"Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest.
Whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure; if there be any virtue… think on these things."
new testament, philippians, 4:8
They meant to kill him.
The warrior stood in the center of the desolate courtyard, his hands roped together and tied to a post behind his back. His expression was devoid of emotion as he stared straight ahead, outwardly ignoring his enemy.
The captive hadn't offered any resistance, allowing himself to be stripped to his waist without so much as a fist drawn or a word of protest spoken. His rich, fur-lined winter cloak, heavy hauberk, cotton shirt, stockings, and leather boots had all been removed and placed on the frozen ground in front of him. The enemy's intent was clear. The warrior would die, but without a new mark added to his battle-scarred body. While his eager audience watched, the captive could look at his garments while he slowly froze to death.
Twelve men surrounded him. Knives drawn to give them courage, they circled and jeered, yelling insults and obscenities as they stomped their boot-clad feet in an effort to ward off the frigid temperature. Yet one and all kept a safe distance lest their docile captive change his inclination and decide to break loose and attack. They had little doubt he'd be capable of the feat, for they'd all heard the tales of his Herculean strength. Some had even witnessed his superior prowess in battle a time or two. And if he tore through the ropes, the men would be forced to use their knives on him, but not before he sent three, possibly even four of them to their own deaths.
The leader of the twelve couldn't believe his good fortune. They had captured the Wolf and would soon witness his death.
What a reckless mistake their captive had made. Aye, Duncan, the powerful Baron of Wexton holdings had actually ridden into his enemy's fortress completely alone, and without a single weapon for defense. He had unwisely believed that Louddon, a baron of equal land title, would honor their temporary truce.
He must believe his own reputation, the leader thought. He must truly think himself to be as invincible as the great battle stories exaggerated. Surely that was the reason he seemed so unconcerned over his dire circumstances now.
A feeling of unease settled in the leader's mind as he continued to watch his captive. They had stripped the man of his value, shredded his blue and white crest proclaiming title and worth, making certain that no remnants of the civilized nobleman remained. Baron Louddon wanted his captive to die without dignity or honor. Yet the near-naked warrior standing so proudly before them wasn't complying with Louddon's wishes at all. He wasn't acting like a man about to die. Nay, the captive wasn't pleading for his life or whimpering for a quick end. He didn't look like a dying man either. His skin wasn't pale or covered with goose bumps, but sun-bronzed and weather-toughened. Damn, he wasn't even shivering. Aye, they had stripped the nobleman, yet under all the layers of refinement stood the proud warlord, looking as primitive and as fearless as the whispered tales boasted. Before their eyes, the Wolf had been revealed.
The jeering had ceased. Only the sound of the wind howling through the courtyard could be heard now. The leader turned his attention to his men, huddled together a short distance away. Every one of them was staring at the ground. He knew they avoided looking at their captive. He couldn't fault them for this show of cowardice as he, too, found it a difficult task to look directly into the warrior's eyes.
Baron Duncan of Wexton land was at least a head taller than the largest of the soldiers guarding him. He was just as massive in proportions, with thick, muscular shoulders and thighs, and with his long, powerful legs braced apart, his stance suggested he was capable of killing them all… if he became so inclined.
Darkness was descending, and with it came a curtain of light snow. The soldiers began to complain about the weather in earnest then. "Ain't no need for us to freeze to death right along with him," one muttered.
"He won't die for hours yet," another complained. "Baron Louddon's gone over an hour now. He'll not know if we stayed outside or not."
The agreement by the others with vigorous nods and grunts swayed their leader. The cold was beginning to irritate him too. His unease had grown as well, for he'd been convinced that Baron Wexton wasn't any different from other men. He was sure he would have broken down and screamed in torment by now. The arrogance of the man infuriated him. By God, he looked bored with them all. The leader was forced to admit that he'd underestimated his opponent. It wasn't an easy admission and one that sent him into a rage. His own feet, protected from the harsh weather by his thick boots, were nevertheless stinging in agony now, yet Baron Duncan stood barefoot and hadn't moved or shifted balance once since being restrained. Perhaps there was truth in the tales after all.
