Madelyne struggled to smile. She wasn't about to cry. It wouldn't be dignified, what with the soldiers filing past.
She stood in the center of the courtyard and watched her husband leave.
Anthony walked over to stand beside Madelyne. "He'll come back to us," Madelyne said. "He gave me his word, Anthony."
"He's a man of honor, Madelyne. He won't break his promise."
"I shall have to keep busy," she told the vassal. "Duncan has promised to teach me defense methods."
"Defense methods?" Anthony repeated, showing his confusion.
"Aye. He would like me to know how to protect myself," Madelyne explained. She deliberately made it sound as though it had all been her husband's idea. Madelyne knew it would be easier to gain Anthony's cooperation if he believed Duncan wished it. She didn't think she was being deceitful. "Perhaps you could give me a lesson or two. What do you think, Anthony? Could you spare me a little time each day to show me the way of defense?"
The way of defense? Anthony was at first too incredulous to speak. He stared at Madelyne and realized she was quite serious.
Madelyne didn't think Anthony looked too thrilled by her request. "I believe I'll go and speak to Ned. He could fashion a nice bow for me, arrows, too, of course. If I apply my mind to the task, I believe I could become very accurate in no time at all."
Anthony felt like making the sign of the cross. He couldn't, of course, because his mistress was looking up at him with such a hopeful expression.
He was too weak-hearted to deny her. "I shall speak to Ned," he promised.
Madelyne thanked him profusely. The vassal bowed and walked away.
Anthony had a new problem to consider. His primary duty was to keep Duncan's wife safe. Now another duty had been thrust upon him. He was going to have to protect his men from Madelyne.
His sense of humor saved him from despair, however. By the time he reached the smith's hut, he was laughing. Heaven help them all. By week's end they'd probably all be wearing arrows in their backsides.
"What measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you."
new testament, matthew, 7:2
Duncan was the first to catch the scent of danger. He gave the signal to stop. The soldiers lined up behind him. Not a word was spoken, and once the horses had settled down, an eerie silence descended upon the woods.
Baron Gerald was on Duncan's right. He waited, as did his men, deferring to Duncan's judgment. Duncan's reputation was legendary. Gerald had fought by his side in the past. He recognized Duncan's superior ability, and though they were nearly the same age, Gerald considered himself the student and Duncan his trainer.
When Duncan raised his hand, several soldiers fanned out to scan the area.
"It's quiet, too quiet," Duncan said to Gerald.
Gerald nodded. " 'Tis not the place I would have chosen for a trap, Duncan," he admitted.
"How do you know? I've seen nothing." Gerald said.
"I feel it," Duncan answered. "They're there, below us, waiting."
A faint whistle sounded from the forest to the left. Duncan immediately turned in his saddle. He motioned to his soldiers to split into sections.
The soldier who'd given the sound rode back to the gathering. "How many?" Duncan asked.
"I couldn't tell, but I spotted several shields."
"Then add that many a hundred times," Gerald said.
"By the bent crossing," the soldier announced. "They hide there, milord."
Duncan nodded. He reached for his sword but Gerald stayed his hand. "Remember, Duncan, if Morcar be one of them…"
"He is yours," Duncan acknowledged. His voice was harsh, controlled.
"As Louddon is yours," Gerald said.
Duncan shook his head. "He won't be there. The bastard hides behind his men or in William's court. Now I have my answer, Gerald. It was a false letter sent by Louddon and not the king. 'Tis the last game of deceit I play with Louddon."
Duncan waited until a third of his contingent had spread in a semi-circle on the western slope. The second third followed the same order, though they fanned in a half circle on the eastern bridge. The last third of their troops waited behind the barons. They were chosen to mount the direct assault.
Gerald was pleased with Duncan's plan. "We've trapped them inside their own trap," he said proudly.
"And now we close our circle, Gerald. Give the call."
It was an honor he bestowed on his friend. Gerald lifted himself in his saddle, raised his sword into the air, and shouted the battle cry.
The sound echoed throughout the valley. The soldiers who had circled the enemy now began their downward descent.
The net closed. The battle belonged to the fittest; might ruled this day, conquered.
Those cunning men who hid like women behind trees and rocks, waiting to pounce upon their unknowing victims, soon found themselves trapped.
