brother, I don't prey on the weak. Go, old man, leave this place. You may take the others with you."
The servants were quick to comply. Madelyne watched them run to the gates. His show of compassion surprised her. "And now, Baron, I've one more request. Please kill me now. I know I am a coward for asking, but the wait is becoming unbearable. Do what you must."
She believed he meant to kill her. Duncan found himself astonished by her comments once again. He decided that Lady Madelyne was the most puzzling woman he'd ever come across. "I'm not going to kill you, Madelyne," he announced before turning away from her.
A wave of relief washed over Madelyne. She believed Duncan had given her the truth. He'd looked so surprised when she'd asked him to get the foul deed over with… aye, he was giving her the truth now.
Madelyne felt victorious for the first time in her life. She'd saved Duncan's life and would live to tell about it
The battle was finished. The horses had been released from the stables, and chased after the servants through the opened gates seconds before new flames of destruction devoured the brittle wood.
Madelyne couldn't summon up an ounce of outrage over the destruction of her brother's home. It had never belonged to her. There were no happy memories here.
No, there was no feeling outrage. Duncan's revenge was fitting retribution for her brother's sins. Justice was being served this dark night by a barbarian dressed in knight's clothing, a radical to Madelyne's way of thinking, who dared to ignore Louddon's powerful friendship with the King of England.
What had Louddon done to Baron Wexton to warrant such a retaliation? And what price would Duncan have to pay for his rash action? Would William II, upon hearing of this attack, demand Duncan's life? The king was apt to please Louddon if he commanded that action. Louddon's hold on the king was said to be unusual; Madelyne had heard it said that they were special friends. And only last week had she learned what the whispered obscenities really meant. Marta, the stablemaster's outspoken wife, had taken great delight in revealing the vileness of their relationship late one evening, after she'd swallowed too many swigs of ale.
Madelyne hadn't believed her. She'd blushed and denied it all, telling Marta that Louddon had remained unmarried because the lady he'd given his heart to had died. Marta had scoffed at Madelyne's innocence. She eventually forced her mistress to admit to the possibility.
Until that evening, Madelyne hadn't realized that some men could act intimately with other men, and the realization that one was her brother and the other reported to be the King of England made it all the more repulsive. Her disgust had turned physical; Madelyne remembered she'd thrown up her dinner, giving Marta quite a laugh.
"Burn the chapel." Duncan's order carried throughout the courtyard, pulling Madelyne's thoughts back to the present. She immediately picked up her skirts and ran toward the church, hoping she'd have time to gather her meager possessions before the command was carried out. No one seemed to be paying her any attention.
Duncan intercepted her just when she reached the side entrance. He slammed his hands up against the wall, blocking her on both sides. Madelyne let out a startled gasp and twisted around to look up at him.
"There isn't any place you can hide from me, Madelyne."
His voice was soft. Lord, he sounded almost bored. "I hide from no one," Madelyne answered, trying to keep the anger out of her voice.
"Then you wish to burn with your chapel?" Duncan asked. "Or perhaps you think to use the secret passage you told me about."
"Neither," Madelyne answered. "All of my possessions are inside the church. I was on my way to fetch them. You said you weren't going to kill me and I thought to take my things on my own journey."
When Duncan didn't respond to her explanation, Madelyne tried again. It was difficult to form a coherent thought, however, with Duncan staring at her so intently. "I'll not ask you for a mount, only my clothing from behind the altar."
"You'll not ask?" He whispered the question. Madelyne didn't know how to react to it, or the smile he now gave her. "You truly expect me to believe you've been living in the church?"
Madelyne wished she had enough courage to tell him she didn't care what he believed. Lord, she was a coward. Yet years of painful lessons in controlling her real feelings served her well now. She gave him a tranquil expression, forcing her anger aside. Why, she even managed to shrug.