It was the most unselfish act he had ever witnessed.
Feeling was quick to return to his feet. He felt as if a thousand daggers were being thrust into the soles of his feet, burning with an intensity he found difficult to ignore. He tried to shift his position, but she wouldn't allow it, increasing her hold with surprising strength.
"If there is pain,'tis a good sign," she told him, her voice no more than a husky whisper. "It will go away soon. Besides, you're most fortunate to be feeling anything," she added.
The censure in her tone surprised Duncan, and he raised an eyebrow in reaction. Madelyne glanced up just then and caught his expression. She hurried to explain. "You'd not be in this position if you hadn't acted so carelessly. I only hope you've learned your lesson well this day. I'll not be able to save you a second time."
Madelyne softened her tone. She even tried to smile at him, but it was a puny effort at best. "I know you believed Louddon would act with honor. But that was your mistake. Louddon doesn't know what honor is. Remember that in future and you might live to see another year."
She lowered her gaze and thought about the dear price she'd pay for setting her brother's enemy free. It wouldn't take Louddon long to realize she'd been behind the escape. Madelyne said a prayer of thanksgiving that Louddon had left the fortress, for his departure gave her added time to carry out her own plan of escape.
First, the baron must be taken care of. Once he was safely on his way, she could worry about the repercussions of her bold act. She was determined not to think about it now. "What's done is done," she whispered, letting all the agony and despair echo in her voice.
The baron didn't respond to her remarks, and she didn't offer additional explanation. Silence stretched between them like a growing abyss. Madelyne wished he'd say something to her, anything, to ease her discomfort. She was embarrassed by having his feet nestled against her so intimately and realized that if he moved his toes at all, he'd be touching the undersides of her breasts. That thought made her blush. She dared another quick glance up to see how he was reacting to her strange method of treatment.
He was waiting for her to look at him and quickly, effortlessly, captured her gaze. He thought that her eyes were as blue as the sky above on the clearest of days, and considered, too, that she looked nothing like her brother. He cautioned himself that appearances meant nothing, even as he felt himself becoming mesmerized by her bewitchingly innocent gaze. He reminded himself that she was the sister of his enemy, nothing more, nothing less. Beautiful or not, she was his pawn, his snare to trap the demon.
Madelyne stared into his eyes and thought that they were as gray and as cold as one of her daggers. His face seemed cut from stone, for there was no emotion to be seen there, no feeling at all.
His hair was a dark brown, overly long and slightly curly, but that didn't soften his features. His mouth looked hard, his chin was too firm, and she noticed that there weren't any lines at the corners of his eyes. He didn't look like the kind of man who laughed or smiled. No, she acknowledged with a shiver of apprehension. He looked as hard and as cold as his position demanded. He was a warrior first and a baron second, and she guessed that there wasn't any place in his life for laughter.
She suddenly realized that she didn't have the least idea of what was going on inside his mind. That worried her, not knowing what he was thinking. She coughed to cover her embarrassment, and thought to start the conversation again. Perhaps, if he spoke to her, he would seem less intimidating.
"Did you think to face Louddon alone?" she asked. She waited a long time for his reply, and at his continued silence she sighed with frustration. The warrior was proving to be as obstinate as he was foolish, she told herself. She had just saved his life and he hadn't spoken one word of gratitude. His manner was proving to be as harsh as his appearance and reputation.
He frightened her. Once she admitted that fact to herself, she became irritated. She chastised herself over her reaction to him, thinking that she was now behaving as foolishly as he. The man hadn't said a word, yet she trembled like a child.
It was his size, she decided. Aye, she thought with a nod. In the confines of the small room, he seemed to overpower her.
"Don't think to return for Louddon again. It would be another mistake. And he will surely kill you next time."
The warrior didn't answer. He moved then, slowly sliding his feet from the warmth she provided. He took his time, edging down the sensitive skin on the tops of her thighs with deliberate provocation.
Madelyne continued to kneel in front of him, her gaze downcast as he put on his stockings and his boots.
When he was finished with his task, he slowly lifted the braided belt she had discarded and held it up in front of her.
Madelyne instinctively reached out with both hands to accept her belt. She smiled, thinking his action was a peace offering of sorts, and waited for him to finally speak his gratitude.
