"You're upset because you killed?" Duncan asked, unable to keep the astonishment out of his voice. Duncan had to remind himself that Madelyne was only a woman, and the strangest things did seem to upset the weaker sex. He also weighed all that he'd put Madelyne through in the past two days. "I've killed many more," he said, thinking to ease her conscience.
His plan failed. "I don't care if you've killed legions of soldiers," Madelyne announced. "You don't have a soul, so it doesn't matter how many lives you take."
Duncan didn't have a ready answer to that statement. He realized that it was pointless to argue with her. Madelyne was too distraught to think logically, and surely just as exhausted. Why, she was so upset, she couldn't even raise her voice to him.
Duncan cradled her in his arms, tightening his grip until she stopped struggling. With a weary sigh he muttered, more to himself than to her, "What am I to do with you?"
Madelyne heard him, and her answer was swift. "I don't care what you do with me." She jerked her head back and looked up at him. Madelyne noticed the jagged cut just below Duncan's right eye then. She used the cuff of her gown to mop the stream of blood away, but she contradicted her gentle action with angry words. "You can leave me here, or you can kill me," she informed him as she dabbed at the edges of his cut. "Nothing you do makes any difference to me. You shouldn't have taken me with you, Duncan."
"Your brother came after you," Duncan pointed out.
"He did not," Madelyne contradicted him. "He came after you because you destroyed his home. He doesn't care about me. If you'd only open your mind, I know I could convince you of the truth. But you are too stubborn to listen to anyone. I find it pointless to speak to you. Aye, pointless! I vow I'll never speak to you again."
Her tirade took the last of her strength. Madelyne finished cleaning his abrasion as best she could and then sagged against his chest, dismissing him.
Lady Madelyne was a paradox. Duncan was nearly undone by the tender way she touched his face when she tried to repair his injury. Duncan didn't think she had even been aware of what she was doing. He suddenly remembered how Madelyne had faced Gilard when they were back in Louddon's fortress. Aye, she'd been a contradiction then too. Madelyne had given Gilard a serene look while he shouted his frustration, yet all the while she'd clung to Duncan's hand.
Now she raged at him while she ministered to him. Duncan sighed again. He rested his chin against the top of Madelyne's head and wondered how in God's name such a gentle woman could be related to the devil.
The numbness was wearing thin. Now that the surge of anger had abandoned her, Madelyne's thigh began to throb painfully. Her cloak hid the damage from Duncan. She believed he was unaware of her injury and found perverse satisfaction over that fact. It was an illogical reaction but Madelyne couldn't seem to think with much reason. She was suddenly so tired, so hungry, and in such pain, she couldn't think at all.
The soldiers joined their leader and within minutes they were headed for the Wexton fortress. An hour later it became gritty determination that kept Madelyne from voicing complaint.
Duncan's hand accidentally brushed against her injured thigh. Her cloak and gown offered little cushion against the burning agony. Madelyne held her scream. She slapped his hand away, but the fire from his touch lingered, inflaming the injury to an excruciating level.
Madelyne knew she was going to be sick. "We must stop for a moment," she told Duncan. She wanted to scream at him, to weep, too, but she had vowed he wouldn't destroy what was left of her gentle disposition.
Madelyne knew he'd heard her. His nod acknowledged that he had, yet they continued to ride, and after a few more minutes she came to the conclusion he had decided to ignore her request.
What an inhuman beast he was! Though it offered her little comfort, she mentally listed all the vile names she wished to yell at him. She summoned up every foul word she could remember, though her vocabulary of crude words was limited. It satisfied her, until she realized she was probably sinking to Duncan's level. Damn, she was a gentle woman.
Her stomach wouldn't settle. Madelyne remembered her vow never to speak to him again, but she was forced, by circumstances, to repeat her request. "If you don't stop, I'm going to be sick all over you."
Her threat got an immediate reaction. Duncan raised his hand, giving the order to halt. He was off his horse and lifting Madelyne to the ground before she could brace herself in preparation.
"Why are we stopping?" The question came from Gilard, who had also dismounted and was hurrying over to his brother. "We're almost home."
"Lady Madelyne," Duncan answered, giving Gilard no further information.
Madelyne had already begun the torturous walk toward the privacy the trees offered, but she paused when she heard Gilard's question. "You can just stand there and wait for me, Gilard."
