Royce took hold of one of the two loops. “When you begin training with the Hawks, I’d advise you not to wear this,” he announced.
“Would they jeer him, Baron?” Ingelram asked, frowning over that possibility.
Royce laughed. Lord, they were ignorant . . . and young. He twisted the loop until he had it firmly wedged between his fingers. He kept his gaze on Justin all the while. The boy’s face was turning red. “They won’t jeer him,” he told Ingelram. “But they sure as hell will take advantage.”
Royce tightened his hold until Justin could barely move. “Then they’ll take their sweet time as they beat some sense into Justin for wearing such a contraption.”
Nicholaa was horrified when her husband laughed at Justin. She didn’t interfere, though, and when the full explanation had been given, even she realized that the leather covering wasn’t a protection but a weapon that could be used against her brother.
Justin understood, too. As soon as Royce let go, her brother took the covering off.
“You’ve been excused,” Royce told the three soldiers.
In unison they bowed to their baron and turned to leave. Justin walked between Bryan and Ingelram. Nicholaa stood next to Royce as she watched her brother walk down the first slope.
She didn’t realize she’d taken her husband’s hand. He could feel her trembling. He. squeezed. “Do you feel better now that you’ve spoken to Justin?”
She kept her gaze on her brother’s back. “Yes.”
Then Ingelram’s voice reached her. The young soldier obviously thought he was far enough away not to be overheard. “Are you getting enough to eat?” he drawled out in a horrible imitation of a woman’s high-pitched voice.
Bryan immediately joined in. “Would you like my blanket tonight, Justin?”
Nicholaa’s brother retaliated by shoving Ingelram with his left shoulder and trying to trip Bryan with his right foot.
Both Ingelram and Bryan were laughing, and—miracle of miracles—Justin joined in.
Royce forced himself not to laugh. He didn’t want to hurt Nicholaa’s feelings. He turned to look down at her and found her smiling.
“I was coddling him like a mother,” she admitted. “He laughed, Royce, didn’t he? I haven’t heard his laughter in so long I’d forgotten. Thank you, husband.”
He wasn’t sure why she thanked him, but she suddenly threw herself into his arms and kissed him.
His wife did lose a bit of her smile when he announced that she wouldn’t be able to talk to Justin again until the first phase of his training was completed, in approximately sixty days. She didn’t argue with him. Royce thought that was a nice change.
He didn’t see his wife again until the dinner hour. She sat beside him at the table, but as soon as the meal was finished and he and Lawrence began to discuss their plans for the following day, Nicholaa excused herself from the table with the request that she be allowed to go up to the chamber.
That routine became the standard. A full two months passed in a peaceful, organized manner. There wasn’t one outburst of anger, one surprise to put him on his guard, or one argument. Royce should have been pleased with this remarkable turnaround. He wasn’t, though. Nicholaa hadn’t lost her temper in almost sixty days. If she became any more serene, he thought he’d have to start checking to make certain the woman was still breathing.
Her attitude frustrated the hell out of him. She granted his every wish. Even before he realized he wanted something, she was there giving it to him.
Her passionate nature asserted itself only when they were in bed together and he was touching her. She couldn’t act serene then. Royce was thankful for that blessing, but he wanted more. God’s truth, he wanted his impossible wife back.
He missed her glares when she wasn’t getting her way. He missed their arguments, too, especially the ones he couldn’t possibly win because she was so stubbornly illogical. But most of all, he missed lecturing her.
Nicholaa wore a smile from the time she got out of the bed in the morning until she closed her eyes at night. It seemed to be a permanent condition, and it was making him daft. She couldn’t be that happy. No one could be that happy. The sparkle was missing from her eyes, too. She didn’t laugh, either.
But then, laughter was spontaneous, wasn’t it? And Nicholaa didn’t do anything spontaneous anymore.
God help him, he’d done this to her. He took full blame for the change in her. He was getting exactly what he’d set out to get. The problem was finding a way to undo the damage. He considered one plan after another, but none seemed acceptable. Then Justin solved his problem for him—rather nicely, too.
It was mid-June. Royce was in the lower bailey supervising the training of the experienced soldiers. Lawrence, who commanded the Doves, rarely requested Royce’s assistance.
