"Why are you telling me this?" Madelyne asked.
"Why, I tell you because I felt I owed you an explanation so that you could prepare yourself."
"Why are you concerned? You've obviously done a turnaround in your opinion of me. Is it because I helped you during the battle against my brother?"
"Well, of course," Gilard stammered.
"It's a sorry reason," Madelyne told him.
"You're sorry you saved my life?" Gilard asked.
"You misunderstand, Gilard. I'm sorry I was forced to take another man's life in order to aid you," she explained. "I'm not sorry I was able to help you though."
"Lady Madelyne, you contradict yourself," Gilard told her. He was frowning and looking confused.
He couldn't possibly understand. He was just too much like his brother. Aye, like Duncan, Gilard was used to killing, she supposed, and he'd never comprehend the shame she felt over her behavior. Lord, he probably viewed her aid as heroic. "I think I'd prefer you had found something good in me and that was the reason you've changed your opinion."
"I don't understand you," Gilard remarked, shrugging his shoulders.
"I know." The words were said so sadly Gilard felt like comforting her.
"You're an unusual woman."
"I try not to be. It is difficult, though, when you consider my past."
"I give you a compliment when I tell you I think you're unusual," Gilard returned, smiling over the worry he'd caught in her voice. Did she think unusual meant a flaw of some sort, he wondered.
He shook his head and then turned and led the way down the stairs, explaining as he went that if she slipped, she was to grab hold of his shoulders for support. The steps were wet, slick in spots.
Gilard kept up a steady monologue, but Madelyne was too nervous to listen to him. She was a bundle of worry inside over the possibility of meeting Adela.
When they reached the entrance to the hall, Gilard moved to her side. He offered her his arm. Madelyne denied the gallant gesture, concerned that Gilard's change of heart might not sit well with his brothers.
With a small shake of her head Madelyne folded her hands in front of her and turned her attention to the hall. Lord, it was gigantic in proportions, with a stone hearth taking up a fair portion of the wall facing her. To the right of the fireplace, yet some distance away, was a massive table, long enough to sit at least twenty. The table squatted atop a wooden platform. Scarred stools lined the length on both sides, some upright, more overturned.
A rather peculiar odor reached Madelyne, and she wrinkled her nose in response. She took a good look around her then and immediately spotted the cause. The rushes littering the floor were mottled with age. Why, they were ripe with stateness. A fire blazed in the hearth, heating the stench, and if that wasn't enough to turn a stomach, a dozen or so dogs added their own unwashed scent as they slept against each other in a contented pile in the center of the room.
Madelyne was appalled by the mess, but she was determined to keep her thoughts to herself. If the Wextons wished to live like animals, so be it. She certainly didn't care.
When Gilard nudged her, Madelyne started to walk toward the platform. Edmond was already seated at the table, his back to the wall behind him. The middle brother was watching her. He looked as if he were brooding over something. He tried to look right through her, just as she pretended to act unconcerned.
Once she and Gilard had taken their places at the table, soldiers of diverse rank and size filed into the room. They took up the remaining stools, save for the one at the head of the table, adjacent to Madelyne. She assumed the empty chair belonged to Duncan, for he was head of the Wexton clan.
Madelyne was about to ask Gilard when Duncan was going to join them, when Edmond's voice rang out. "Gerty!"
The bellow washed away Madelyne's question. The shout was promptly answered by a loud response, coming from the buttery to the right. "We hear you."
Gerty appeared then, juggling a stack of empty trenchers on one arm and a large platter of meat on the other. Two other serving girls followed in Gerry's wake, carrying additional platters, all brimming with food. A third servant appeared, ending the procession, with crusty loaves of bread in her hands and tucked under her arms.
What happened next was so revolting, Madelyne was struck speechless. Gerty slammed the platters down in the middle of the table, and motioned to the other servants to do the same. Trenchers flew like discs propelled on a battlefield, landing and spinning all around her, followed by fat jugs of ale. The men, led by Edmond, immediately began to eat.
This was obviously some sort of signal to the sleeping dogs, for they bounded to their feet and raced over to take up positions along the length on both sides of the table. Madelyne didn't understand the reason for this strange behavior until the first bone went flying over one of the soldiers' shoulders. The discarded bone was immediately snatched up by one of the larger dogs, a Levrier nearly twice the size of the greyhounds on either sides of him. Fierce growling came next, until another bit of garbage was thrown over another shoulder, and then another and another, until all the dogs were in a frenzy of feeding, just like the men surrounding her.
