Royce suddenly stopped. Nicholaa didn’t. She bumped into him. He turned around and grabbed hold of her. His grip was almost painful. “You will not interfere.”
She had her answer then. It was definitely Justin.
“I won’t interfere,” she promised. “Just tell me why you’re pleased that he’s gone into a rage. I would like to be pleased, too.”
She hadn’t demanded an explanation; she’d merely asked for one. Royce immediately answered. “We’ve been waiting for your brother to show some kind of reaction to his situation. Until now we’ve had to force him to eat, to drink, to move. Justin’s been trying to hide from life, Nicholaa. Now he’s finally opening his eyes. This sudden rage is a good beginning, and that’s why I’m pleased.”
She hadn’t realized she’d grabbed his tunic until he pulled her hands away. “What will you do now?”
His smile made some of her fear dissipate. “I’m going to help him re-direct his anger.”
“By giving him a target.”
“A target?” she repeated, still not understanding.
“I’m going to direct his anger toward me,” Royce explained. “God willing, by the end of the day your brother’s rage will be fully centered on me. He’ll want to live for the sole purpose of killing me.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he regretted giving her that bit of information. She looked appalled.
“Couldn’t you give him some other target?” she asked.
She sighed. She knew he was right. As the leader of his men, he alone was responsible for the welfare of each and every soldier. She realized she’d actually insulted him by suggesting he give the duty to someone else. He’d taken on the burden of helping Justin and she shouldn’t try to undermine his decision.
“I trust you,” she announced. She smiled then. “I won’t worry about you, either. You wouldn’t sound so cheerful if you weren’t prepared,” she explained. “You’ll do what you think is best for Justin.”
She stood on tiptoe and kissed him. “I’ve detained you long enough. Thank you for taking the time to explain it all to me.” She smiled at Lawrence, then turned around and walked toward the back of the keep.
“It’s good to see a wife who has faith in her husband,” Lawrence remarked as he followed Royce outside.
His baron smiled. “Lawrence, wait here,” he ordered, “and catch her when she comes around the corner. I won’t have her interference. Keep her occupied inside.”
The vassal looked astonished. “Do you mean to say—”
“Nicholaa’s probably on her way out one of the back doors right now. She has faith in me, yes, but she’ll still want to see what’s going on. Then she won’t be able to stop herself from interfering.”
Lawrence smiled. “You understand her very well, Baron.”
Royce shook his head. His voice was bleak when he said, “In this instance I understand her. She’ll do exactly what you or I would do if Justin were our brother. As for thoroughly understanding my wife, I must confess I’m finding out she’s far more complex than I first realized. ’Tis the truth that the smallest remarks set her temper flaring.”
He sounded so bewildered that Lawrence nodded sympathetically. Since he’d never been married, he didn’t know enough about wives to offer any advice.
Royce wasn’t expecting a response, however. He nodded to Lawrence and then walked away. He hadn’t even reached the bottom of the first slope when Justin’s bellows reached him.
He found Nicholaa’s younger brother in the center of a circle of soldiers. One of the men had a bloody nose. Royce assumed Justin was responsible for the injury. He couldn’t have been more pleased. He dismissed the soldiers with a curt order, motioned for Ingelram to stay nearby, and then faced Justin alone.
Nicholaa’s brother looked like hell. His hair hung around his shoulders in clumps of tangles. It was brown from dirt, and as filthy looking as the rest of him. Justin was dressed in a foul-smelling blue tunic and baggy brown pants. His eyes were blazing with hatred. It was a dramatic change from the flat, glazed look Royce had seen there before.
Royce folded his arms across his chest and stared at Justin. Then he calmly explained the rules of conduct for all soldiers in his ranks. He went right on speaking in a mild, patient voice, even when Justin let out a roar of outrage and lunged at him. Royce easily sidestepped the attack and tripped Justin with his foot.
The boy went sprawling face down. He didn’t give up, though. Again and again he attacked. Royce effortlessly ducked each blow while he continued to outline his training program. Justin used his fist, his head, and his shoulders to try to knock Royce down. He spewed foul words all the while. When he called Royce his bastard captor, he found himself flat on his back on the ground. Dust billowed up around him. As soon as the air cleared, he saw Royce looming over him. Justin tried to regain his feet, but Royce held him down by putting one booted foot on his chest.