Today proved to be an exception however. Lawrence called Royce down to the lower hill, and when his baron reached his side, the vassal motioned for Ingelram and Bryan to begin sparring.
Justin stood to one side, waiting his turn.
“Those three have become fast friends,” Lawrence remarked. “I’m pleased with Justin’s progress on the whole. You can see he’s regained the weight he lost, added a bit more bulk, too. Swinging a sword and lifting stones have added to his muscle. Aye, he’s coming along nicely.”
Ingelram knocked Bryan to the ground, let out a shout of victory, then turned to Justin. Bryan rolled out of the way as Justin swaggered forward. Ingelram and Justin put on quite a show for their baron. Several other soldiers formed a wide circle to watch.
The longer Royce observed, the more he frowned. “Tell me this, Lawrence,” he asked. “Is Ingelram sparring with Justin or dancing with him?”
“Exactly,” Lawrence muttered. “That’s why I wanted you to watch, Baron. No matter which man I pair with Justin, the result is always the same. I don’t think they do it on purpose, but the men soften their attack when I pit them against the boy.”
Royce nodded. He let out a shrill whistle, drawing everyone’s attention. Justin was still a bit wary of his baron. He’d been grinning while he battled his friend, but his expression was contained when he turned to Royce.
“I’m in the mood to knock a few of you on your backsides,” Royce announced. “Who wants this privilege?”
It was a rare honor their baron bestowed upon the younger soldiers, and each was eager to be the first to take on the challenge.
Yet while the soldiers rushed forward, Royce noticed they also tried to keep Justin at the back of the line. Even now they were trying to protect him. Their friendship for Nicholaa’s brother could very well get him killed.
Justin wasn’t about to be left out, though. He shouldered his way to the front of the group.
“How many will get this opportunity, Baron?” Justin called out.
The others now lined up behind him, with Ingelram and Bryan flanking him. Justin was acting as their spokesman, and Royce was so pleased with this turn of events that he almost laughed. Lawrence had kept Royce informed of Justin’s progress, of course, but seeing the boy now standing so tall and proud still took him by surprise. It warmed his heart, too.
“I’ll only waste enough of my valuable time to fight four of you,” Royce drawled. “Since you’ve taken it upon yourself to speak for the unit, you’ll be one of those four. Pick the other three, Justin, and then put yourself last, as befits a leader.”
Justin nodded. He started to turn to his friends, then stopped. “And if one of us knocks you on your backside, Baron?”
Royce did laugh then. “He will be suitably rewarded.”
Justin smiled. A conference was immediately called. Royce and Lawrence stood by while the soldiers decided among themselves who the other three would be.
“You’ve done well,” Royce told Lawrence in a low whisper. “His body’s strong now.”
“He’s ready to train,” Lawrence replied. “So are the others, Royce.”
The decision was finally reached among the Doves. A redheaded soldier by the name of Merrill strutted forward. He bowed first to Royce, then to Lawrence.
Royce took a step forward. “We won’t use weapons,” he decreed.
Merrill immediately unstrapped the sheath from his side and handed the sword and covering to Justin. Then he turned back to his baron. “I’m ready, my lord.”
Royce laughed again. “Nay, you’re not ready,” he said. “Perhaps after three months of training with me, you will be ready, but not today, Merrill.”
He beckoned with one hand for Merrill to attack. The soldier slowly circled his baron. Royce didn’t move at all, even when Merrill had worked his way around him.
Merrill positioned himself behind his baron and finally attacked, intending to grab his lord by his neck and wrestle him to the ground.
Royce waited until he felt Merrill’s touch, then twisted and, with one hand, lifted the soldier off his feet, flung him over his shoulder, and dropped him on the ground. Merrill landed with a grunt on his backside.
“You gave me too much time to think about what you were going to do, Merrill,” Royce instructed. “If you want to surprise your adversary by sneaking up behind him, do so with speed. Do you understand?”
Merrill nodded. Royce reached down, offering his hand to the soldier. Merrill grabbed hold and was hauled back to his feet.
“Next,” Royce ordered.
