Adela was doing everything she could to dissuade her suitor. She mocked, she screamed, she cried. None of it mattered. Gerald wasn't the least deterred from his singular goal of winning her. Duncan thought Gerald was either as stubborn as a donkey or as stupid as a bull. He might have been a little of both.
Duncan couldn't help but admire Gerald. Such determination was praiseworthy, especially when one considered the prize Gerald was after had turned into a screaming shrew.
Duncan really would have preferred ignoring the whole situation. Madelyne, however, wouldn't allow him that privilege. She constantly dragged him into the middle of family squabbles, explaining it was his duty to set things right.
She told him, very matter-of-factly, he could be both lord and brother, but all that nonsense about keeping a cold, distant attitude toward his family was a habit of the past to be shed.
Madelyne also told him he could keep his brothers' respect and gain their friendship too. Duncan didn't argue with her. Lord only knew he hadn't won a single argument since they'd wed.
In this instance, however, she'd been correct. He didn't bother to tell her, of course, knowing she'd immediately point out some other "habit" he should discard.
He began to eat his evening meal with his family because he knew it would please Madelyne, and found he gained pleasure in the experience. He discussed various topics and enjoyed the lively debates that resulted. His brothers were both perceptive men and it wasn't long before Duncan began to value their suggestions.
He slowly removed the barriers he'd erected to separate himself from his family, found the rewards were far greater than the effort.
His father had been wrong. Duncan knew that now. His father might have ruled rigidly in order to protect his position as lord. Perhaps he thought he'd lose their respect if he showed his children affection. Duncan wasn't sure what his father's reasoning had been. He only knew he didn't have to follow the old ways any longer.
He had his wife to thank for the change in his attitude. She taught him that fear and respect didn't have to go hand in hand. Love and respect worked just as well, perhaps even better. It was ironic. Madelyne thanked Duncan for giving her a place in his family, when the reverse was really the truth. She had given him a place in his own home. She had shown him how to be a brother to Gilard, Edmond, and Adela. Aye, she'd dragged him right into the middle of the family circle.
Duncan did continue to maintain the same schedule with his men, but he set aside an hour each afternoon to instruct his wife in the proper way of riding. She was a quick learner and it wasn't long before he let her ride Silenus to the lower hill outside the wall. He followed behind her of course as a precaution. And he grumbled, too, over her stubborn habit of taking food to her imaginary wolf.
Madelyne asked him to explain why one side of the hill was barren while the other side was a forest of trees and wilderness.
Duncan explained that all the trees had been chopped down on the side of the hill that faced the fortress. The watchman couldn't see beyond the crest, so it wasn't necessary to chop the trees down on the other side. Anyone who wanted entry to his home would have to climb the lower crest first. The watchmen could see if it was enemy or friend then. And if it was an enemy, archers would have easy targets without the clutter of trees providing shelter and hiding places.
She'd been amazed by his explanation; it seemed everything he did had something to do with protection. He shook his head and pointed out to his wife that protection was his responsibility as lord of Wexton.
Madelyne smiled over his lecture. He had grown accustomed to her smiles too.
Duncan knew Madelyne worried about their future. She still didn't like to be reminded of her brother and everyone tried not to bring his name up in conversation. Since he couldn't seem to convince her that everything would be all right, both of them avoided the topic.
Spring was a time of enlightenment for Duncan. He had to leave Madelyne for nearly a month because of pressing business matters, and when he returned, his wife wept with happiness. They stayed awake all night, loving each other passionately, and would have stayed in bed the following day if the household hadn't intruded.
Madelyne hated it when Duncan had to leave her. He hated it just as much, and though he never would tell Madelyne, his thoughts were consumed with getting back to her side.
Spring left her cloak of sunshine and flowers behind her. Warm summer days at last came to Wexton land.
Travel was easier now. Duncan knew it was only a matter of time before he would be called to answer to his king. He hid his concerns from Madelyne while he quietly gathered his soldiers.
Baron Gerald returned to Wexton land in he last days of
June for yet another attempt to woo Adela. Duncan met his friend in the courtyard. Each had important news to give the other. Duncan had just received a messenger and had accepted a missive with the king's seal upon it. Baron Wexton could read, a fact his wife wasn't aware of, and the letter he'd just read made his manner brisk. He was too preoccupied to greet Gerald properly.