“I’m neither your captor nor a bastard,” he said. “I’m your baron, Justin, and you’re my faithful vassal.”
Justin closed his eyes and gasped for breath. Royce moved back and continued his list of rules while Justin staggered to his feet. He gathered the last of his strength and spat in Royce’s face. He missed his mark by a good yard, but the insult was still there. Royce’s reaction was instantaneous. He gave Justin a well deserved kick in his backside and sent him sprawling on the ground again. There wasn’t a bit of anger in the punishment. Royce was merely giving the boy his first lesson in survival.
He’d gained Justin’s full attention, too. For all his rage, he noticed Royce didn’t even look mildly irritated. Justin didn’t understand, but inside he was so scared he couldn’t think. It seemed that no matter how much he provoked the baron, he couldn’t push him into killing him. That realization terrified Justin, for it meant he’d have to go on living.
“All the things I’ve just explained to you come down to a few basic rules,” Royce continued. “You will not embarrass your unit. You will train to your fullest capacity, you will treat others with respect, and you will never, ever show cowardice, for to do any of those things would embarrass this unit. You will learn to depend upon others as they will learn to depend upon you. It’s very simple, Justin.”
Royce knew full well the boy didn’t understand. Justin looked like a caged animal who’d just escaped his prison. There was a wild, hunted look about him.
“What do you want from me?” Justin suddenly roared.
Royce put his booted foot on Justin’s chest again. “All you can give,” he announced. “And then more, Justin. And by God, you’ll give me exactly what I want.”
He moved away from Justin then and motioned Ingelram over to his side. “Go with Justin,” he commanded. “Show him where the uniforms are kept.” He glanced down at Justin. “You will wash the filth away now. Tomorrow your training with the others begins.”
Royce deliberately turned his back on Justin when he walked away. Ingelram reached down to offer his hand in helping the boy up. Justin shoved his hand away. When he regained his feet, Ingelram moved to one side and waited. He didn’t call out a warning, for he knew his baron would expect a sneak attack. Justin rushed after Royce and tried to tackle him from behind. He found himself grasping air at the last second and ended up on his knees.
Royce turned around and once again used his foot to shove Justin onto his back on the ground. “If you want the privilege of fighting me, you’ll have to earn it. You’re going to have to get a hell of a lot stronger first, boy.”
“Boy!” Justin roared.
Royce nodded. “You aren’t even worthy to be called Dove yet,” he said. “Ingelram? I just ordered you to show him to the uniforms. See it carried through.”
The vassal nodded to Royce, then again offered his hand to Justin. Nicholaa’s brother instinctively reached up. He was pulled to his feet before he realized he’d accepted assistance. He was too overwhelmed with exhaustion to think coherently. His shoulders were slumped in defeat. He would fight them all tomorrow, he decided, when he was rested, when he was stronger.
He fell into step beside the young Norman soldier.
“I was called ‘boy’ once or twice when I first entered the baron’s ranks,” Ingelram said. “Then I officially became a Dove. You see, Justin, we new recruits are called Doves by the older, more experienced knights. It’s meant as an insult, of course, but they were all once Doves, too, and so we take it in stride. We compete against them every chance we’re given, too. When you get rid of your anger, you’ll realize how fortunate you are to have been allowed to join the most elite unit in all of England and Normandy combined.”
Ingelram had spoken earnestly, but Justin scoffed. “I’ll be leaving soon,” he muttered. “I have no need to hear this ignorant explanation.”
Ingelram shook his head. “You can’t leave without permission,” he said. “It would embarrass our unit. You have to stay here.”
He turned Justin’s attention then when he said, “Did you notice that each time you attacked the baron, he retaliated without using his hands?”
Justin hadn’t noticed. His eyes widened when he realized Ingelram had spoken the truth. He refused to answer Ingelram, though. He scowled instead.
Ingelram wasn’t daunted. “Baron Royce used his feet. You didn’t.” He slapped Justin on his shoulder. “You’ve just had your first lesson in defense.” He laughed after making that statement, then added, “God, Justin, you smell as rank as a well-used whore.”
Justin ignored that comment. He vowed there wouldn’t be any more lessons to endure. He was going to leave the holding tonight, after the other soldiers had fallen asleep.
