The old fears were trying to get the better of her. She'd soon be weeping and feeling pity for herself if she didn't guard against it. Madelyne decided she needed rest. Aye, it was only because she was so exhausted that she tended to worry now. "I do have value," she blurted out. "Why has it taken me so long to know it?"
"It doesn't matter how long it took," her uncle said. "What's important is that you've finally realized it."
The rumble of thunder drew her uncle's attention. "Sounds as though we'll be having a good rain in a few minutes," he remarked as he stood and started for the window.
"Thunder's close enough to pull the roof apart," Madelyne remarked, her voice a sleepy whisper.
Father Berton was about to agree with his niece's comment when he reached the window and looked outside. The sight he beheld so startled him, he had to brace his hands against the window's ledge, else lose his balance and surely collapse to his knees.
The thunder was silent now. But Father could see the lightning. It wasn't in the sky though. Nay, it was on the ground… for as far as his eyes could see.
The sun forced the pretense, deflecting the shards of silver bolts as they bounced from chest plate to chest plate.
A legion it be, united behind one warrior, all armored, all quiet, all waiting.
Father squinted against the magnificent sight. He nodded once to the soldier's leader and then turned to walk back to his chair.
A wide smile transformed the old priest's face. When he was again seated beside Madelyne, he forced his smile aside, dared to affect a disgruntled sound to his voice, and said, "I believe there's someone here to see you, Madelyne. Best see who it be, child. I'm too weary to get up again."
Madelyne frowned over his request. She hadn't heard anyone knock on their door. As a measure to placate him, she stood up to do his bidding. She remarked over her shoulder that she supposed it could be Marta paying a call to give them fresh eggs and old gossip.
The priest gained such a chuckle over her comment, he actually slapped his knee.
She thought it was a strange reaction from a man who'd just protested weariness.
And then she opened the door.
It took a minute or two for Madelyne to comprehend what she was seeing. She was so astonished, she couldn't move. She simply stood there, in the center of the doorway, with her hands clenched at her sides, staring up at Duncan.
He hadn't forgotten her after all. The realization settled in Madelyne's mind once the numbness had worn through.
He wasn't alone either. Nay, over a hundred soldiers were lined up behind their lord. All were still on horseback, all were wearing their full glorious battle armor, and every one of them was looking at her.
A silent signal brushed through the legion. As one, they suddenly raised their swords in salutation. It was the most magnificent show of loyalty Madelyne had ever witnessed.
She was overwhelmed. Madelyne had never felt so cherished, so loved, and so very, very worthy.
And then she understood the reason Duncan had called up so many of his soldiers to make this journey. He was showing her how important she was to him. Aye, he was proving her value.
Duncan didn't move. He didn't say a word for a long time. He was content to stay on Silenus's back and look upon his beautiful wife. Duncan could feel his worry, his uncertainty, ebb from his heart. God's truth, he thought he was the most content man in all the world.
When he noticed the tears streaming down Madelyne's face, he finally gave her the words he thought she needed to hear. "I've come for you, Madelyne."
Was it coincidence that Duncan now repeated the very first words he'd ever spoken to her? Madelyne didn't think so. The look in Duncan's eyes made her believe he did remember.
Madelyne straightened away from the door, tossed her hair over her shoulder, and then very deliberately put her hands on her hips. " 'Tis high time, Baron Wexton. I have waited the longest while for you."
She thought her arrogant remarks pleased Duncan, but she couldn't be certain. He moved too quickly for her to see his face. One minute he was seated atop Silenus, and the next he was pulling her into his arms.
When he leaned down to kiss her, Madelyne threw her arms around his neck. She clung to him as his mouth feverishly settled on hers with almost frantic possessiveness. His tongue thrusted inside to reconquer what belonged to him.
Madelyne felt as though she was being swept away by a tide of arousal rushing through her. She met Duncan's demand by giving him all she knew how to give. Aye, she was just as savage in her quest to devour him. She was just as hungry for his touch, just as frantic.
The noise finally penetrated Duncan's mind. Reason was slow to return, however. He pulled his mouth away only to immediately return to her bruised lips a second time.