Madelyne stared at the men. She couldn't hide her repulsion and didn't even try. She did, however, lose her appetite.
Not a decent word was exchanged throughout the meal; only obscene grunts from men thoroughly enjoying their food could be heard over the snapping of the dogs at her backside.
She thought, at first, that it was all some sort of trick to make her sick, but when it continued on and on, until all the men had filled their bellies and belched their satisfaction, she was forced to reevaluate her way of thinking.
"You're not eating anything, Madelyne. Aren't you hungry?" Gilard asked with a mouth full of food. He had finally noticed that Madelyne hadn't touched any of the meat that had landed between them.
"I've lost my hunger," Madelyne whispered.
Madelyne watched Gilard take a long swig of ale, then wipe his mouth on the sleeve of his tunic. She closed her eyes. "Tell me this, Gilard," she finally managed, "why didn't the men wait for Duncan. I would think he would demand it."
"Oh, Duncan never eats with us," Gilard answered. He ripped a piece of bread from a long loaf and offered Madelyne a share. She shook her head.
"Duncan never eats with you?"
"Not since our father died and Mary took ill," Gilard qualified.
"Who is Mary?"
"Was," Gilard corrected her. "She's dead now." He belched before continuing. "She was housekeep. It was years past her time to die," he went on, rather callously in
Madelyne's opinion. "I thought she'd outlive all of us.
Adela wouldn't hear of replacing her, said it would hurt her feelings. Toward the end, Mary's eyes went bad on her and she couldn't find the table half the time."
Gilard took another huge bite of meat and casually flipped the bone over his shoulder. Madelyne was forced to dodge the garbage. A fresh spurt of anger washed over her. "Anyway," Gilard continued, "Duncan is lord of this manor. He separates himself from the family as much as possible. I think he prefers to eat alone too."
"I don't doubt it," Madelyne muttered. To think she'd actually looked forward to getting out of her room. "Do Duncan's men always eat with such enthusiasm?" she asked.
Gilard looked confused by her question. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "When they put in a full day, it would seem so."
When Madelyne thought she couldn't watch the men a moment longer, the ordeal abruptly came to an end. One by one the soldiers stood, belched, and took their leave. Had it not been so disgusting, she might have found the ritual humorous.
The dogs also retreated, lazily making their way back to form a new pyramid in front of the fireplace. Madelyne decided the animals were better disciplined than their masters. None of them belched their farewell.
"You didn't eat anything," Gilard said. "Didn't you enjoy the meal?" he asked. His voice was low. Madelyne thought he kept it that way so Edmond wouldn't hear.
"Was it a meal?" Madelyne asked, unable to keep the anger out of her voice.
"What would you call it?" Edmond interjected with a scowl the size of the hall.
"I would call it a feeding."
"I don't understand your meaning," Edmond said.
"Then I will be most happy to explain," Madelyne answered. "I've seen animals act with better manners." She nodded, emphasizing her comment. "Men of breeding eat their food, Edmond. What I have just witnessed wasn't a meal. Nay, it was a feeding by a pack of animals dressed as men. Is that clear enough for you?"
Edmond's face had turned flushed during her speech. He looked as if he wanted to leap across the table and throttle her. Madelyne was too angry to care. It had felt good to let go of some of her anger.
"I believe you've made your position quite clear. Wouldn't you agree, Edmond?"
Oh, Lord, it was Duncan speaking, and his deep voice came from right behind her back. She didn't dare turn around, else lose her newfound courage.
He felt terribly close. She leaned back just a little and felt his thighs touch her shoulder blades. Madelyne realized she shouldn't have touched him, remembering all too well the power in those muscular thighs of his.
She decided to knock him off the platform. Madelyne stood up, turned at the same time, and found herself plastered up against Baron Wexton. He hadn't given an inch, and it was Madelyne who was now forced to edge around him. She lifted her skirt and stepped off the platform, turned again, fully intending to tell Duncan just what she thought of his barbaric dinner. Then she made the mistake of looking up at him, stared into his gray eyes, and felt her courage run right out of her.