The leader cursed his superstitious nature and gave the order to retreat inside. When the last of his men had departed, Louddon's vassal checked that the rope was secure and then came to stand directly in front of his captive. "They say you're as cunning as a wolf, but you're just a man, and you'll soon die like one. Louddon don't want fresh knife cuts in you. Come morning, we'll drag your body miles away from here. No one will be able to prove that Louddon was behind the deed." The leader sneered the words, furious that his captive wouldn't even look down at him, and then added, "If I had my way, I'd cut out your heart and be done with it." He gathered spittle in his mouth to hurl into the warrior's face, hoping this new insult would gain a reaction.
And then the captive slowly lowered his gaze. His eyes met those of his enemy. What the leader saw there caused him to swallow loudly. He turned away in fright. He made the sign of the cross, a puny effort to ward off the dark promise he'd read in the warrior's gray eyes, muttering to himself that he was only doing the bidding of his overlord. And then he ran toward the safety of the castle.
From the shadows against the wall, Madelyne watched. She waited several more minutes to be certain that none of her brother's soldiers were going to return, using the time well to pray for courage to see her plan carried through.
She risked everything. In her heart she knew there was no other choice. She was the only one who could save him now. Madelyne accepted the responsibilities and the consequences, knowing full well that if her deed was discovered, it would surely mean her own death.
Her hands trembled but her steps were quick. The sooner the deed was done, the better for her peace of mind. There'd be plenty of time to worry over her actions once the foolish captive had been released.
A long black cape covered her from head to foot, and the baron didn't notice her until she was standing directly before him. A fierce gust of wind pulled the hood from her head, and a mane of auburn hair fell well past shoulders of a slender frame. She brushed a strand away from her face and looked up at the captive.
For a moment he thought his mind played tricks on him. Duncan actually shook his head in denial. And then her voice reached him and he knew what he was seeing wasn't a figment of his imagination. "I'll have you undone in just a moment or two. Pray don't make a sound until we're away from here."
He couldn't believe what he was hearing. His savior's voice sounded as clear as the truest of harps and as beckoning as one of summer's warm days. Duncan closed his eyes, resisting the urge to shout with laughter over this strange twist in events, considered giving the cry for battle now and be done with the deception, and then immediately decided against that idea. His curiosity was too strong. He determined to wait awhile longer, until his savior revealed her true intentions.
His expression remained inscrutable. He kept silent as he watched her remove a small dagger from beneath her cape. She stood close enough for him to capture with his unbound legs, and if her words proved false or her dagger moved toward his heart, he'd be forced to crush her.
Lady Madelyne had no idea of the danger. Intent only on setting him free, she moved closer to his side and began the task of cutting through the thick rope. Duncan noticed that her hands were shaking. He couldn't decide if it was because of the harsh weather or fear.
The scent of roses reached him. When he inhaled the light fragrance, he decided the freezing temperature had certainly muddled his mind. A rose in the middle of winter, an angel inside this fortress of purgatory… neither made sense to him, yet she smelled of the flowers of spring and looked like a vision from above.
He shook his head again. The logical part of his mind knew exactly who she was. The description given to him was accurate in every detail, but misleading too. He'd been told that Louddon's sister was of medium height and had brown hair and blue eyes. And pleasing to look upon, he remembered being informed. Ah, there was the falsehood, he decided. The devil's sister was neither pleasing nor pretty. She was magnificent.
The rope finally gave way, and his hands were freed. He stood where he was, his expression well hidden. The girl came to stand in front of him again and gifted him with a small smile before she turned and knelt to gather his possessions.
Fear made the simple task awkward. She stumbled when she stood up again, straightened herself, and then turned back to him. "Please follow me," she instructed him.
He didn't move, but continued to stand where he was, watching and waiting.
Madelyne frowned over his hesitation, thinking to herself that the cold had surely frozen his ability to think. She clutched his garments to her chest with one hand, letting the heavy boots dangle from her fingertips, and then put her other arm around his waist. "Lean on me," she whispered. "I'll help you, I promise. But please, we must hurry." Her gaze was directed toward the castle doors and the fear sounded in her voice.
