Gilard answered the command with a nod and fell into step beside his brother.
On her way back to camp, Madelyne decided she wasn't going anywhere. She stood in the center of the clearing, her cloak wrapped around her shoulders. Ansel had taken her satchel and she hadn't argued with the squire. She didn't care if her baggage went with Duncan. God's truth, she didn't think she cared about anything anymore. She just wanted to be left alone.
Duncan started toward the squire, wanting to finish his battle dress. He motioned for Madelyne to get on his stallion, then continued on. He suddenly stopped and slowly turned back to look at Madelyne, however, disbelieving what he thought he'd seen.
She told him no again. Duncan was so amazed by her show of defiance, he didn't immediately react. Madelyne shook her head a third time and then abruptly turned and started to walk back into the forest.
Duncan's roar stopped her. She instinctively turned to look at him, praying inside for the courage to defy him again.
"Get on my horse. Now."
They stared at each other a long, silent moment. Madelyne then realized everyone else had paused in his duties and was watching. Duncan wouldn't back down in front of his men. The way he was staring at her told her that much.
Madelyne picked up her skirts and hurried over to stand directly in front of Duncan. The men might be watching, but if she kept her voice soft, they wouldn't be able to hear what she said to their leader.
"I'm not going with you, Duncan. And if you weren't so stubborn, you'd realize Louddon won't come after me. You're wasting your time. Leave me here."
"To survive in the wilderness?" Duncan asked, his voice just as whisper-soft as hers had been. "You wouldn't last an hour."
"I've survived worse situations, milord," Madelyne answered, straightening her shoulders. "My decision's made, Baron. I'm not going with you."
"Madelyne, if a man were to deny my order the way you just have, he wouldn't live long enough to boast of it. And when I give a command, I expect it to be carried out. Don't dare shake your head at me again, else I'll backhand you to the ground in retaliation."
It was a distasteful bluff on Duncan's part, and he regretted it as soon as the words were out of his mouth. He was gripping her arm, knew that he was inadvertently hurting her when she grimaced in pain. He let go immediately, fully expecting her to run as fast as she could to do his bidding.
Madelyne didn't move. She stared up at him, that grand composure back on her face, and calmly said, "I'm used to being knocked to the ground, so do your worst. And when I regain my feet, you may strike me down again if that is your wish."
Her words disturbed him. He knew she was telling the truth. He frowned, infuriated that someone had dared to mistreat her and knew, in his heart, that Louddon was the one who'd meted out the punishment. "Why would your brother—"
"'Tis not important," Madelyne interrupted before Duncan could finish his question. She was sorry now she'd said anything. Madelyne didn't want sympathy or pity. All she wanted was to be left alone.
Duncan sighed. "Get on my horse, Madelyne."
Her temporary bluster of courage deserted her when she saw the muscle in the side of Duncan's cheek flex. The movement accentuated his clenched jaw.
Duncan made a low, growling sound deep in his throat, venting his frustration. He turned her until she was facing the area where his stallion was tethered and gave her a gentle push. "You've given me yet another reason to kill Louddon," he whispered.
Madelyne started to turn around to ask Duncan to explain his remark, but the look in his eyes suggested his patience had worn thin. She accepted the fact that she'd lost this argument. Duncan was determined to take her with him, no matter what she said or did.
She let out a long, sorry sigh and then started to walk toward Duncan's horse. Most of the soldiers still hadn't resumed their tasks. They all watched Madelyne. She tried to appear serene. Inside, her heart was beating fast enough to burst. Though the fear of Duncan's temper weighed heavily upon her peace of mind, there was a greater immediate concern that pricked her now. Duncan's beast. It was one thing to be grabbed and thrown on top of the huge ugly monster, and quite another to mount without aid.
"What a coward I am," Madelyne muttered to herself. She copied Father Berton now, for he often spoke to himself, remembered, too, that he once told her no one was more interested in what he had to say than himself. Madelyne actually smiled over that fond remembrance.
"Oh, Father, if you could see me now, how ashamed you'd be. I've a demon horse to mount and will surely disgrace myself."
The irony of her worry finally penetrated her fear. "Why am I worried about disgracing myself, when Duncan's horse is going to trample me to death? What will I care if they think I'm a coward? I'll already be dead."
