“Will the two of you at least go down to the base of the hill where the other soldiers stand and ask them if they know what this dispute is all about?” Her words fairly tripped over one another in her rush to gain their agreement.
“By God, if this is a fight to the death, neither one of them will win,” she announced, “because I’ll kill both of them. Just see if I don’t.”
Vincent was able to keep his smile contained. Edward wasn’t. Their mistress’s concern for her husband warmed their hearts. Her worry was unfounded, however. Their baron could meet any challenge.
The soldiers finally agreed to her request and walked down the long path.
And then it began. Guy was first to attack. Nicholaa was thankful they used only their fists instead of weapons, yet after several minutes of watching the men battle each other, she realized one could easily kill the other.
At first they seemed to be evenly matched. Each was able to shake off the other’s powerful blows. Royce was a little more controlled in his actions, though.
Nicholaa’s stomach did a little flip when Guy tripped Royce. Her husband was sprawled out on his back. Guy seized the advantage. He made a dive to pin Royce down. Just as Guy lunged forward, Royce’s foot came up. He caught Guy in the groin, lifted him a good distance into the air, and sent him into a backward somersault. It was a dazzling display of strength.
The crowd went wild. Guy must have had the wind knocked out of him. He stayed flat on his back for a long minute. Royce didn’t take the opportunity to end the fight then and there, however. He simply stood with his hands on his h*ps and waited for Guy to get up.
Nicholaa began to relax. Her husband was obviously toying with Guy. His superior ability was very apparent to her now. She was even able to smile a little.
The noise from the crowd made her head pound. The only ones not cheering were Royce’s soldiers. They looked very dignified, and arrogantly confident, too, as they stood side by side along the length of the field watching their baron.
Guy got in a lucky punch. Nicholaa winced in reaction. She turned her attention away from the field then. Her stomach wasn’t going to let her watch much more. She wished to God Royce would end this and come up to her. She wanted to kiss him first and yell at him next.
Her gaze scanned the crowd. Everyone was intent on the battle. A movement among the horses caught her eye then. Nicholaa moved a little to her left to see what that commotion was about. She saw two soldiers sprawled on the ground in a huddle. She realized they were the men who had escorted Morgan and Henry off the field. Neither moved. Then she saw Guy’s vassals. Morgan and Henry were reaching for the reins of the nearest mounts. Henry turned her way. She saw the bow and arrow in his hands then.
They were simply running away from their humiliation, she told herself. Yet she remembered the way Henry had looked back over his shoulder at Royce when he’d been escorted off the field. Those two escorts were now injured . . . or worse.
Nicholaa ran back inside the tent, grabbed her sling and the stones, and hurried back outside. She stared down at the field while she slipped the loops around her fingers and inserted one smooth stone into the pouch.
It was only a precaution she was taking, she told herself. The vassals wouldn’t be foolish enough to try to have their revenge now. They’d never make it to safety if they dared to do what in her heart she already knew they were going to do.
She prayed she was wrong. She also moved to the edge of the slope as another precaution, though.
The vassals’ mounts broke through the trees in a full gallop toward the field. Henry came first, with Morgan behind him.
The crowd hadn’t noticed the intrusion yet. Nicholaa swung her sling into a wide arch above her head. “Come closer, Henry, just a bit closer,” she whispered.
The horses pounded onto the field. Everything seemed to happen at once then. Guy was facing the soldiers. Henry was still too far away from Nicholaa for her to do him any damage. The arrow was positioned in his bow. He let go of the reins and took aim.
Baron Guy did a remarkably brave thing then. He threw himself in front of Royce at the last possible second and took the arrow that was meant for his opponent.
Henry tried to grasp the reins and turn his mount before Royce could get to him. He wasn’t quick enough. Royce moved with the speed of a panther. He didn’t try to stop the mount but jumped up and ripped Henry from the saddle. Royce didn’t waste time killing the dishonored knight, for there was still Morgan to contend with. He kicked Henry just once. The blow was well placed and powerful enough to knock the breath out of the soldier.
Morgan had finally come within range of Nicholaa’s stone. The vassal’s arrow was nocked to his bow. Royce wouldn’t be able to get to him in time. Neither would any of the other soldiers who were now running onto the field. Everyone was still too far away.
Morgan had slowed his mount. He raised the bow and took aim.
So did Nicholaa. Her target was his arm. She wanted to knock the arrow out of his grasp before he tried to kill her husband.
Just as she dispatched the stone, Morgan twisted in his saddle. His arrow wasn’t directed on Royce now, but on another target altogether.
A collective scream came from the crowd. Then the stone caught Morgan on the side of his head, slamming into his temple. Morgan was lifted from the saddle and thrown backwards. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Everyone seemed to freeze in position. Everyone but Royce. While the crowd stared at Morgan, he turned to look up at the hill where Nicholaa stood.
