Without waiting for an answer, Jenny crawled forward. At the edge of the woods, she paused to look around. The camp was still partially asleep, lulled by the overcast gray morning into believing it was earlier than it was. The horses were nearly within arm's reach.
The guard stirred only once in his sleep as Jenny quietly caught two restive horses by their halters and led them toward the rope that formed the pen. Standing awkwardly on tiptoe, she lifted the rope high enough for the horses to walk beneath it, and in two short minutes, she had handed one of the animals to Brenna and they were quickly leading them deeper into the woods, their hooves silenced by the thick mulch of damp leaves provided by the dewy morning.
Jenny could scarcely suppress her smile of jubilation as they led the horses to a fallen tree and, using that for height, they climbed upon the huge steeds' backs. They were well on their way toward the high ridge when the dim sounds of an alarm being sounded went up behind them.
The din created by that negated the need for quiet, and at the sounds of the men's shouts, both girls simultaneously dug their heels into their steeds' flanks and sent them bounding forward, flying through the woods.
They were both expert horsewomen, and they both adapted easily to riding astride. The lack of a saddle was something of a hindrance, however, because without one it was necessary to grip tightly with the knees, which the destriers took as a signal for speed, which necessitated hanging onto the horse's halter for dear life. Ahead of them was the high ridge, and then eventually, on the other side, a road, the abbey, and, finally, Merrick keep. They stopped briefly so that Jennifer could try to get her bearings, but the forest obscured what little sunlight there was, and Jenny gave up, forced to go on instincts. "Brenna," she said, grinning as she patted the satiny, thick neck of the enormous black warhorse she rode. "Think back on the legends about the Wolf—about his horse. Is it not said his name is Thor and that he's the fastest destrier in the land? As well as the most agile?"
"Aye," Brenna answered, shivering a little in the cool dawn as the horses began picking their way through the dense forest.
"And," Jenny continued, "is it not said he's as black as sin with only a white star on his forehead for a marking?"
"And does this horse have such a star?"
Brenna looked round and then nodded.
"Brenna," Jenny said, laughing softly, "I've stolen the black Wolf's mighty Thor!"
The animal's ears flickered at the sound of his name, and Brenna forgot her worries and burst out laughing.
"That's undoubtedly why he was tied and kept separate from the others," Jenny added gaily, her gaze roaming appreciatively over the magnificent animal. "That also explains why, when we first rode away from camp, he was ever so much faster than the horse you're riding, and I kept having to hold him back." Leaning forward, she patted his neck again. "What a beauty you are," she whispered, harboring no ill will for the horse—only for his former owner.
"Royce—" Godfrey stood in Royce's tent, his deep voice gruff with chagrin, an embarrassed flush creeping up his thick, tanned neck. "The women have… er… escaped, about three-quarters of an hour ago—Arik, Eustace, and Lionel are searching the woods."
Royce paused in the act of reaching for a shirt, his face almost comical in its expression of disbelief as he stared at the most wily and fiercest of his knights. "They've what?" he said, an incredulous smile mixed with dawning annoyance sweeping across his face. "Do you mean to tell me," he jibed, angrily snatching the shirt from the pile of clothing the girls had mended last night, "that you let two naive girls outwit—" He rammed his arm into the sleeve, then stared in furious disbelief at a wrist opening that refused to part so his fist could pass through it. Swearing savagely under his breath, he snatched up another, checked the wrist to ascertain it was all right, and shoved his arm into it. The entire sleeve parted from the body of the shirt and fell away as if by magic. "I swear to God, "he bit out between his teeth, "when I get my hands on that blue-eyed witch, I'll—" Flinging that shirt aside, he stalked over to a chest and pulled out a fresh one, jerked it on, too infuriated to finish his sentence. Reaching automatically for his short sword, he buckled it on and stalked past Godfrey. "Show me where you last saw them," he snapped.
"It was here, in the woods," Godfrey said. "Royce—" he added, as he showed him to the place where two veils were hanging crazily from branches without heads underneath them. "It… er… won't be necessary for the other men to hear of this, will it?"
A brief smile flickered in Royce's eyes as he shot a wry look at the big man, understanding at once that Godfrey's pride had suffered a grievous blow and that he hoped it could remain a private one. "There's no need to sound an alarm," Royce said, his long legs carrying him along the bank of the stream, his gaze delving into the trees and searching the brush. "It'll be easy enough to find them."
An hour later, he wasn't so sure of that, and his amusement had been replaced by anger. He needed those women as hostages. They were the key that would open the gates to Merrick keep, perhaps without bloodshed and the loss of valuable men.
Together the five men combed the woods, working eastward in the belief that one of the girls had lost her handkerchief in flight, but when no trail could be found leading away from the spot, Royce reached the conclusion that one of the girls—the blue-eyed wench, no doubt—might actually have had the presence of mind to place the white scrap of cloth there in a deliberate attempt to mislead them. It was incongruous—incredible. But, apparently, true.
With Godfrey on one side and a scornful Arik on the other, Royce stalked past the two gray veils and snatched them furiously off their branches. "Sound an alarm and form a party to search every inch of these woods," he snapped as he passed the girls' tent. "No doubt they're hiding in the thicket. These woods are so dense, we may have walked right past them."
Twoscore men formed a line the length of their combined, outstretched hands and began to comb the woods, starting at the edge of the stream and moving slowly forward, looking beneath every bush and fallen log. The minutes became one hour, and then two, until, finally, it was afternoon.
Standing at the bank of the stream where the girls had last been seen, Royce squinted at the densely wooded hills to the north, his expression becoming more harsh with each passing moment that his captives remained missing. The wind had picked up and the sky was leaden.