Her argument helped lessen her fear. Madelyne was beginning to calm down a little, until she noticed the stallion appeared to be watching her. The animal didn't like what he saw, either, Madelyne concluded, when he began to stomp the ground with his front paws. He even snorted at her. The stupid horse had taken on all the odious characteristics of his master, Madelyne decided.
She gathered her courage and walked over to the stallion's side. He didn't like that much and actually tried to nudge her away with his hind flank. Madelyne reached up to grab hold of the saddle, but the horse let out such a whinny, she jumped back.
Madelyne put her hands on her h*ps in exasperation. "You're bigger than I am, but certainly not as intelligent." She was pleased to see the horse actually glanced at her. She knew he couldn't possibly understand what she was saying, but it made her feel better all the same just to have his attention.
She smiled at the beast while she timidly edged her way to the front.
Once she faced the animal, she pulled on the reins, forcing his head down. And then she began to whisper to him, her voice low, soothing, as she carefully explained her fears. "I've never learned the way of riding and that is why I'm so afraid of you. You're so strong, you could trample me. I've not heard your master call you by name, but if you belonged to me, I'd call you Silenus. 'Tis the name of one of my favorite gods from the old stories. Silenus was one of the mighty spirits of nature, wild and untamed, very like yourself. Aye, Silenus is a fitting name for you."
When she'd finished her one-sided conversation, Madelyne let go of the reins. "I've been ordered by your master to climb upon your back, Silenus. Please stand still, for I'm still very afraid of you."
Duncan had finished his dress. He stood across the clearing now, watching with growing astonishment as Madelyne talked to his horse. He couldn't hear what she was saying. Lord, she was trying to gain the saddle from the wrong side. He started to shout a warning, certain his horse would bolt, but the words wedged in his throat when he saw Madelyne seat herself on the top of the huge animal. It was all incorrect and certainly strange. He had to sigh over it. Now he understood why Madelyne clung to him when they rode together. She was frightened of his horse. He wondered if her ridiculous fear was confined to his stallion or to all horses.
The skittish stallion hadn't moved a muscle to disrupt Madelyne's awkward climb into the saddle. And damn if she didn't lean down and say something else to the animal once she was settled.
"Did you see what I just saw?" Gilard asked the question from behind Duncan's back.
Duncan nodded but didn't turn around. He continued to stare at Madelyne, a smile catching the corners of his mouth.
"Who do you suppose taught her how to ride?" Gilard asked, shaking his head in amusement. "She doesn't seem to possess the least amount of skill."
"No one taught her," Duncan commented. "That much is obvious, Gilard. Odd, but my horse doesn't seem out of sorts over Madelyne's lack of education." He shook his head then and began to walk toward the lady under discussion.
The young squire, Ansel, approached Madelyne from the opposite direction. He had a snicker on his freckled face and began to lecture Madelyne on her inferior abilities. "You're to mount on the left," he said with great authority. He took hold of Madelyne's hand, as if he would pull her to the ground so that she could remount correctly. The stallion began to prance just as Duncan appeared. Ansel's hand went flying, as did the rest of his body.
"Don't ever touch her again." Duncan's roar followed Ansel to the ground. The squire quickly regained his feet, apparently unscratched from the fall, and nodded his compliance.
The poor lad looked so horrified over displeasing his lord that Madelyne intervened on his behalf. "Your squire was thoughtful enough to instruct me," she stated. "He wanted to help me back to the ground, for I foolishly forgot in my haste to mount from the proper side."
Ansel gave Madelyne a grateful look before turning back to bow to his lord. Duncan nodded, apparently satisfied with the explanation.
When Madelyne realized Duncan was about to mount Silenus, she squeezed her eyes shut, certain she was about to be hurled to the ground.
Duncan saw Madelyne close her eyes before she turned her face away from him. He shook his head, wondering what in God's name was the matter with her now, and then gained the saddle and lifted Madelyne into his lap in one swift action.
Madelyne was wrapped in his thick cloak and settled against his chest before she could worry over the deed.
"You're no better than Louddon," Madelyne muttered to herself. "Think I didn't notice that you didn't even take the time to bury your dead before you left my brother's fortress? Aye, I noticed all right. You're just as ruthless. You kill without showing any sign of remorse."
It took all of Duncan's self-discipline not to grab hold of his captive and shake some sense into her. "Madelyne, we did not bury our dead, because none of my men died."