Madelyne also caught the sound. When Duncan finally lifted his head away from hers, she realized the soldiers were cheering. Good Lord, she'd quite forgotten they were there.
She knew she blushed and told herself she didn't care. Duncan didn't seem the least concerned, but he was so covered with dust and grime, and a full week's worth of whiskers, it was difficult to see any reaction.
He kissed her again, a quick, hard kiss it was, that told her he wasn't the least concerned about their audience. Madelyne's arms circled his waist. She leaned the side of her face against his chest and squeezed with all her might.
He sighed, pleased with her enthusiasm.
Madelyne remembered her duty, when she heard a discreet cough sound behind her. She should introduce Duncan to her uncle. The problem, of course, was that she couldn't get the words past her throat. And when Duncan leaned down and whispered, "I love you Madelyne," she became too preoccupied with weeping to speak at all.
Duncan motioned for his men to dismount and turned to look over Madelyne's head to the old man waiting a short distance behind her. He pulled Madelyne into his side, unwilling to let her move away from him for even a short time, and then said, "I am Baron Wexton."
"I would certainly hope so," Father Berton answered. The priest smiled over his own jest and then started to bow. He was stayed from the formal show of respect by the baron's hand.
"'Tis I who should kneel before you," he told the priest. "I'm honored to meet you at last, Father."
The priest was humbled by the baron's speech. "She is your greatest treasure, is she not, Baron?" he asked. He was looking at Madelyne now.
"Aye, she is," Duncan admitted. "I will be forever in your debt," he added. "You have protected her for me all these years."
"She isn't yours yet," Father Berton announced. He was pleased to see the surprise that remark caused. "Aye, I've still to give her to you. 'Tis a marriage I'm speaking of, a true marriage, Baron, and the sooner done the better for this old man's peace of mind."
"Then you will wed us in the morning," Duncan dictated.
Father Berton had witnessed the passionate kiss between the baron and his niece. He wasn't at all sure tomorrow would be fast enough. "You'll not be sleeping next to Madelyne tonight then," he warned. "I'll continue to guard her well, Baron Wexton."
Duncan and Father Berton exchanged a long, hard stare. Then Duncan smiled. For the first time in a very long while, he found he couldn't intimidate someone. Nay, the priest wasn't going to back down.
He nodded. "Tonight."
Madelyne witnessed the exchange. She knew full well what the two men were talking about. She thought she might have looked as red as a sunburn. It was, after all, an embarrassment for her uncle Berton to know she'd slept with the baron.
"I would also like to wed Duncan tonight, but I do not—" Madelyne paused in her explanation when she saw Anthony walk over to stand by her side. "Father, this is the vassal I told you about," she said, smiling now.
"You are the one who placed yourself between my niece and Louddon when he tried to strike her again?" the priest asked, moving forward to grasp Anthony's hand.
"I was," Anthony admitted.
"Again?" Duncan shouted. "She wasn't in the king's protection?"
"It was nothing," Madelyne protested.
"He would have killed her," the priest interjected.
"Aye, he wanted to harm her," Anthony said.
Madelyne could feel the tension in Duncan's grip around her waist.
"It was nothing," Madelyne protested again. "A mere slap…"
"She carries the bruises still," Father Berton announced with a vigorous nod.
Madelyne gave her uncle a good frown. Couldn't he tell his comments were upsetting Duncan?
When Duncan tilted her face up so that he could see the marks, Madelyne shook her head again. "He'll never touch me again, Duncan. That is all that matters. Your loyal vassal did protect me," she added before turning back to look at her uncle. "Uncle, why do you incite Duncan's anger?"
"There are marks on her shoulders and back, Baron," Father Berton said, ignoring Madelyne's question.
"You did not say a word to me," Anthony said to Madelyne. "I would have—"
"Enough. Father, I know you well. What game do you play now?" Madelyne demanded.
"You were about to tell Baron Wexton you'd like to marry him tonight, child, but you didn't finish your comments, now, did you? The truth of the matter, Baron," the priest said, turning to Duncan, "is that my niece will try to delay this marriage. Won't you, Madelyne? You see, child," he added, giving Madelyne a tender smile, "I know your mind better than you think I do."