He responded to her desperation. He wanted to tell her that they needn't hide, for even now his men were scaling the walls, but he changed his mind. The less she knew, the better his advantage when the time came.
She barely reached his shoulder, yet she valiantly tried to accept some of his weight by taking his arm and draping it around her shoulders. "We go to the visiting priest's quarters behind the chapel," she told him in a soft whisper." 'Tis the one place they'll never think to look."
The warrior paid scant attention to what she was telling him. His gaze was directed to the top of the north wall. The half moon gave the light snow an eerie glow and outlined his soldiers climbing over the top. Not a sound could be heard as his men grew in numbers along the wooden walkway that circled the top of the wall.
The warrior nodded with satisfaction. Louddon's soldiers were as foolish as their lord. The harshness of the weather had sent the gatekeepers inside, leaving the wall unprotected and vulnerable. The enemy had proven their weakness. And they would all die because of it.
He gave the woman more of his weight to slow her progress while he flexed his hands, again and again, trying to force the numbness from his fingers. There was little feeling in his feet, a bad sign, he knew even as he accepted that nothing could be done about it now.
He heard a faint whistle and quickly raised his hand high into the air, giving the signal to wait. He glanced down at the woman to see if she had caught his action, his other hand ready to clamp over her mouth if she gave the least indication that she knew what was happening. But the woman was busy struggling with his weight and seemed oblivious to the fact that her home was being penetrated.
They reached a narrow doorway and Madelyne, believing the captive to be in a dangerously weakened condition, tried to prop him up against the stone wall with one hand while she worked to get the door unlatched.
The baron, understanding her intent, willingly leaned against the wall and watched her juggle his garments and fight the icy chain.
Once she had the door opened, she took hold of his hand and led him through the darkness. A rush of frigid air swirled around them as they made their way to a second door at the end of a long, damp corridor. Madelyne quickly opened it and beckoned him inside.
The room they entered was windowless, but several candles had been lit, casting a warm glow to the intersanctuary. The air was stale. Dust covered the wooden floor and fat cobwebs dangled and swayed from the low-beamed ceiling. Several colorful robes used by visiting priests hung on hooks, and a straw pallet had been placed in the center of the small area with two thick blankets next to it.
Madelyne latched the door and sighed with relief. For the moment they were safe. She motioned for him to sit down on the pallet. "When I saw what they were doing to you, I prepared this room," she explained as she handed him his clothing. "My name is Madelyne and I'm…" She started to explain her relationship to her brother, Louddon, and then thought better of it. "I'll stay with you until first light and then show you the way out through a hidden passage. Not even Louddon knows it exists."
The baron sat down and folded his legs in front of him. He pulled on his shirt while he listened to her. He considered that her act of courage certainly complicated his life, found himself wondering how she would react when she realized his true plan, and then decided that his course of action couldn't be altered.
As soon as his hauberk was once again covering his massive chest, Madelyne draped one of the blankets around his shoulders and then knelt down, facing him. She leaned back on the heels of her shoes, motioning for him to stretch out his legs. When he had complied with her wishes, she studied his feet, frowning with concern. He reached for his boots, but Madelyne stayed his hands. "We must warm your feet first," she explained.
She took a deep breath while she considered the quickest way to give life back to the starving limbs. Her head was bent, shielding her face from the watchful gaze of the warrior.
She picked up the second blanket, started to wrap it around his feet, and then shook her head, changing her mind. Without offering a word of explanation, she threw the blanket over his legs, removed her cloak, and then slowly inched the cream-colored chainse up over her knees. The braided leather rope she used as a decorative belt and a sheath for her dagger got caught up in the dark green bliaut that covered her chainse, and she took the time to remove it, discarding it next to the warrior's side.
He was curious about her strange behavior and waited for her to explain her actions. But Madelyne didn't say a word. She took another deep breath, grabbed hold of his feet, and quickly, before she could think better of it, slipped them under her clothing, flattening them against the warmth of her stomach.
She let out a loud gasp when his icy skin touched her own warm flesh, and then adjusted her gown and wrapped her arms around the outside, hugging him to her. Her shoulders began to tremble and the warrior felt it was as if she were drawing all the cold from his body and taking it into her own.