Madelyne was so surprised by his answer, she dared a look up at him. The top of her head bumped his but she didn't pause to apologize. "There were bodies all over the ground, Duncan."
"Louddon's soldiers, Madelyne, not mine," Duncan answered.
"Do you expect me to believe that your soldiers are so superior that they—"
"I expect you to quit goading my temper, Madelyne," Duncan answered.
She knew he meant what he said when he slapped the cloak back over her head.
He was a horrible man, Madelyne decided. And he obviously didn't have a heart. Aye, he wouldn't be able to kill so effortlessly if he were gifted with human emotions.
In truth, Madelyne couldn't imagine taking another person's life. Having led such a sheltered existence with only Father Berton and his two companions left her ill prepared for the likes of Louddon or Duncan.
Madelyne had learned that humility was a treasured goal. She forced meekness in front of her brother. Inside, she raged. She prayed she didn't have a dark soul like Louddon. They did share the same father. Madelyne wanted to believe she was given only the goodness from her mother's side of the family and none of the vile traits from her father. Did she fool herself over such a hope?
She was soon too exhausted to worry. This day's journey was proving to be the most difficult to bear. Her nerves were strained to the breaking point. She heard one of the soldiers remark that they were almost home, and perhaps because she believed the end was in sight, each hour seemed much longer.
Rough, hilly terrain slowed their progress. Duncan wasn't able to keep up his usual neckbreaking pace. Several times Madelyne was certain the big stallion was going to stumble, and she spent most of the long, torturous day with her eyes closed and Duncan's arms around her. Aye, she worried herself into exhaustion, convinced that they were about to be thrown into one of the deep, jagged crevices Silenus seemed so fond of getting as close to as possible.
One of the soldiers shouted the news when they finally reached Wexton land. A resounding cheer echoed throughout the hills. Madelyne sighed with relief. She sagged against Duncan's chest and felt the tension ease out of her shoulders. She was too tired to worry over what would happen to her when she entered Duncan's home. Just getting off Silenus was blessing enough for now.
It had turned bitterly cold during the day. Madelyne was growing more and more impatient as the minutes since gaining Wexton land turned into long hours and still not a single glimpse of Duncan's fortress.
Daylight was fading when Duncan called a respite. It was Gilard who nagged him into stopping. Madelyne could tell from the harsh exchange of words that the stop wasn't to Duncan's liking. She noticed, too, that Gilard didn't seem the least offended by his brother's harsh remarks.
"Are you weaker than our captive?" Duncan asked Gilard when he had insisted on taking a few minutes to rest.
"My legs have lost all feeling," Gilard returned with a shrug.
"Lady Madelyne hasn't complained," Duncan commented after raising his hand to signal his men.
"Your captive is too frightened to say anything," Gilard scoffed. "She hides beneath your cloak and weeps against your chest."
"I think not," Duncan answered. He jerked the cloak away so that Gilard could see Madelyne's face. "See you any tears, Gilard?" he asked, amusement in his voice.
Gilard shook his head. Duncan was trying to make him feel inferior to the beautiful woman he held in his arms. He wasn't the least upset by the ploy and actually chuckled. The desire to stretch his legs and taste a bit of ale were his only concerns now. Those, and the fact that his bladder was near to bursting.
"Your captive might be too simpleminded to know fear," Gilard remarked with a grin.
Duncan wasn't amused by the remark. He dismissed Gilard with a frown fierce enough to send his brother running, and then slowly dismounted.
Duncan watched Gilard until he disappeared into the forest, and then turned back to Madelyne. She reached out to him for assistance, placing her hands on the curve of his broad shoulders. She even tried to smile.
Duncan didn't smile back. He took an infinitely long time getting her to the ground, however. His hands spanned her waist when he pulled her toward him, but as soon as they were eye level with each other, and just a scant space apart, he stopped.
Madelyne straightened her legs with a groan of pain she couldn't quite contain. Every muscle in her backside screamed in agony.
He had the audacity to smile over her distress.
Madelyne decided then and there that Duncan brought out the worst in her. How else could she explain this sudden, overwhelming urge to scream at him. Aye, he nudged the dark side of her character to the front. Why, she never, ever screamed at anyone. She was a gentle woman, gifted with a sweet, even-tempered disposition. Father Berton had told her that often enough.