It sounded like an order. Gilard raised an eyebrow in surprise, turning to his brother. Duncan was frowning as he watched Madelyne, and Gilard concluded his brother was irritated by the way Madelyne had just spoken to him. "She has been through an ordeal," Gilard rushed out in excuse, lest Duncan decide to retaliate.
Duncan shook his head. He continued to watch Madelyne until she had disappeared into the forest. "Something's wrong," he muttered, frowning as he tried to figure out what was bothering him.
Gilard sighed. "She is ill perhaps?"
"And, and she threatened to…" Duncan didn't finish his comment, but started out after Madelyne.
Gilard tried to stay him with his hand. "Give her some privacy, Duncan. She'll return to us," he said. "There isn't anyplace she can hide," he reasoned.
Duncan shook his brother's hand away. He'd seen the look of pain in Madelyne's eyes, noticed, too, the extreme stiffness in her gait. Duncan instinctively knew an unsettled stomach wasn't the cause. She wouldn't have favored her right side if that was the case. And if she was about to throw up, she would have run, not walked away from the soldiers. Nay, something was wrong and Duncan meant to find out what it was.
He found her leaning against the side of a gnarled oak tree, her head bent. Duncan stopped, not wishing to invade upon her privacy. Madelyne was weeping. He watched as she slowly lifted the cloak away and let it drop to the ground. And then he understood the true reason for her distress. The left side of her gown was shredded to the hem, and soaked with blood.
Duncan didn't realize he'd shouted until Madelyne let out a frightened whimper. She didn't have the strength to back away from him, nor did she fight him when he forced her hands away from her thigh and knelt down at her side.
When Duncan viewed the damage, he was filled with such rage, his hands shook as he pried the garment away. Dried blood made it a slow task. Duncan's hands were big and awkward and he was trying to be as gentle as possible.
The injury was deep, nearly as long as his forearm, and embedded with dirt. It would need to be cleaned and sewn together.
"Ah, Madelyne," Duncan whispered, his voice gruff. "Who did this to you?"
His voice sounded like a warm caress, his sympathy obvious. Madelyne knew she'd start crying again if he showed her any more kindness. Aye, her control would break then, just like one of the brittle branches she was clinging to now.
Madelyne wouldn't allow it. "I don't want your sympathy, Duncan." She straightened her shoulders and tried to give him a look of dismissal. "Take your hands off my leg. It isn't decent."
Duncan was so surprised by the show of authority, he almost smiled. He glanced up, saw the fire in her eyes. Duncan knew then what she was trying to do. Pride had become her defense. He'd already noticed how Madelyne valued control.
Looking back at her injury, he realized there was little to be done about it now. He decided then to let Madelyne have her way.
Duncan forced a gruff voice when he stood up and answered her. "You'll get no sympathy from me, Madelyne. I'm like a wolf. I don't suffer human emotions."
Madelyne didn't answer him, but her eyes widened over his comment. Duncan smiled and knelt down again.
"Leave me alone."
"Nay," Duncan replied, his voice mild. He pulled his dagger free and began to cut a long strip of her gown.
"You are ruining my gown," Madelyne muttered.
"For God's sake, Madelyne, your gown is already ruined," Duncan answered.
With as much tenderness as possible he wrapped the strip of material around her thigh. He was tying a knot, when she shoved against his shoulder.
"You're hurting me." She hated herself for admitting it. Damn, she was going to cry.
"I am not."
Madelyne gasped, forgetting all about weeping. She was infuriated over his comment. How dare he contradict her! She was the one suffering.
"Your flesh will need needle and thread," Duncan remarked.
Madelyne slapped his shoulder when he dared shrug over his announcement
"No one is putting a needle to me."
"You're a contrary woman, Madelyne." Duncan said as he bent to pick up her cloak. He draped it around her shoulders and then lifted her into his arms, careful to shield her injury.
Madelyne instinctively put her arms around his neck. She considered scratching his eyes out because of the terrible way he was treating her. "You're the contrary one, Duncan. I'm a sweet-tempered maiden you would try to destroy if I gave you the chance. And I swear to God, this is the last time I'll speak to you."
"Ah, and you're so honorable you'd never break your word. Isn't that true, Lady Madelyne?" he asked as he carried her back to the waiting men.
