His heavy-lidded glance was amused. "Always."
"Because," he explained obligingly, "timing is the key to leaving a battle on your horse, instead of stretched out on your shield."
"But you aren’t fighting battles any more, so you don’t need to think about timing and such."
His lazy smile was almost boyish. "True, but ’tis a habit, and one that will not be easy to break. The men behind us have fought beside me for years. They know how I think and what I want done almost without my saying it."
There was no more time to reply, for the castle guard was almost on top of them, with Arik in the lead. Just when Jenny was wondering if the guards meant to stop, all twenty-five of them suddenly executed a whirling turn with such precision that she felt like clapping. Arik moved into position directly in front of Royce, while, behind them, fifty knights formed into precise columns.
Jenny felt her spirits lift at the colorful procession of prancing horses and fluttering flags, and despite her determination not to care what his people thought of her when they saw her, she was suddenly filled with violent nervousness and uncontrollable hope. Whatever her feelings for her husband, these were going to be her people, she was going to live all her life among them, and the awful truth was that she couldn’t help wanting them to like her. That realization was instantly followed by a fresh surge of terrible self-consciousness over her messy appearance and general physical shortcomings. Biting her lip, Jenny said a swift, impassioned prayer that God would make them like her, then she hastily considered how she ought best to comport herself in the next few minutes. Should she smile at the villagers? No, she thought hastily, it might not be appropriate under the circumstances. But neither did she want to appear too aloof, for then they might mistake her for being cold or haughty. She was a Scot, after all, and Scots were regarded by many as cold, proud people. And although she was proud to be a Scot, under no circumstances did she want these people—her people—to mistakenly think she was unapproachable.
They were within a few yards of the four hundred or so villagers lining the road, and Jenny decided it was better to smile just a little than to be mistaken for being cold or too proud. Fixing a small smile upon her mouth, she self-consciously smoothed her gown one last time, then she sat up very straight.
As their entourage began making its decorous way past the spectators, however, Jenny’s inner excitement gave way to bafflement. In Scotland, when a lord, victorious or otherwise, returned home from battle, he was met with cheers and smiles, yet the peasants along this road were silent, watchful, uneasy. A few of their faces showed downright belligerence, while a great many more looked frightened as they beheld their new lord. Jenny saw it, felt it, and wondered why they would fear their own hero. Or was it her they somehow feared, she wondered nervously.
The answer came a scant second later, when a loud, belligerent male voice finally broke the taut silence: "Merrick slut!" he shouted. In an eager frenzy to demonstrate to their notorious master that they shared the duke’s well-known feelings about this marriage, the crowd picked up the chant: "Merrick slut!" they shouted, jeering, "Slut! Merrick slut!" Everything happened so suddenly there was no time for Jenny to react, to feel anything, because directly beside them, a boy of about nine rashly snatched up a clump of dirt and threw it, striking Jenny squarely on her right cheek.
Jenny’s cry of startled fright was muffled by Royce, who instantly threw himself forward, shielding her with his body from an attack he hadn’t seen and hadn’t anticipated. Arik, who had only glimpsed a raised arm throwing something that could as easily have been a dagger, let out a blood-chilling bellow of rage and hurtled out of his saddle, whipping his war axe out of his belt as he launched himself at the boy. In the mistaken belief that Royce had been the boy’s target, Arik grabbed him by his thick hair, lifted him several feet off the ground, and while the screaming boy’s legs were flailing wildly in the air, the giant raised his axe in a wide arc…
Jenny reacted without thinking. With a strength born of terror she reared back wildly, dislodging Royce, and drowning out whatever command he was about to give with one of her own: "No!—No, don’t!" she screamed wildly, "DON’T!"
Arik’s axe froze at the top of its arc, and the giant looked over his shoulder, not to Jennifer, but to Royce for a judgment. So did Jenny, who took one look at the cold rage on Royce’s profile and instantly knew what he was about to tell Arik to do. "No!" she screamed hysterically, clutching Royce’s arm. His head jerked to her and, if anything, he looked even more murderous than the moment before. Jenny saw the muscle jerking in his taut jaw, and in mindless terror she cried, "Would you murder a child for aping your own words—for trying to show you he supports you in everything, including your feelings about me! For the love of God, he’s naught but a child! A foolish child—" Her voice broke as Royce coldly turned from her to Arik to issue his command: "Have him brought to me on the morrow," he snapped, then he dug his spurs into the black horse, sending him bolting forward; as if by some silent signal, the knights behind them shot forward, forming into a moving curtain on both sides of Royce and Jennifer.
No more shouts came from the crowd; in complete, utter stillness they watched the caravan gallop past. Even so, Jenny didn’t draw an easy breath until they were clear of all of the villagers, and then she went limp. Drained. Slumping against Royce’s unnaturally rigid body, she let the whole scene replay in her mind. In retrospect, it occurred to her that his rage at the child had been on her behalf, and that he acceded to her wishes by giving the boy a reprieve. Turning in the saddle she looked at him. When he continued staring straight ahead, she said hesitantly, "My lord, I would like to—to thank you for sparing—"
His gaze snapped to her face, and Jenny recoiled in shock from the scorching fury in his gray eyes. "If you ever," he warned savagely, "defy me in public again or dare to address me in that tone, I won’t be responsible for the consequences, I swear to God!"
Before Royce’s eyes, her expressive face went from gratitude, to shock, to fury, and then she coldly turned her back on him.
Royce stared at the back of her head, furious because she actually believed he would let a child be decapitated for a misdeed that deserved a less harsh punishment—furious because, by her actions, Jenny had led all his serfs and villeins to believe the same thing. But most of all, Royce was furious with himself for failing to anticipate that such a scene as the one with the villagers might occur, and for not taking steps to avert it.