"I—I'll explain later. We must make haste," she implored, obsessed with the remembered urgency to persuade her clansmen to leave without bloodshed. "Brenna's already on her way home. Where is Father and our people?" she began.
"Father is at Merrick, and there's only six of us here."
"Six!" Jenny exclaimed, stumbling as her slipper caught in a vine and then recovering, running beside him.
He nodded. "I thought we'd have a better chance of freeing you if we used stealth rather than might."
When Royce walked into the hall, Graverley was standing in the center of the room, his narrow face slowly surveying the interior of Hardin castle, his thin nose pinched with resentment and ill-concealed greed. As privy councillor to the king and the most influential member of the powerful Court of the Star Chamber, Graverley enjoyed tremendous influence, but his very position denied him the hope of a title and the estates that he so obviously coveted.
From the time Henry seized the throne, he had begun taking steps to avoid meeting the same fate as his predecessors—defeat at the hands of powerful nobles who swore allegiance to their king and then rose up when discontented and overthrew that same sovereign. To prevent such an occurrence, he had reinstated the Court of the Star Chamber which he then filled with councillors and ministers outside the peerage, men like Graverley, who then sat in judgment on the nobles fining them heavily, for any misdeed, an action which simultaneously fattened Henry's coffers and deprived said nobles of the wealth necessary for revolt.
Of all the privy councillors, Graverley was the most influential and most vindictive; with Henry's full trust and authority behind him, Graverley had successfully impoverished or completely broken nearly every powerful noble in Britain… with the exception of the earl of Claymore who, to his unconcealed fury, had continued to prosper, growing more powerful and more wealthy with each battle he won for his king.
Graverley's hatred for Royce Westmoreland was known to everyone at court, and was equalled by Royce's contempt for him.
Royce's features were perfectly bland as he crossed the one hundred-foot distance separating him from his foe, but he was registering all the subtle indications that an unusually unpleasant confrontation was evidently about to occur over some issue. For one thing, there was the smirk of satisfaction on Graverley's face; for another, positioned behind Graverley were thirty-five of Henry's men-at-arms, who were standing with military rigidity, their faces set and grim. Royce's own men, headed by Godfrey and Eustace, were formed into two lines at the end of the hall near the dais, their faces watchful, alert, tense—as if they, too, sensed something seriously amiss in this unexpected and unprecedented visit from Graverley. As Royce strode past the last pair of his men, they fell into step behind him in a formal honor guard.
"Well, Graverley," Royce said, stopping in front of his adversary, "what brings you out from your hiding place behind Henry's throne?"
Rage burned in Graverley's eyes, but his voice was equally bland, and the words he spoke scored a hit every bit as deep as Royce's had done: "Fortunately for civilization, Claymore, the majority of us do not share your pleasure in the sight of blood and the stench of rotting bodies."
"Now that we've exchanged civilities," Royce clipped, "What do you want?"
In frigid silence, Royce listened to the rest of Graverley's scathing tirade, but it seemed to his benumbed mind that the words were coming from somewhere very far away: "The king heeded my advice," Graverley was saying, "and has been trying to negotiate a peace with King James. In the midst of those delicate negotiations, you seized the daughters of one of the most powerful lords in Scotland and, by your actions, may have rendered such a peace all but impossible." His voice rang with authority as he finished, "Assuming you haven't already butchered your prisoners in your usual barbarous fashion, you are hereby commanded by our Sovereign King to release Lady Jennifer Merrick and her sister into my custody at once, whereupon they will be returned to their family."
"No." The single icy word, which constituted a treasonous refusal to obey a royal edict, escaped from Royce without volition, and it hit the room with the explosive force of a giant boulder hurtled into the hall by an invisible catapult. The king's men automatically tightened their grips on their swords and stared ominously at Royce, while his own men stiffened in amazed alarm and also stared at Royce. Only Arik betrayed no emotion whatsoever, his stony gaze riveted unflinchingly on Graverley.
Even Graverley was too shocked to conceal it. Staring at Royce through narrowed eyes, he said in a tone of utter disbelief, "Do you challenge the accuracy with which I deliver the king's message, or do you actually dare to refuse the command itself?"
"I challenge," Royce improvised coldly, "your accusation of butchery."
"I'd no idea you were so sensitive on the subject, Claymore," Graverley lied.
Automatically stalling for time, Royce said, "Prisoners, as you above all should know, are taken before Henry's ministers and their fate decided there."
"Enough dissembling," Graverley snapped. "Will you or will you not comply with the king's command?"
In the space of the few moments alloted to him by perverse fate and an unpredictable king, Royce rapidly considered all the myriad reasons he would be insane to wed Jennifer Merrick, and the several compelling reasons why he was going to do it.
After years of victories on battlefields all over the continent, he had evidently ridden to defeat in his own bed atop a winsome seventeen-year-old with more courage and wit than any ten women he had ever known. Try though he might, he could not make himself send her home.
She had fought him like a tigress, but she surrendered like an angel. She had tried to stab him—but she had kissed his scars; she had slashed his blankets and sewn his shirts closed—but she had kissed him a few minutes ago with a sweet, desperate ardor that had twisted him into knots of desire; she had a smile that lit up the dark recesses of his heart, a laugh so infectious it made him grin. She had honesty, too, and he prized that above all.
Those things were in the back of his mind, but he refused to concentrate on them or even consider the word "love." To do so would have meant that he was more than physically involved with her, and that he refused to accept. With the same impartial, lightning logic he used to make decisions in battle, Royce considered instead that, given the way her father and clan Merrick already felt about her, if she returned to them, they would treat her as a traitor, not a victim. She had lain with their enemy and, whether she was already with child or not, she'd spend the rest of her life locked away in some nunnery, building dream kingdoms where she was accepted and loved, kingdoms that would never be.