"I will not take sides," Madelyne argued. "I don't want anyone to die."

"Oh, I see your plan now," Gilard returned. He was almost shouting at her. "You'll wait to see who is the winner and then make your choice. 'Tis very cunning of you."


"Believe what you will," Madelyne answered. "You're very like your brother," she added, shaking her head.

When Gilard grinned at her, she realized he was pleased by her comment.

"'Tis not praise I give you, Gilard. Just the opposite. You're proving to be as stubborn and ruthless as your Duncan. I think you enjoy killing as much as he does," she ended.

Madelyne was horrified inside over the way she tried to goad Gilard into losing control, but God help her, she couldn't seem to stop herself.

"Can you honestly look me in the eye and tell me you don't hate me?" Gilard asked. He was so angry, the vein stood out on the side of his neck. Madelyne thought he wanted to strike her.

"I do not hate you," Madelyne said. "I would like to, I'll admit that to you, but I don't, Gilard."

"And why not?" Gilard asked.

"Because you love your sister."

Gilard was about to tell Madelyne he thought she was the most simpleminded woman he'd ever come across, when Duncan caught his attention. The younger brother immediately dismissed Madelyne and turned to reach for his sword.

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Duncan finally gave the signal. Madelyne was suddenly so terrified, she couldn't even remember any of her prayers.

Was it going to be a fight to the death? Madelyne knew enough about Duncan's stubborn character to know he didn't care about the odds.

She tried, but couldn't count the number of soldiers coming up the hills. They covered the ground like locusts.

Were Duncan's men outnumbered again?

It would be a massacre, she thought, and all because Duncan would challenge with honor and Louddon would not. Such a simple realization, but one that was lost on the likes of the baron. He'd obviously forgotten Louddon had tricked him into believing he'd honor their temporary truce. That was how he'd captured Duncan, by simple trickery.

Madelyne knew Louddon better than Duncan did. Her brother would fight like an animal if he smelled the scent of victory on his side.

Madelyne told herself she didn't care who claimed victory. If they all killed each other, so be it. Their wills would prevail, not hers.

"I will not care," she whispered over and over until it became a desperate chant.

Yet no matter how many times she said the words, she couldn't make them true.

Chapter Six

"The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God."

new testament, i corinthians, 3:19

Baron Wexton obviously didn't care to have the element of surprise on his side. His battle cry echoed throughout the countryside, all but rocking the withered leaves from their branches. A trumpet sounded, giving additional message to the soldiers advancing from below, and if those were not enough, the thunder from the horses racing down the slopes surely alerted Louddon and his men to the approaching threat.

Madelyne was caught between Duncan and his brother as they made their descent. Soldiers surrounded them as well, their shields raised. Although Madelyne held no such protection, both Duncan and Gilard blocked the branches that would have plucked her from her seat, using their kite-shaped shields as barriers against the gnarled branches barring their path.

When the soldiers reached a small ridge high above the site Duncan had chosen for the confrontation, Duncan jerked on the stallion's reins and shouted a command to the animal. The stallion immediately stopped. Duncan used his free hand to grab hold of Madelyne's jaw. He applied pressure as he forced her to look up at him.

Gray eyes challenged blue. "Do not dare move from this spot."

He started to let go of her, but Madelyne stayed his hand. "If you die, I'll not weep for you," she whispered.

He actually smiled at her. "Yes, you would," he answered, his voice both arrogant and gentle.

Madelyne didn't have time to answer him. Duncan spurred his steed into motion and raced toward the battle already unfolding below. Madelyne was suddenly alone atop the stark ridge as the last of Duncan's soldiers moved past her at a furious speed.

The noise was shattering. Metal clashed with metal, ringing with ear-piercing intensity. Screams of torment mingled with shouts of victory. Madelyne wasn't close enough to see individual faces, but she kept her attention on Duncan's back. The gray he rode was easily visible. She watched him wield his sword with accuracy, thought him surely blessed by the gods when the enemy all but surrounded him and he unseated each with deadly slaps from his blade.

Madelyne closed her eyes for just a moment. When she looked to the scene again, the gray had disappeared. She frantically scanned the area, looking for Duncan, and Gilard as well, but she couldn't find either brother. The battle edged toward her.