The warrior worked with lightning speed. He grabbed her left hand and tied the rope around it. Before she could even think to pull away, he looped the belt around her other wrist and bound her hands together.
Madelyne stared in astonishment at her hands and then looked up at him, her confusion obvious.
The expression on his face sent a chill of dread down her spine. She shook her head, denying what was happening.
And then the warrior spoke. "I didn't come for Louddon, Madelyne. I came for you."
"Vengeance is mine; I will repay…"
new testament, romans, 12:19
"Have you gone daft?" Madelyne whispered. Her voice sounded with astonishment.
The baron didn't answer her, but his scowl suggested he had little liking for her question. He pulled Madelyne to her feet and then grabbed hold of her shoulders to steady her. She would have fallen back to her knees without his aid. Odd, but his touch was gentle for a man of his size, Madelyne thought, and that bit of knowledge confused her all the more.
His trickery was beyond her comprehension. He was the captive and she his savior, and certainly he realized that fact, didn't he? Why, she'd risked everything for him. Dear God, she'd touched his feet, warmed them; aye, she'd given him all she dared.
He towered over her, this nobleman turned barbarian, and wore a savage expression that more than matched his gigantic proportions. She felt the power radiating from him, as forceful and stinging as the touch of a hot poker, and though she tried desperately not to flinch from the chilling look in his icy gray eyes, she knew she was trembling enough for him to notice.
He misunderstood her reaction and reached down for her cloak. When he placed the garment around her shoulders, his hand brushed against the swell of her breasts. She thought the touch was unintentional, yet she instinctively took a step back, clasping the cloak in front of her. The baron's scowl deepened. He took hold of her hands, turned, and led the way down the dark corridor, dragging her behind him.
She had to run to keep up with him, else he'd be dragging her. "Why do you want to confront Louddon's men when it isn't necessary?"
There was no response from the baron but Madelyne wasn't deterred. The warrior was walking toward his own death. She felt compelled to stop him. "Please, Baron, don't do this. Listen to me. The cold has brittled your mind. They'll kill you."
Madelyne pulled against his hold then, hard, using all her strength, but he didn't even slow his pace.
How in God's name was she going to save him?
They reached the heavy door that led to the courtyard. The baron pushed it open so forcefully the hinges unbuckled. The door shredded into planks against the stone wall. Madelyne was pulled through the opening, into an icy wind that slapped her face and made a mockery of her fervent belief that the man she had untied less than an hour past was daft. No, he wasn't daft at all.
The proof surrounded her. Over a hundred soldiers lined the inner courtyard, with more climbing over the top of the stone wail, all as quick as the rising wind and as silent as thieves, and every one of them wearing Baron Wexton's blue and white colors.
Madelyne was so overwhelmed by the sight, she didn't even notice her captor had stopped to look at his men as they gathered in numbers before him. She bumped into his back, instinctively reached out to grab hold of his hauberk to balance herself, and only then realized he'd let go of her hands.
He didn't give the least indication she was there, hovering behind his back, clutching his garment as if it had suddenly become her lifeline. Madelyne realized she might appear to be hiding, or worse, cowering, and she immediately braved a step to his side so that one and all could see her. The top of her head reached the baron's shoulders. She stood with her shoulders straight, trying to match the baron's defiant stance, praying all the while her terror wasn't discernible.
Lord, but she was scared. In truth, she wasn't overly afraid of death; it was the dying that came before that terrified her. Aye, it was the thought of her own behavior before the foul deed was completed that made her feel so sick inside. Would it be quick or slowly drawn out? Would she lose her carefully nurtured control at the last minute and act the coward? That thought so upset her, she almost blurted out then and there that she wanted to be the first to feel the blade of death. But pleading for a quick end would also make her a coward, wouldn't it? And then her brother's prediction would be fulfilled.
Baron Wexton had no idea of the thoughts racing through his captive's mind. He glanced down to look at her, took in her tranquil expression, and was mildly surprised by it. She looked very calm, almost serene, yet he knew her manner would soon change. Madelyne was about to witness his revenge, beginning with the total destruction of her home. No doubt she'd be weeping and begging for mercy before the deed was done.