"Does he speak the truth?" Duncan asked, frowning. "You have not changed your feelings, have you?" Before Madelyne could answer, he said, "It will not matter. You belong to me, Madelyne. 'Tis a fact you cannot turn your back on."
Madelyne was so astonished that Duncan would feel such insecurity. She realized then that his feelings were just as vulnerable as her own. It seemed that he needed to hear the words of her love as often as she did. "I love you, Duncan," she said, loud enough for both Anthony and Father Berton to hear.
"I'm aware of that," Duncan returned, sounding arrogant again. His grip lessened, though, and he did relax against her.
"There is much to be seen to," Anthony commented. "I have need to speak to you in private, Baron." The vassal turned and started to walk away.
"And you must surely be in need of a meal," the priest added. He turned to walk back inside his cottage. "I shall begin preparations immediately."
"A bath is first," Duncan said, giving Madelyne a good squeeze before releasing her. He was following her uncle, when Madelyne's words stopped him cold. Anthony and Father Berton also paused.
"We cannot marry just yet, Duncan."
She could tell, from the look on all three faces, that none of them cared for her announcement.
Madelyne clasped her hands together. Her words were hurried, for she wanted to make Duncan see reason before he bellowed at her. "If only we could wait until Gerald is wed to Adela, then Louddon cannot use the argument…"
"I knew it," Anthony muttered. "You still try to protect the world. Baron, that is only one of the announcements I've need to explain to you."
"She always would protect those she believed needed it," the priest said.
"You don't understand," Madelyne said, rushing up to face Duncan. "If we marry now, you'll be going against your king. He'll give Adela to Louddon. That's what the missive suggested, Duncan."
Madelyne would have continued her argument but for look in Duncan's eyes. She couldn't stop wringing her hands, but she was able to close her mouth.
Duncan stared at Madelyne a long moment. She couldn't tell if he was pleased or angered with her now. "I have but one question to put to you, Madelyne. Do you have faith in me?"
She didn't need time to think about it. Her answer was quick and forceful.
Her answer pleased him. Duncan embraced her, placed a chaste kiss on her forehead, and then turned away again. "We marry tonight."
He stopped then, but didn't turn around. Madelyne knew what he waited for. Aye, he sought her agreement.
"Yes, Duncan, we'll marry tonight."
It was, of course, the correct answer. Madelyne knew that well enough when her uncle started chuckling, Anthony started whistling, and Duncan turned to give her a firm nod.
He wasn't smiling. That didn't bother her, however, when she realized Duncan had never doubted her. Her answer was but a reaffirmation. Nothing more.
The next hour was a blur of activity. While Duncan and Anthony sat at the small table inside the cottage and ate their supper, Father Berton went to explain the situation to his host, the Earl of Grinsteade.
The earl was still hanging on to life, and though he didn't have the strength to attend the ceremony, Duncan would pay a formal visit as soon as the wedding was over.
Duncan and his vassal walked to the lake behind the earl's home to bathe and speak to each other in private. Madelyne used the time to change her gown. She brushed her hair until it curled to her satisfaction, then decided to forget fashion and leave it unbound. She knew Duncan preferred it that way.
She wore his colors again, of course. Her shoes and chainse were a pale cream in color, and partially covered by the hand-stitched royal blue bliaut. She'd worked nearly a month on the yoke circling the neckline of the bliaut, making minute stitches, all the color of cream, of the design she wished to effect. In the center of her artwork was the outline of her magical wolf.
Duncan probably wouldn't even notice, she thought. Warriors of his stature didn't take time to note such things. "It's just as well," she admitted out loud. "He'd think me fanciful again and surely tease me."
"Who will tease you?" Duncan asked, standing in the doorway.
Madelyne turned, a smile on her face, and looked at her warrior. "My wolf," she immediately answered. "Is something amiss, Duncan. You look… unsettled."
"You grow more beautiful with each passing hour," Duncan whispered. His voice felt like a caress.
"And you more handsome," Madelyne said. She smiled at Duncan, then dared to tease him. "I'm wondering why my intended would wear black attire to his wedding though. Such a grim color," Madelyne announced. "And one used for mourning. Could you be mourning your fate, milord?"