It was unfortunate, this mystical power he seemed to have over her mind. He was using it now, she told herself, robbing her of her thoughts. God help her, she couldn't even remember what she wanted to say to him.
Without a word of farewell, Madelyne turned and slowly walked away. She considered that victory enough, because she really would have preferred running.
Madelyne made it halfway to the entrance of the hall before Duncan's command stopped her. "Madelyne, I did not give you permission to leave." Each word was slowly enunciated.
Her back stiffened. Madelyne turned, gave him an insincere smile, and returned her answer with the same exaggerated tone. "I didn't ask it."
She saw his astonished expression before she turned her back on him again. Madelyne started walking, muttering to herself that she, was nothing but a pawn, after all, and pawns certainly didn't have to do the bidding of their captors. Aye, the injustices dealt out to her were so unfair. She was a good, gentle lady.
Because she was busy muttering to herself, she never heard Duncan move. He acted just like a wolf, she thought a little frantically when she felt his big hands settle on her shoulders.
Duncan applied subtle pressure to stop her, but it really hadn't been necessary. As soon as he touched her, he felt the stiffness leave her shoulders.
Madelyne sagged against him. Duncan felt her tremble. He realized then that she wasn't paying him the least attention. Nay, Madelyne was staring at the entrance of the hall. She was staring at Adela.
"Abhor that which is evil; Cleave to that which is good."
new testament, romans, 12:9
Madelyne was horrified by the sight standing before her. She recognized Adela immediately, for the woman looked remarkably like her brother, Gilard. She had his brown-colored hair, brown eyes too. But she wasn't nearly as tall as Gilard, and she was much too thin, with a sallowness to her complexion that indicated to Madelyne she hadn't been well.
Adela was dressed in a gown that might have been a pale color at one time. It was so covered with dirt and filth now, the true color wasn't recognizable. Her hair, long and stringy, appeared to be just as filthy as her gown. Madelyne thought there might be more than dirt living in the sticky-looking mess.
Madelyne wasn't repelled by Adela's appearance once her initial shock had eased. She could see the haunted look in the poor girl's eyes. There was pain there, and such despair. Madelyne felt like weeping. Dear God, her brother had caused this. Madelyne knew then that Louddon would spend eternity in hell. Duncan wrapped his arm around Madelyne's shoulders and pulled her roughly up against his side. She didn't understand his motive, yet quit trembling in his embrace. "I'll kill her, Duncan." Adela shouted the threat.
Edmond suddenly came into view. Madelyne watched him hurry over to his sister and take hold of her arm.
Adela slowly followed her brother to the table. Edmond was speaking to her but his voice was too low for Madelyne to hear what he was saying. He did seem to soothe his sister though. Her gait lost its stiffness and she nodded several times in response to her brother's words.
When Adela was seated next to Edmond, she suddenly screamed her threat again. "It is my right to kill her, Duncan."
There was such hatred in those eyes. Madelyne would have taken a step back had Duncan not held her so firmly.
She didn't know how to respond to the threat. Madelyne finally nodded, indicating to Adela that she understood what she promised, and then considered it might look as though she were in agreement. "You may try, Adela," she answered.
Her answer seemed to push Adela into a full rage. Duncan's sister stood up, so quickly the stool toppled off the platform and crashed to the stone floor.
"When you turn your back, I'll—"
"Enough." Duncan's voice echoed off the walls. The command got an immediate reaction from Adela. She seemed to wilt right before Madelyne's eyes.
Edmond obviously didn't like the way Duncan had shouted at their sister. He gave his brother a scowl before regaining Adela's chair and helping her sit down.
Duncan muttered an expletive. He let go of Madelyne's shoulders but kept her prisoner by taking hold of her hand. And then he walked out of the hall, pulling her behind him. Madelyne had to run to keep up.
Duncan didn't let up his pace or his grip until they had reached the narrow landing outside her tower bedroom.
"How could you let her get that way?" Madelyne demanded.
"Your brother is responsible," Duncan answered.
She knew she was going to start to cry. Madelyne straightened her shoulders. "I am very tired, Duncan. I would like to go to bed now."
She slowly walked into the room, praying he wouldn't follow. When she heard the clip of his boots against the steps, she knew he'd left.