Gerald seemed to be of the same frame of mind and disposition. After giving Duncan a curt bow, he handed the reins of his stallion to Ansel and turned back to Duncan. "I've just returned from the Clares," he announced in a low whisper.
Duncan motioned Anthony over to his side. "There are many things to talk about and I would have Anthony included," he explained to Gerald.
Gerald nodded. "I was telling Duncan I've just returned from the Clare holding," Gerald repeated. "The king's brother, Henry, was there as well. He asked many questions about you, Duncan."
The three men slowly walked toward the hall. "I believe he was trying to come to some sort of understanding as to your position if he were to become our king," Gerald confessed.
Duncan frowned. "What questions?" he asked.
"The conversation was guarded. It was as if they were all privy to some information I lacked. I'm not making much sense, am I?" he asked.
"Is there need to defend William? Do you think Henry might challenge?"
"I do not," Gerald answered, sounding emphatic. "I thought it strange though. You weren't invited, yet all the questions asked me were about you."
"Were they questions about my loyalty?"
"Your loyalty was never an issue," Gerald answered. "But you command an army of the strongest fighting men in England, Duncan. You could easily challenge our king if you'd a mind to."
"Does Henry believe I'd turn against my liege lord?" he asked, clearly astonished by the possibility.
"Nay, everyone knows you to be an honorable man, Duncan. Still, the meeting made little sense to me. There was such an uneasy atmosphere. Gerald shrugged then said, "Henry admires you, yet I could tell he was worried about something. God only knows what."
The three men climbed the steps to the main hall. Madelyne was standing beside the dining table, arranging a cluster of wildflowers into a fat jar. Three little boys were sitting on the floor next to her, eating tarts.
Madelyne glanced up when she heard the men approach. She smiled when she saw Gerald was once again visiting. With a curtsy she greeted all three. "Dinner will be ready in one hour's time. Gerald,'tis good to see you again. Isn't it, Anthony? Adela will be pleased."
The men shouted with laughter.
"'Tis the truth I'm giving you," Madelyne insisted. She turned to the children then. "Go and finish your treats outside. Willie, please go and find Lady Adela. Tell her she has a guest. Can you remember that important duty?" she asked him.
The children bounded to their feet and ran out of the room. Willie suddenly rounded on Madelyne and threw his arms around her legs. Duncan watched his wife grab hold of the table with one hand and pat Willie on the top of his head with her other hand.
He was warmed by her gentleness. All the children loved Madelyne. They followed her wherever she went. Each was eager for her smiles and her words of praise. None of the little ones were ever disappointed. Madelyne knew each by name, a considerable accomplishment considering that there were well over fifty of them living inside the manor with their parents.
When Willie finally let go of Madelyne and ran toward the entrance, her gown was covered with the stains from the lad's face.
She looked down at the damage and sighed. Then she called out to the child. "Willie, you've forgotten to bow to your lord again."
The little one tripped to a stop, turned, and affected an awkward bow. Duncan nodded. The child smiled and started in running again.
"Who do the children belong to?" Gerald asked.
"The servants," Duncan answered. "They follow my wife."
A shout of distress interrupted their talk. Duncan and Gerald sighed in unison. Willie had obviously just informed Adela of Gerald's arrival.
"Don't frown so, Gerald," Madelyne said. "Adela's been dragging around here ever since your last departure. I do believe she missed you. Don't you agree, Anthony?"
Duncan could tell from the look on his vassal's face that he didn't agree. He laughed when Anthony said, "If you think so, then I'll allow for the remote possibility."
Gerald grinned. "Playing the diplomat, are you, Anthony?"
"I don't wish to disappoint my mistress," Anthony announced.
"I pray you are correct, Madelyne," Gerald said. He sat down adjacent to Duncan and Anthony at the table. Madelyne handed him a goblet of wine, and Gerald took a long, thirsty swallow. "Are Gilard and Edmond here?" he asked then.
Duncan shook his head. He took the cup of wine Madelyne offered him but didn't let go of her hand. Madelyne leaned against his side and smiled at him.