'That is correct," Madelyne immediately answered. She closed her eyes and leaned against his chest. "You have the brains of a wolf, do you know that? And wolves have very small brains."
Madelyne was too tired to look up to see how he was reacting to her insults. She bristled inside over the way he was treating her, and then realized she should be thankful for his cold attitude. Why, he had made her angry enough to forget her pain. Just as important, his lack of compassion had helped her overcome the urge to break down and weep in front of him. That would have been undignified, crying like an infant, and both her dignity and her pride were cherished cloaks she always wore. It would have been humiliating to lose either. Madelyne allowed herself a little smile, certain Duncan couldn't see it. He was a foolish man, for he had just saved her pride and didn't even know it.
Duncan sighed. Madelyne had just broken her promise when she spoke to him. He didn't feel the urge to point that fact out to her, but it made him feel like grinning all the same.
He wanted the details from Madelyne, to learn how she'd been injured and by whose hand. In his heart he couldn't believe one of his own had harmed her, yet Louddon's men would also try to protect her, wouldn't they?
Duncan decided to wait for his answers. He needed to get his anger under control first. And Madelyne needed care and rest now.
It had been difficult to banter with her. Duncan wasn't a man used to masking his anger. When he was wronged, he attacked. Yet he had understood how close Madelyne was to breaking down. The retelling would upset her now.
When they were once again on their way, Madelyne found escape from her pain, snuggled against Duncan's chest. Her face rested under his chin.
Madelyne was feeling safe again. Her reaction to Duncan confused her. In her heart she admitted that he wasn't anything like Louddon, though she'd take to her deathbed before she told him that. She was still his captive, after all, his pawn to use against her brother. Yet she really didn't hate him. Duncan was merely retaliating against Louddon, and she was caught in the middle.
"I'll escape, you know."
She hadn't realized she'd spoken the thought aloud until Duncan answered her. "You will not."
"We are home at last," Gilard shouted. His gaze was directed on Madelyne. Most of her face was hidden from view, but what he could see showed a very tranquil expression. He thought she might be sleeping and was thankful. In truth, Gilard didn't know how to proceed with Lady Madelyne now. He was in a damn awkward position. He'd treated her with contempt. And how had she repaid him? Why, she'd actually saved his life. He couldn't understand why she'd come to his assistance and longed to ask. He didn't though, because he had a feeling he wouldn't like her answer.
When Gilard saw the walls looming into the sky ahead of them, he nudged his mount ahead of Duncan's so that he could be the first to enter the lower bailey. By rite and tradition, Duncan chose to be the last of his men to enter the safety provided by the thick stone walls. The soldiers liked this ritual, for it reminded each of them that their overlord placed their lives above his own. Though each man had pledged fealty to Baron Wexton, and each willingly met the call to join him in battle, every one also knew he could depend upon his lord for protection as well.
It was an easy alliance. Pride was the root. Aye, each man could also boast of being one of Duncan's elite soldiers.
Duncan's men were the best-trained soldiers in England. Duncan measured success by inflicting trials ordinary men would have found impossible to meet. His men were considered to be the chosen few, though they numbered near to six hundred in all when an accurate count was taken and all were called to fulfill their forty-day requirement.
Their might was revered, whispered about by lesser men, and their feats of remarkable strength recounted without need of exaggeration to liven the telling. The truth was interesting enough.
The soldiers reflected the values of their leader, a lord who wielded his sword with far greater accuracy than all challengers. Duncan of Wexton was a man to be frightened of. His enemies had given up trying to discover his weakness. The warrior showed no vulnerability. He didn't appear to be interested in worldly offerings. No, Duncan had never taken gold as his second mistress as others of his rank had so done. The baron presented no Achilles heel to the outside world. He was a man of steel, or so it was sadly believed by those who wished him harm. He was a man without conscience, a warrior without a heart.
Madelyne had little knowledge of Duncan's reputation. She felt protected in his arms and watched the soldiers file past. She was curious over the way Duncan waited.
She turned her attention to the fortress in front of her. The massive structure sat atop a stark hill, without benefit of a single tree to give relief from the severity. A gray stone wall circled the fortress and must have been at least seven hundred feet in width. Madelyne had never seen anything so monstrous. The wall was tall enough to touch the bright moon, or so it seemed to Madelyne. She could see a portion of a circular tower protruding from inside, so tall that the top was hidden from view by heavy clouds.