She never looked for her brother, knowing full well that he wouldn't be in the thick of battle. Louddon, unlike Duncan, would be the last one to raise his sword. There was too much risk involved. No, he placed too much value on his life, whereas Duncan didn't seem to value his own at all. Louddon left the fighting to the men who pledged him fealty. And if the battle turned against him, he'd be the first to run away.

"This is not my fight," Madelyne screamed at the top of her lungs. She pulled on the reins, determined to leave with as much speed as possible. She wouldn't watch another minute. Aye, she would leave them all.

"Come, Silenus, we go now," she said, nudging the animal as she had seen Duncan do. The stallion didn't move. She jerked on the reins, hard, determined to get the animal to do her bidding. The soldiers were fast climbing the crest and haste was suddenly becoming imperative.

Duncan was infuriated. He had searched but couldn't find a trace of Louddon. The victory over his enemy would be hollow indeed if their leader escaped again. He glanced a quick look up toward Madelyne and was shocked to see that the battle was circling her. Duncan realized then that he had been so consumed with finding Louddon, he hadn't given sufficient thought to Madelyne's safety. He admitted the mistake, damning himself for not having the foresight to leave men to guard her.

Duncan threw his shield to the ground and gave a shrill whistle he prayed would reach his stallion. His heart lodged in his throat as he ran toward the crest. It was a logical reaction, he told himself, this fierce need to protect Madelyne, for she was his captive, and he had the responsibility to keep her safe. Aye, that was the reason he ran to her now, roaring his outrage with as much force as any battle cry.

The stallion responded to the whistled signal, charging forward. The animal would have allowed Madelyne control now, but she lost the reins when he bolted.

Silenus jumped over two soldiers just climbing the top of the ridge, clipping both their heads with his hind legs. The soldiers' screams carried them back down the hill.

Madelyne was soon in the thick of battle, with men on horseback and more crowding the ground around her, all fighting for their lives. Duncan's stallion was blocked by the soldiers. Madelyne clung to the animal's neck and prayed for a quick end.

She suddenly spotted Gilard making his way toward her. He was on foot, holding a bloody sword in one hand and a scarred shield in the other, fending off attack from the left while he thrust his blade forward with the right.

One of Louddon's soldiers lunged at Madelyne, his sword raised against her. There was a crazed look glazing his eyes, as if he had passed the point of knowing what he was doing.

He meant to kill her, Madelyne realized. She screamed Duncan's name, yet knew her safety depended upon her own wits. There wasn't any escape other than the hard ground, and Madelyne quickly threw herself over the side of the horse. She wasn't quick enough. The blade found its target, slashing a deep path down the length of Madelyne's left thigh. She screamed in agony, but the sound died in her throat when she hit the ground. The air was knocked out of her.

Her cloak followed her to the ground, landing in a heap on top of her shoulders. Stunned, and in a state of near shock, Madelyne's concentration suddenly focused on pulling the garment around herself, a slow, arduous process she became obsessed with completing. The pain in her thigh was so consuming at first that she thought she would die from it. And then a blessed numbness settled in her thigh and in her mind, giving Madelyne new strength. She stood, feeling dazed and confused, clutching her cloak to her br**sts as she watched the fighting men around her.

Duncan's stallion nudged Madelyne between her shoulder blades, nearly knocking her back down to the ground. She regained her balance and leaned against the animal's side, finding comfort in the fact that the horse hadn't bolted away when she had fallen. The animal acted as a barrier as well, protecting her back from assault.

Tears streamed down her face, an involuntary reaction to the scent of death that permeated the air. Gilard yelled something to her but Madelyne couldn't understand what he was shouting. She could only watch as he continued to make his way toward her. He yelled again, his voice more forceful, but the order mingled with the clash of metal scraping metal and became too garbled to comprehend.

Her mind rebelled over the carnage. She began to walk toward Gilard, believing that was what he wished her to do. She stumbled twice over the legs and arms of slain warriors spewed like discarded garbage upon the ground, her thoughts only of getting to Gilard, the one man she recognized in this forest of destruction. In the back of her mind lived the hope that he would take her to Duncan. And then she would be safe.

Madelyne was only a few feet away when Gilard was challenged from behind. He turned to meet the new opponent, his back unprotected. Madelyne saw another of Louddon's men grasp the opportunity, raising his blackened sword into the air as he rushed toward the vulnerable target.

She tried to scream a warning but her voice failed her and only a whimper escaped.