Duncan's men showed their superiority now. They took command from the outset, fought with valor, and quickly claimed victory.
They took no prisoners.
It wasn't until the battle was nearly finished that Gerald spotted Morcar. Their gazes locked in challenge across the valley. Morcar sneered and then turned to mount his steed. He thought he had adequate time to make his escape.
Gerald's mind snapped. He began to fight like a man possessed, desperate to get to Morcar before he got away. Duncan protected Gerald's back more than once, shouted to his friend to regain control.
Duncan was furious. He was a man who demanded discipline from himself and his soldiers. Yet his equal, Baron Gerald, had cast off all the rules of training. His friend was out of control.
Gerald was beyond hearing any warnings. His eyes were glazed over with fury. Rage, so raw and wild, ruled his mind and body now.
Morcar sat on his mount and watched Gerald struggle to get to him. He wasted precious seconds, but he felt safe enough. Baron Gerald was on foot.
His smirk turned into a bellow of laughter when Gerald stumbled and fell to his knees. Morcar seized the opportunity. He charged his horse down the slope. Leaning to the side of his saddle, he waved his curved sword at Gerald.
Gerald feigned weakness. His head was bowed and he knelt on one knee, waiting for his enemy to come close enough.
Morcar lashed out with his sword just as Gerald jumped to the side.
Gerald used the flat of his own weapon to knock Morcar to the ground.
Morcar fell on his side, rolled onto his back, thinking to regain his weapon and leap to his feet.
He was never given the chance. Gerald's foot trapped his hand. When Morcar looked up, he saw the baron standing over him with the tip of his sword pointed at his neck. When the blade pricked his skin, Morcar squeezed his eyes shut, whimpering in terror.
"Will there be women in hell for you to rape, Morcar?" Gerald asked.
Morcar's eyes flew open. And in those last seconds before he died, he knew Gerald had learned the truth from Adela.
Duncan hadn't witnessed the fight. When the battle was finished, he walked among his own men, gaining numbers of those who had been killed. He saw to his injured as well.
Several hours later, when the sun was fading from the sky, he went looking for Gerald. He found his friend sitting on a boulder. Duncan spoke to Gerald, but didn't receive an answer.
Duncan shook his head. "What the hell's the matter with you?" he demanded. "Where's your sword, Gerald?" he asked, almost as an afterthought.
Gerald finally looked up at Duncan. His eyes were red and swollen. Though Duncan wouldn't ever comment on it, he could tell his friend had been weeping. "Where it belongs," Gerald said. His voice was devoid of emotion and as flat as the expression on his face.
Duncan didn't understand what Gerald was talking about until he found Morcar's body. Gerald's sword was embedded in Morcar's groin.
They made camp up on the ridge above the battleground. Gerald and Duncan ate a meager offering and didn't speak to each other until darkness was upon them.
Gerald used the time to rid himself of his rage.
Duncan used the time to fuel his anger.
When Gerald began to speak, he poured out his anguish. "I've lived a pretense all this time with Adela," Gerald said. "I thought I'd come to terms with all that happened to her. When I vowed to kill Morcar, it was a logical decision. Until I saw him, Duncan. Something broke inside me. The bastard laughed."
"Why do you give me these excuses?" Duncan asked. His voice was soft.
Gerald shook his head. He smiled faintly. "Because I've the feeling you're wanting to run your sword through me," he said.
"You fought like a fool, Gerald. If I hadn't been there, you never would have made it up that hill. You'd be dead now. Your lust for revenge almost destroyed you."
Duncan paused a moment to give Gerald time to think about what he'd just said. His anger over his friend's undisciplined conduct was blown out of proportion. Duncan realized that now. He was infuriated with Gerald because he saw the flaw in his friend's character and now admitted he carried the same mark.
"I have acted the fool. I'll give you no more excuses," Gerald said.
Duncan knew the admission was difficult for his friend to make. "I don't demand excuses. Learn from this, Gerald. I'm no better than you are. I, too, have been ruled by my thirst for revenge. Madelyne was injured in battle because I took her captive. She could have been killed. We have both taken a turn acting the part of a fool."