One of the soldiers hurried over to stand directly before the baron. It was obvious to Madelyne that he was related to her captor, as he had the identical color of blackish-brown hair and the same muscular bearing, though he wasn't nearly as tall. The soldier ignored Madelyne, addressing his leader. "Duncan? Do you give the call or do we stand here all night?"
His name was Duncan. Odd, but hearing his family name did help lessen Madelyne's fear. Duncan… aye, the name seemed to make him a little more human in her mind.
"Well, brother?" the soldier demanded then, giving Madelyne their relationship and the reason the baron allowed such an insolent attitude from his vassal.
The soldier, surely a younger brother from his youthful appearance and lack of battle scars, then turned to look at Madelyne. His brown eyes mirrored his contempt for her.
He looked as though he might hit her. Why, the angry soldier even took a step back, as if he wished to put more distance between himself and the leper she had suddenly become.
"Louddon isn't here, Gilard," Duncan told his brother.
The baron's comment was given so mildly, Madelyne was immediately filled with new hope. "Then you will go home, milord?" she asked, turning to look up at him.
Duncan didn't answer her. She would have repeated her question if the vassal hadn't interrupted her by yelling a litany of crude remarks. His gaze was fixed on Madelyne as he spewed forth his frustration. Though Madelyne didn't understand most of the foul comments, she could tell they were sinful just by the frightening look in Gilard's eyes.
Duncan was about to command his brother to cease his childish tirade, when he felt Madelyne take hold of his hand. He was so astonished by her touch, he didn't know how to react.
Madelyne clung to him and he could feel her trembling, yet when he turned to look down at her, she looked composed. She stared at Gilard. Duncan shook his head. He knew his brother hadn't any idea how terrifying he was to Madelyne. In truth, Duncan doubted Gilard would care if he did know.
Gilard's anger suddenly irritated Duncan. Madelyne was his captive, not his opponent, and the sooner Gilard understood how she was to be treated, the better. "Enough!" he demanded. "Louddon's gone. Your curses won't bring him back."
Duncan suddenly jerked his hand away from Madelyne's. He threw his arm around her shoulders, nearly knocking her over in his haste, and then pulled her up against his side. Gilard was so astonished by the obvious show of protection, he could only stare open-mouthed at his brother.
"Louddon must have taken the south road, Gilard, else you would have spotted him," Duncan said.
Madelyne couldn't stop herself from interfering. "And now you'll go home?" she asked, trying not to sound overly eager. "You can challenge Louddon another time," she suggested, hoping to take the sting out of their disappointment.
Both brothers turned to look at her. Neither answered her, but the look on their faces implied they thought she had a broken mind.
Madelyne's fear began to intensify again. The chilling look in the baron's eyes nearly made her knees snap. She quickly lowered her own gaze until she was staring at his chest, shamed to the core of her soul that she was proving to be so weak in character. "I'm not the crazed one," she muttered. "You could still get away from here without being caught."
Duncan ignored her comment. He grabbed hold of her bound hands and dragged her over to the very post she'd released him from. Madelyne tripped twice, her legs weak with fear. When Duncan finally released her, Madelyne leaned back against the splintered wood, waiting to see what he would do next.
The baron gave Madelyne a long glare. It was an unspoken command to stay there, Madelyne decided. Then he turned until his shoulders blocked her view of his soldiers. His muscular thighs were braced apart and his big hands were fisted on the tilt of his hips. It was a battle stance that clearly challenged his audience. "No one touches her. She is mine." Duncan's powerful voice rang out, washing over his men with as much force as the icy pellets hurling down from above.
Madelyne turned to look at the door to Louddon's castle. Surely Duncan's voice had reached inside, alerting the sleeping soldiers. Yet, when Louddon's men didn't immediately pour into the courtyard, Madelyne decided that the fierce wind must have swept away the baron's voice.
Duncan started to walk away from Madelyne. She reached out and grabbed hold of the back of his hauberk. The circular steel links cut into her fingers. She grimaced in pain, yet wasn't certain if her reaction was caused by the abrasive links or the infuriated look on the baron's face when he turned back to her. He stood so close, his chest was actually touching hers. Madelyne was forced to tilt her head back in order to see his face.
"You don't understand, Baron," Madelyne blurted out. "If you'd only listen to reason, you'd see how foolish this plan of yours is."