He was so ravenous that evening he ate a full dinner. He was forced to sit with the other soldiers and listen to their conversations. No one tried to draw him into discussion, but the men didn’t actually exclude him, either.
His pallet was positioned between Ingelram’s and Gerald’s. Justin’s last thought before exhaustion overtook him was that he would rest for just a few minutes, then get up, gather his meager possessions, and leave.
He awakened in the dead of night, but he didn’t even make it to the door. A soldier Justin had never seen before blocked his path. He calmly explained that his name was Bryan, that he was also a new recruit, and that he only wanted to remind Justin he couldn’t leave without permission.
Bryan had dark curly hair and brown eyes. He was shorter than Justin by an inch or two, but his muscles made him an intimidating barrier. “I’ve been reminded,” Justin muttered. “Now get out of my way.”
Bryan was suddenly joined by three more soldiers. They were as sleepy-eyed as Bryan, and just as determined to keep Justin inside.
“Why the hell do you care if I leave or not?” Justin raged.
“It would embarrass our unit if one of us left,” Ingelram called out from his bed. “Go back to sleep, Justin.”
He knew he couldn’t win. There were too many of them, and he was too weary. He grudgingly returned to his bed. No one jeered at him. That surprised Justin. It infuriated him, too. He wanted a reason to hate the soldiers, and they weren’t giving him any.
Several minutes passed before everyone settled back down for the remainder of the night. Ingelram was just drifting off to sleep when he felt Justin nudge him.
“What happens when someone embarrasses your unit?” Justin whispered. He was already damning himself for asking that question. He certainly didn’t want to give Ingelram the notion he cared. He was merely curious, that was all.
“Believe me, Justin,” Ingelram whispered back, “you don’t want to know.”
He did want to know, though, and couldn’t stop himself from prodding Ingelram again. “Is the punishment severe?”
“Is it death, then?”
Ingelram snorted. “No,” he answered. “Death’s easy, Justin. The punishment isn’t. Go to sleep now. Tomorrow will be a difficult day for all of us.”
Justin didn’t take that advice. There was too much to think about.
Nicholaa was also wide awake. Little Ulric was giving her fits. The baby was terribly fretful tonight. Since he wasn’t feverish, she decided he was crying over another tooth trying to poke through his tender gums.
He was content only when he was being held and walked. Nicholaa felt it was her responsibility to take care of the little one at night. The servants needed their rest. She dismissed the staff and then paced the chamber with Ulric in her arms.
She couldn’t have slept anyway. Her mind was in such a state of confusion. She wished now she hadn’t witnessed the confrontation between Royce and her brother, Justin. Oh, God, how she wished she hadn’t seen that horror.
Royce had been so cruel. If she hadn’t seen what was happening, she wouldn’t have believed it possible. To kick an injured, defenseless boy . . . No, she wouldn’t have believed her husband capable of such despicable conduct.
She would have wept over her brother’s humiliation if Lawrence hadn’t spotted her on the walkway and rushed up to join her. He’d tried to coax her into leaving, but it was already too late.
Nicholaa couldn’t face Royce at dinner. She stayed abovestairs, taking care of her nephew. Royce didn’t send anyone to fetch her. He probably wouldn’t even notice she wasn’t sitting beside him at the table. No, her husband was very likely planning his next attack on her brother.
Royce did miss Nicholaa, of course. Supper was served an hour later than usual to accommodate Royce’s schedule, and Alice thought her mistress had already gone to bed. “She looked very sleepy,” she remarked.
Lawrence waited until the servant had returned to the buttery, then leaned over to offer his own explanation. “I’ve been trying to catch you alone to tell you what happened today,” he began. “Nicholaa is probably avoiding you, Baron. I would wager that’s why she’s upstairs.”
“Why would she avoid me?”
“She witnessed your confrontation with Justin.”
“Hell. How in God’s name did that happen?”
“I take full responsibility,” Lawrence said. “As you instructed, I waited for Lady Nicholaa to come around the corner. A good five minutes passed before I happened to glance up and catch a glimpse of blue. It was her gown. Your wife had climbed up to the walkway atop the wall, Baron. By the time I reached her, it was too late. She’d seen it all.”