"Aye, we have," Gerald returned. "Though I'm not about to acknowledge it in front of anyone else but you, Duncan. You tell me you almost lost Madelyne. You would have been denied her magic and never known your loss."
"Her magic?" Duncan smiled over the flowery comment. It wasn't usual for Gerald to speak in such a manner.
"I cannot explain it," Gerald said. He blushed, obviously embarrassed by what he'd said. "She's so untarnished. And though you regret taking her captive now, I'm grateful. She was the only one who could give Adela back to me."
"I've never regretted taking Madelyne. I'm only sorry she was involved in my battle with Louddon."
"Ah, my sweet Adela," Gerald said. "I could have been killed today. Adela would have forever been denied the bliss only I can give her."
Duncan smiled. "It's still undecided in my mind, Gerald, if Adela would have mourned your passing or celebrated your death."
Gerald laughed. "I will tell you something, and if you repeat it, I'll cut your throat. I had to make Adela a promise before she would agree to marry me."
Duncan was highly curious. Gerald was looking embarrassed again.
"I had to vow I wouldn't bed her."
Duncan shook his head. "You feast on punishment, Gerald. Tell me, do you plan to honor your vow?" he asked, trying not to laugh.
"I will," he announced, surprising Duncan.
"You plan to live as a monk in your own home?" Duncan sounded appalled.
"No, but I've learned from you, Duncan."
"What are you talking about?" Duncan asked.
"You told Adela she could live with you for the rest of her days, remember? And then you suggested I move to Wexton fortress and change her mind. It was a clever ploy and I am parroting it."
"I see," Duncan said with a nod.
Gerald laughed. "No, you don't," he said. "I've promised Adela I wouldn't bed her. She, however, can bed me anytime she wishes."
Duncan smiled, understanding at last.
"It will take time," Gerald admitted. "She loves me, but she still doesn't trust me yet. I accept the conditions, for I know she won't be able to resist my charms forever."
"We best get some rest. Do we ride to London tomorrow?" Gerald asked.
"No, we ride to Baron Rhinehold. His fortress is central to my plan."
"And what is your plan?"
"To gather my allies, Gerald. The game is over. I'll send word from Rhinehold's home to the others. If all goes well, we'll gather in London within two weeks, three at the most."
"Do you call up their numbers as well?" Gerald asked, thinking of the huge army Duncan could so easily amass. Though the barons were inclined to fight among themselves, and constantly jostled for a more significant position of power, they all were quite equal in their respect and admiration for Baron Wexton. Each sent their fittest knights to train under Duncan. None were ever turned away.
The barons deferred to Duncan's judgment. He'd never asked their backing before. Yet none among the bickering group would turn his back on Duncan.
"I don't want their armies at my side, only my equals. I'm not going to challenge our leader, only confront him. There is a difference, Gerald."
"I will stand by your side as well, though I'm sure you know that," Gerald announced.
"Louddon has played his last game of deceit. I don't believe the king knows about Louddon's treachery. I plan to enlighten him, however. He cannot continue to ignore this problem. Justice will be served."
"You'll enlighten our leader in front of the other barons?"
"I will. Every one of them knows about Adela," he said. "They might as well hear the truth."
"Why?" Gerald's face showed his anguish. "Will Adela have to stand before—"
"No, she'll stay at my home. There isn't any need to put her through the ordeal.
Gerald immediately looked relieved. "Then why are you—"
"I'll present the truths to our king, in front of his barons."
"And will our leader act with honor over this issue?" Gerald asked.
"We'll find out soon enough. There are many who believe our king is incapable of that. I'm not one of them." Duncan's voice was emphatic. "He has always acted with honor toward me, Gerald. I'll not judge him so easily."
Gerald nodded. "Madelyne will have to go with us, won't she?"
"It is necessary," Duncan answered.
Gerald could tell from the look on Duncan's face that his friend didn't want Madelyne to go to court any more than he wanted Adela to.
"Madelyne will have to recount what has happened. Otherwise it will be Louddon's word against mine."
"Does the outcome depend upon Madelyne then?" Gerald asked. His frown matched Duncan's.
"Of course not," Duncan answered. "But she has been a pawn in all of this. Louddon and I have both used her. It isn't easy for me to acknowledge that, Gerald."