Luc stared at his adversary, his fury fading into amazement. It was not possible...but the evidence filled his palm, soft and tempting, and unmistakably rounded. He slowly drew his hand from beneath the armor, his voice rough:
"You are no stripling lad."
The girl's eyebrow arched in feigned surprise, and her full mouth curled into a scornful smile. "Your intellect is superior to your prowess on the field of battle, Sir Knight. Bested by a mere maidhow will your reputation fare in William's court now?"
"Be 'ware of whose temper you prodand keep in mind that 'tis my dagger at your throat this time. Your battle is lost."
"I could not forget. Not with my father's men dead all around me." Bitterness tinged her husky voice as her gaze skimmed the scene around them, and her blue eyes darkened with pain. For the first time, he noticed that blood dripped from a shallow cut on her forehead.
Luc sheathed his dagger and picked up his sword, holding it out with lowered tip to indicate his inclination to mercy. "You are my hostage. Take me to your lord so that I may accept his surrender."
Soft laughter met his demand. "That is impossible."
"For your sake, it had best not be." Luc's words were clipped. "I deal harshly with those who refuse my commands."
"You and William are cut from the same cloth, then."
"Do not whine to me of ill treatment. Complain instead to your father, who took William's oath only to break it. 'Twould have been better had he not taken it at all than to dishonor his sworn word. At least then he could have kept the king's respect."
"The bastard duke of Normandy deserves no respect. Nay, and Lord Balfour never broke a sworn bond in his life, so do not speak ill of him now."
Impatient, Luc shook his head. "You bandy words, when 'tis Balfour who should offer his own defense. I would meet the man responsible for the deaths of good men, and I would meet him now. Take me to Lord Balfour immediately, or it will go harshly with you and all in your hall."
After a moment of taut silence, the girl shrugged her shoulders. A gust of wind teased the golden hair that rippled down her back and over her arms. A faint smile played on her lips. If not for her obvious female attributes he might still think her a young lad, for the timbre of her voice was low and rich. "Since you insist, brave knight, I will take you to him."
She turned, head held high, to indicate the narrow path leading away from the vault. She possessed the confident grace of a young doe, a wild creature standing in the midst of the tangled trees and stones. When Luc did not move immediately, she glanced back over her shoulder at him. Her voice purred, sultry and provocative.
"Poor Norman knightdo you fear treachery? If I thought 'twould serve me, I would lead you into a trap, but I know you are right and the battle is lost."
"It is not fear of treachery that delays me, but kindness that bids me warn you not to play me false, or you will soon regret it."
Her response was a throaty laugh and eloquent shrug of one shoulder as she said, "'Tis traitors who fear treachery most, I think."
"My lord," Remy spoke up quietly, "do not go alone. I do not trust her."
"Nor I, Remy. Search the grounds, then join me. I do not think there are enough Saxons left to spring a trap, but neither do I put faith in them blindly."
Luc followed the maid down a narrow, weed-choked path to a small stone cairn tucked beneath a bower of young trees. There she swung around to face him with an unreadable expression on her lovely features. He came to an abrupt halt, glancing about the deserted grove. Fallen leaves cluttered the ground and rustled dryly beneath their feet, and the musty smell of death permeated the air around them.
"What is this, demoiselle? A ruse to delay me while your father escapes?"
Her soft laugh sounded more bitter than amused. "Nay, he has already escaped invading Normans. But you are welcome to follow him. Indeed, I pray that you do." When he scowled and took a step toward her, she swept out an arm to indicate the pile of stones. "Lord Balfour awaits your company, Sir Knight."
Luc stared at her mocking face, the slight smile twisting her lips, and suddenly he understood.
"How long has the lord been dead?"
"Three moons have waxed and waned since Balfour joined his fathers."
"Then you will tell me who is lord in his place. I want the man responsible for the death of Sir Simon, and this rebellion against William."
Draping her slender body against the stone cairn, the girl's gaze did not leave his face. "That person is before you, Norman. Do your worst."