"News of famous people flies from castle to castle often with surprising speed. As a friar of Saint Dominic, ’tis my duty and my privilege to go among our Lord’s people on foot," he emphasized wryly. "Whilst my time is spent among the poor, the poor live in villages. And where there are villages, there are castles; news filters down from lord’s solar to villein’s hut—particularly when that news concerns a man who is a legend, like the Wolf."
"So my shame is known to all," Jenny said chokily.
" ‘Tis not a secret," he admitted. "But neither is it your shame, to my thinking. You mustn’t blame yourself for—" Friar Gregory saw her piteous expression and was instantly consumed with contrition. "My dear child, I beg your forgiveness. Instead of talking to you about forgiveness and peace, I’m discussing shame and causing bitterness."
"You’ve no need to apologize," Jenny said in a shaky voice. "After all, you, too have been taken captive by that—that monster—forced, dragged from your priory, as I was dragged from my bed, and—"
"Now, now," he soothed, sensing she was teetering between hysteria and exhaustion, "I wouldn’t say I was taken captive. Not really. Nor dragged from the priory. It was more a matter that I was invited to come along by the most enormous man I’ve ever beheld, who also happens to carry a war axe in his belt with a handle nearly the size of a tree trunk. So when he graciously thundered, ‘Come. No harm,’ I accepted his invitation without delay."
"I hate him, too!" Jenny cried softly, watching Arik stroll out of the woods holding two plump rabbits he’d beheaded with a throw of his axe.
"Really?" Friar Gregory looked nonplused and fascinated. " ‘Tis hard to hate a man who doesn’t speak. Is he always so stingy with words?"
"Yes!" Jenny said vengefully. "All he nee-needs to do"—the tears she was fighting to hold back clogged her voice—"is look at y-you with those freezing cold blue eyes of his and you j-just know what he wants you to do, and y-you d-do it, because he’s a m-monster, too." Friar Gregory put his arm around her shoulders and Jenny, who was more accustomed to adversity than sympathy, especially of late, turned her face into his sleeve. "I hate him!" she cried brokenly, heedless of Friar Gregory’s warning squeeze on her arm. "I hate him, I hate him!"
Fighting for control, she moved away from him. As she did so, her eyes riveted on the pair of black boots planted firmly in front of her, and she followed them the full distance up Royce’s muscled legs and thighs, his narrow waist and wide chest, until she finally met his hooded gaze. "I hate you," she said straight to his face.
Royce studied her in impassive silence, then he transferred his contemptuous gaze to the friar. Sarcastically, he asked, "Tending to your flock, Friar? Preaching love and forgiveness?"
To Jenny’s amazement, Friar Gregory took no offence at this biting criticism, but instead looked abashed. "I greatly fear," he admitted ruefully as he awkwardly and unsteadily came to his feet, "that I may be no better at that than I am at riding horses. The Lady Jennifer is one of my first ‘flocks,’ you see. I’ve only been about the Lord’s work a short time."
"You’re not very good at it," Royce stated flatly. "Is it not your goal to console rather than incite? Or is it to line your purse and grow fat on your patron’s good graces? If the latter is the case, you’d be wise to counsel my wife to try to please me, rather than encourage her to tell me of her hatred."
At that moment, Jenny would have given her very life to have Friar Benedict standing here instead of Friar Gregory, for she would have relished seeing Royce Westmoreland receive the sort of thundering tirade that Friar Benedict would have launched at the insolent duke.
In that respect, however, she had misjudged the young friar again. Although he did not rise to the Black Wolf’s verbal attack, neither did he retreat or cower before his daunting adversary. "I gather that you do not hold those of us who wear these robes in very high regard?"
"None whatsoever," Royce snapped.
In her mind, Jenny wistfully envisioned Friar Benedict in this clearing, his eyes bulging with fury as he advanced on Royce Westmoreland like the angel of death. But, regretfully, Friar Gregory merely looked interested and a little puzzled. "I see," he said politely. "May I ask why?"
Royce Westmoreland stared at him with biting scorn. "I despise hypocrisy, particularly when it is coated with holiness."
"May I ask for a specific example?"
"Fat priests," Royce replied, "with fat purses, who lecture starving peasants on the dangers of gluttony and the merits of poverty." Turning on his heel, he strode back to the fire where Arik was roasting the rabbits on a makeshift spit.
"Oh dear God!" Jenny whispered a minute later, without realizing she had started fearing for the immortal soul of the very same man she’d just wished to perdition. "He must be a heretic!"
Friar Gregory shot her an odd, thoughtful glance. "If he is, he is an honorable one." Turning, he stared at the Black Wolf, who was crouching near the fire beside the giant who guarded him. In that same preoccupied, almost amused voice, he said softly, "A very honorable one, I think."
All the next day, Jenny endured her husband’s stony silence, while her mind whirled with questions that only he could answer, until in sheer desperation she finally broke down just before noon and spoke herself: "How long will this interminable journey to Claymore last, assuming that is our destination?"
"About three days, depending on how muddy the roads are."
Ten words. That was all he’d said in days! No wonder he and Arik were so congenial Jenny thought furiously, vowing not to give him the satisfaction of speaking to him again. She concentrated on Brenna, instead, wondering how she was faring at Merrick.
Two days later, Jennifer broke down again. She knew they must be nearing Claymore and her fears of what awaited her there were escalating by the minute. The horses were three abreast, moving down a country lane at a walk, with Arik riding in the middle and slightly ahead. She considered talking to Friar Gregory, but his head was bowed slightly forward, suggesting he might be at prayer, which is how he’d spent most of their journey. Desperate to talk about anything to take her mind off the future, she glanced over her shoulder at the man behind her. "What happened to all your men—the ones who were with us until we reached the priory?" she asked.
She waited for some answer, but he remained coldly silent. Pushed past the boundary of reason and caution by his cruel refusal even to speak to her, Jenny shot him a mutinous look. "Was that question too difficult for you, your grace?"