Dear God, she was the only one who was close enough to aid him, the only one who could make a difference. Madelyne didn't hesitate. She grabbed one of the discarded weapons from the stiff fingers of a faceless corpse. It was a heavy, cumbersome mace thick with spikes and dried blood.

Madelyne held the weapon in both her hands, struggling over its weight. Clutching the blunt end, she half dragged, half carried the weapon as she hurried to position herself behind Gilard, her back nearly touching his. And then she waited for the enemy to make his attack.

The soldier wasn't daunted, as Madelyne presented a weak defense against his armor and strength. A glimmer of a smile soured his face. Yelling a defiant shout, he rushed forward, his long, curved weapon slicing the air with deadly intent.

Madelyne waited until the last possible second and then swung the mace off the ground in a wide arc. Terror lent her strength. She meant only to deter his attack, but the spikes protruding from the circular bulb of the weapon severed the chain links of the soldier's coat of mail and entered tender flesh concealed beneath.

Gilard finished his fight against the frontal attack, turned swiftly in his bid to get to Madelyne, and very nearly knocked her down. He was just in time to see the killing, watched, as Madelyne did, the enemy soldier drop to the ground with a scream trapped in his throat and spikes of the club embedded in his middle. Gilard was so astonished over what he had just witnessed, he was momentarily speechless.

Madelyne let out a low moan of anguish. She folded her arms in front of her waist and doubled over. Gilard thought she acted as though she had been the one to receive the injury. He sought to help her, reached out to gently touch her shoulder.

Madelyne was so consumed with horror over what she had just done, she wasn't even aware of Gilard any longer. The battle had ceased to exist for her.

Duncan had also witnessed the killing. In one swift action he mounted his stallion and goaded the animal toward Gilard. The brother jumped out of the way just as Duncan reached down and grabbed hold of Madelyne. He lifted her up with one powerful arm and all but slammed her into the saddle in front of him. God proved merciful, for her right side took the force of the impact and her injured thigh was barely jarred.

The battle was almost over. Duncan's soldiers were chasing Louddon's retreating forces down the valley.

"Finish it," Duncan yelled to Gilard. He jerked on the reins, directing his mount up the hills again. The animal raced away from the battlefield, his breeding and strength obvious now as he galloped with amazing speed up the treacherous terrain.

Duncan had discarded his cloak and his shield during the fight He used his hands now to protect Madelyne's face from the branches swaying into their path.

She wanted none of his thoughtfulness. Madelyne shoved against him, trying to make him let go of her, preferring the hard ground to his loathsome touch.

Because of him she'd killed a man.

Duncan didn't try to quiet her. Safety was his primary concern now. He didn't let up his pace until they were well away from the threat. He finally reined his stallion to a halt when they entered a cluster of trees. It was quiet there, and protected as well.

He was furious with himself for placing Madelyne in such danger. Duncan turned his attention to her now. When he saw the tears streaming down her face, he let out a frustrated groan.

And then he sought to soothe her. "You can quit crying, Madelyne. Your brother wasn't among the dead. Save your tears."

She hadn't even been aware she was crying. When his words registered, Madelyne became so enraged over his misinterpretation of her distress, she could barely form an answer. The man was despicable.

Madelyne wiped the tears away from her cheeks, took a deep breath, gathering fresh air and new fury. "I didn't know what true hate was until today, Baron. But you've given the vile word new meaning. As God is my witness, I'll hate you until the day I die. I might as well," she continued, "I'm damned to hell anyway and all because of you." Her voice was so low that Duncan was forced to lean forward until his forehead was touching Madelyne's just to hear her words.

She wasn't making any sense at all.

"Aren't you listening to me?" he demanded, though he kept his voice as soft as hers had been. He felt the tension in her shoulders, knew she was close to losing control, and sought to calm her again. He wanted to be gentle with her, an unusual reaction to his way of thinking, but he excused his conduct by telling himself that it was only because he felt responsible for her. "I've just explained that your brother is safe, Madelyne. For the moment," he added, deciding to give her honesty as well as comfort.

"You're the one who isn't listening to me," Madelyne returned. Tears began to fall again, interrupting her speech. She stopped to brush them aside. "Because of you I've taken a man's life. It was a grave sin and you're just as much to blame as I am. If you hadn't dragged me along with you, I wouldn't have been able to kill anyone."

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