"Duncan, Father Laurance is finally going to say mass for us," Madelyne announced. She turned to Gerald to explain her remark. "The priest burned his hands right after he wed Duncan and me. The poor man has taken the longest time healing. It was a terrible accident, though he hasn't explained the exact way it happened."
"If he'd allowed Edmond to see to his burns, it wouldn't have taken him such a long time to heal," Anthony remarked. "Now Edmond's gone, of course," he added with a shrug.
"I've been meaning to have a word with Father Laurance," Duncan muttered.
"You don't like the man?" Gerald asked.
"I do not."
Madelyne was surprised by her husband's comment. "Duncan, he's never around you. How can you like or dislike him? You barely know him."
"Madelyne, the man doesn't do his duty. He hides in his chapel. He's too timid to suit me."
"I didn't know you were such a religious man," Gerald interjected.
"He isn't." Anthony commented
"Duncan just wants the priest to do what he was sent here to do," Madelyne said. She reached over and refilled Anthony's goblet with more wine.
"He insults me," Duncan announced. "This morning a missive arrived by messenger from his monastery. I've requested his replacement. Madelyne wrote the petition for me," he ended with a boastful tone of voice.
Madelyne nudged Duncan's arm, nearly upsetting his cup of wine. Duncan knew she didn't want him telling anyone she could read or write. He smiled at her, amused she was ashamed of such a remarkable talent.
"What did the missive say?" Madelyne asked.
"I don't know," Duncan answered. "I've had other pressing matters to attend to, wife. It can wait until after dinner."
Another bellow stopped the conversation. Adela was obviously working herself into a fine state. "Madelyne, for God's sake, go and make Adela cease her screams. Gerald, I'm beginning to dread your visits," Duncan told his friend.
Madelyne rushed to soften the rebuke. "My husband didn't mean to sound rude," she told Gerald. "He has many important matters on his mind."
Duncan sighed, long enough to make his wife turn back to look at him. "You needn't excuse my behavior, Madelyne. Now see to Adela."
Madelyne nodded. "I shall also invite Father Laurance to our dinner table. He won't come, but I'll invite him all the same. If he does give us his presence, please be polite to the man until supper is over. Then you may yell at him."
It was phrased as a request, yet given in a voice that reeked of command. Duncan scowled at Madelyne. She smiled at him.
As soon as Madelyne left the hall, Gerald said, "Our king is back in England." His voice was a low whisper.
"I'm ready," Duncan answered.
"I'll go with you when the petition arrives," Gerald said.
Duncan shook his head. "Surely you can't believe our king will ignore your marriage, Duncan. You'll have to give an accounting for your actions. And I've as much right to challenge Louddon as you have. Perhaps more. I'm determined to kill the bastard."
"Half of England would like to kill him," Anthony interjected.
"The petition has already arrived," Duncan commented. His voice was so mild, it took a moment for the other men to react.
"When?" Gerald demanded.
"Just before you arrived," Duncan answered.
"When do we ride?" Anthony asked.
"The king demands I leave for London immediately," Duncan said. "The day after tomorrow will be soon enough. Anthony, you will stay behind this time."
The vassal showed no outward reaction to his lord's decision. He was puzzled, however, for he usually rode by his lord's side.
"Will you take Madelyne with you?" Gerald asked.
"No, she'll be safer here."
"Safe from the king's wrath or from Louddon?"
"Louddon. The king would protect her."
"You have more faith than I do," Gerald admitted.
Duncan looked at Anthony now. "I leave my greatest treasure in your hands, Anthony. This could all be a trap."
"What do you suggest?" Gerald asked.
"That Louddon has access to the king's seal. The instructions in the missive weren't given in the king's voice. That is what I'm suggesting."
"How many men will you take and how many will you leave to guard Madelyne?" Anthony asked. He was already thinking about the protection of the fortress. "This could be a plan to get you away from here so that Louddon can attack. He knows you won't take Madelyne with you, I'm thinking."
Duncan nodded. "I've considered that."
"I've only a hundred men with me now," Gerald interjected. "I'll leave them here, with Anthony, if that is your wish, Duncan."