Bryan moved forward. He’d already removed his sword. He swung at his baron with his left fist. If the blow had connected, it would have flattened an ordinary man. Royce wasn’t ordinary, though, but Bryan didn’t remember that fact soon enough. The baron easily caught hold of the soldier’s fist with one hand and held on.
“Now what, Bryan?” he asked.
Bryan’s hand throbbed. He felt as though he’d just rammed it into a stone wall. He grimaced against the pain, then tried to strike Royce with his other fist. Royce deflected the blow and sent Bryan flying to the ground.
“Again you allowed me to have the advantage,” he explained to the group. “Use whatever method works. Bryan, you have feet. Use them.”
A third soldier hurried into the center of the circle. His name was Howard, and he proved to be a bit more cunning than the first two. Royce had to knock him down twice before he landed on his backside.
And then it was Justin’s turn. Royce stared at him a long minute before giving him the order to begin.
“What have you learned from the first three challengers?”
“I’ve learned to use my feet and my fist,” Justin answered. “And to use any method, fair or foul, to get you to the ground, Baron.”
Royce nodded. “Then my time hasn’t been wasted,” he announced. His gaze moved over the entire group. “Lawrence has given you tasks to strengthen your bodies, but now the time has come for you to learn how to use your heads. In battle, strength without cunning means nothing. Tomorrow you will begin training with the experienced knights.”
A loud cheer went up. The soldiers had officially completed the first phase of their training. It was time to celebrate.
Royce smiled. The soldiers wouldn’t be cheering tomorrow night. Nay, by then every inch of their bodies would be screaming in agony, for the first full day of training with the seasoned warriors would be the most difficult day of their lives.
Nicholaa was coming down the first slope when she heard the shouts. Curious, she quickened her stride until she reached the bottom. She saw the crowd circling Justin and her husband then.
She tried not to be worried. Then Justin threw himself at Royce, and she almost cried out. Her brother had feigned the attack; he twisted away at the last possible minute and tried to kick Royce in the backs of his legs.
Royce deflected the blow and clipped Justin between his shoulder blades with the back of his hand. Nicholaa’s brother staggered forward, quickly recovered, and then launched yet another attack.
Quite by accident, Justin got in one solid punch. His fist connected with Royce’s jaw approximately five seconds after his baron noticed Nicholaa was observing the scene.
Royce instinctively struck back, knocking Justin to the ground. He moved forward, put his foot on Justin’s chest to keep him down, then gave the soldier a most bizarre command.
“What?” Justin gasped, trying to regain his breath.
“I said smile,” Royce told him in a furious whisper. “Now, damn it.”
Nicholaa desperately tried not to interfere. But the sight of her brother sprawled on the ground, added to the fact that all the other soldiers were grinning, did made her forget her vow.
Justin’s face was turned away from her. For that reason, she didn’t see his smile.
“Royce, my brother has only one hand.”
God help her, she hadn’t meant to shout that reminder.
“But I have two,” Royce called out.
Nicholaa had rushed forward, but she came to an abrupt stop when Royce shouted that cruel remark.
She stared at Royce. He winked at her. Then Justin turned to her. He started laughing. She took a step back, stopped, shook her head, and finally turned around and walked back up the hill.
Royce let out a sigh. He knew she didn’t understand. He moved away from Justin and offered him his hand. Justin grabbed hold and was pulled to his feet.
“You’ve done well,” he told Justin. “As a reward for striking me, you and the other three will join me for dinner.”
Justin grinned. His cheeks were red when he moved back to stand with the other soldiers. Royce didn’t know if the coloring was from exertion or his praise.
Royce clasped his hands behind his back and stared at the group. “I have one last thing to say to you. You have all become friends, and that is as it should be, but when you fight with one another, you will give it your total concentration. You will not make allowances for anyone, for any reason. What you may perceive as kindness or protectiveness could very well get your friend killed in a real battle.”
They all knew what he was talking about, Royce was sure of that. He addressed his next remarks to Justin. “In battle no allowances will be given because you have but one hand. For that reason, you can’t be as good as the others. You have to be better.”
Justin nodded. “Baron, when will I know I’m ready?”
Royce smiled. “You’ll just know, Justin. No one will have to tell you.”
Lawrence stepped forward. “To celebrate the beginning of your training with the Hawks, perhaps our baron will let you watch a game of kickball.”