She promptly hid the sling behind her back. She couldn’t see his expression, but she knew he’d guessed she was responsible.
Guy drew Royce’s attention then. The baron walked toward Royce. An arrow protruded from his shoulder. Royce went to help Guy leave the field.
Nicholaa didn’t stand there watching a minute longer. She went back inside the tent, replaced the sling and the one remaining stone in Royce’s packet, and then sat down to wait for the lecture she was sure was coming.
She’d interfered. That was probably how Royce would begin his lecture. Then he’d tell her that it simply wasn’t acceptable to kill another baron’s vassal.
She would interrupt him, of course, and tell him she didn’t care about anyone but him. Yes, she’d defend her actions, and in the end, he would certainly agree.
Nicholaa worked herself into quite a state of nerves in little time at all. She finally accepted the real reason she was so upset: she had killed a man. She’d never taken a life before, and she never wanted to again. Yet she knew she would if it was the only way to protect her husband.
Lord, she was exhausted. She stretched out on the cot and closed her eyes. An expectant mother shouldn’t have this kind of excitement, she decided, and she was going to tell Royce just that if he dared to even frown at her.
She could be thankful for one small blessing, she supposed. Royce was the only one who knew about the sling. She knew from the way he’d turned to look up at her that he’d already concluded she’d interfered. Still, he was as loyal to her as she was to him. He wouldn’t tell anyone.
When Royce came into the tent an hour later, Nicholaa was sound asleep. He sat down beside her and stared at her angelic face for a long while. He knew she needed her rest, but he was going to have to wake her. He stroked the side of her face.
“Nicholaa? Wake up, love.”
She opened her eyes and looked up at him.
“I love you, Nicholaa,” he whispered.
Her head cleared. “I interfered. Are you angry?”
She didn’t let him go on. “I’m not sorry. No matter how many lectures you give me, I still won’t be sorry. I do have faith in you, Royce, but Morgan could still have put an arrow through your heart all the same.”
“Why did you bring my sling?” she interrupted.
“I thought, if there was time, you’d show me how to use it,” he admitted.
“I killed him, Royce.” Tears filled her eyes.
He gently gathered her into his arms and soothed her.
“Is Baron Guy going to be all right?”
“Yes,” Royce answered. “The dispute was settled when he put himself in front of me and took the arrow. It was an act of contrition, I think, for past offenses. Guy won’t be training soldiers any longer. He admits he doesn’t have the temperament for the duty.”
She nodded. “Why did his vassals attack? They must have known they wouldn’t get away with such treachery.”
“The king had already sentenced them to die,” he explained. “They didn’t have anything to lose.” Royce didn’t go into the reasons behind the king’s decision. Nicholaa had had enough excitement for one day, and there was more to come tonight.
“Royce, you won’t tell anyone I killed Morgan, will you? Promise me,” she demanded.
“I promise.” He almost laughed. Nicholaa had obviously forgotten about Clayton the herald.
“The king would be upset,” she whispered. “I didn’t deliberately kill the man, but William might not understand that. Morgan turned at the last second; he must have changed his mind. It was too late, though. I’d already dispatched my stone.”
“He didn’t change his mind, only his target.”
She let out a sigh. “I want to go home,” she said.
Royce would give her what she wanted. They would leave for home the following morning. Nicholaa was forced to endure a little more excitement that evening. She stood next to Royce in front of the entire gathering while Clayton the herald, whose only duty in life was to poke his nose into everyone else’s affairs, once again sang the legend of Lady Nicholaa. She stayed calm until Clayton sang the newest verses. She heard the word “sling” and let out a low groan. Royce laughed. His wife had finally remembered where Clayton had been standing when she’d intervened.
The king came forward and embraced Nicholaa. Matilda hugged her next. Nicholaa found out then that the king had been Morgan’s target. She hadn’t realized until that minute exactly what she’d done. She reacted to all the attention by edging closer to Royce’s side and blushing pink.
It seemed an eternity passed before he was finally able to take Nicholaa back to their tent. He was as eager to go home as she was. He wanted to work on the black queen. It had to be finished—perfect, too—before their baby was born.
It suddenly dawned on him how radically she had changed his life. He’d learned how to love, and was loved in return.
Good times as well as bad times lay ahead of them. There was still Thurston to deal with, but Royce knew his wife would stand by his side no matter what happened.
He glanced down at the beautiful woman climbing the hill at his side. He was filled with such contentment. Because he was a logical man, he tried to make sense out of what had happened to him. Nicholaa had made such blissful chaos out of his drawn map of life. He tried to reason it through.
Then he put the question to her.
Nicholaa laughed before answering him. “It’s very simple, my love. You never had a chance.” She reached up to pat the tiny scar on his forehead. Then she laughed again.
Royce lifted her into his arms and held her close. He would let her believe she had caught him. He knew better, though. He’d set out to capture a legend.
And that was exactly what he’d done.