Stefan walked up to him, having just returned from the hunting expedition he'd taken out last night. "I hear the women escaped this morning," he said, worriedly following Royce's gaze to the highest hill to the north. "Do you think they actually made it to yon ridge?"
"They haven't had time to get there on foot," Royce answered, his voice harsh with anger. "But in case they took the longer route around it, I sent men out to check the road. They questioned every traveler they encountered, but no one has seen two young women. A cottager saw two boys riding into the hills on horseback and that was all.
"Wherever they are, they're bound to lose their way if they head into those hills—there isn't enough sun to use as a compass. Secondly, they don't know where they are so they can't know which direction to go."
Stefan was silent, his eyes searching the distant hills, then he looked sharply at Royce. "When I rode into camp just now, I wondered if you'd decided to go hunting on your own last night."
"Why?" Royce said shortly.
Stefan hesitated, knowing that Royce prized the mighty black warhorse for his enormous courage and loyalty more than he valued many people. In fact, Thor's feats in the lists and on the battlefield were nearly as legendary as his owner's. One famous lady at court had once complained to her friends that if Royce Westmoreland showed her half the affection he showed his damned horse, she'd count herself lucky. And Royce had replied, with typical acid sarcasm, that if the lady had half the loyalty and heart of his horse, he'd have married her.
There wasn't a man in Henry's army who would have dared to take Royce's horse out of the pen for a gallop. Which meant someone else had.
Royce turned at the hesitancy he heard in his brother's voice, but his gaze was suddenly drawn to the ground beside Stefan where leaves and twigs formed an unnaturally high mound at the base of a bush. Some sixth sense made him poke at the mound with the toe of his boot—and then he saw it—the unmistakable somber gray of a nun's habit. Bending, he reached out and snatched at the cloth, just as Stefan added, "Thor isn't in the pen with our other horses. The girls must have taken him without the guard noticing."
Royce straightened slowly, his jaw clenched as he looked at the discarded garments, his voice edged with fury. "We've been looking for two nuns on foot. We should have been looking for two short men, mounted on my horse." Swearing under his breath, Royce turned on his heel and stalked toward the pen where the horses were kept. As he passed the girls' tent, he hurtled the gray habits at the open tent flap in a sharp gesture of fury and disgust, then he broke into a run with Stefan following at his heels.
The guard standing sentry at the huge horse pen saluted his liege lord, then stepped back in alarm as the Wolf reached out and caught him by the front of his jerkin, lifting him off the ground. "Who was on guard at dawn this morning?"
"Did you desert your post?"
"Nay! Milord, no!" he cried, knowing the penalty for that in the king's army was death.
Royce flung him aside in disgust. Within minutes, a party of twelve men, with Royce and Stefan in the lead, galloped down the road, heading north. When they came to the steep hills that lay between the camp and the north road, Royce reined in sharply, calling out instructions. Assuming the women hadn't met with some accident or lost their direction, Royce knew they would already have made their way down the far side and climbed the next ridge. Even so, he dispatched four men with instructions to comb these hills from one side to the other.
With Stefan and Arik and the remaining five men at his side, Royce dug his spurs into his mount and sent the gelding flying down the road at a run. Two hours later, they rounded the hill and came to the north road. One fork led northeast, the other angled northwest. Frowning in indecision, Royce signaled his men to stop as he considered which route the women might have taken. Had they not had the presence of mind to leave that damned handkerchief in the woods in order to mislead their captors into searching in the wrong direction, he'd have taken all his men up the northwest fork. As it was, he couldn't dismiss the possibility that they'd deliberately taken a road that would lead them a half day's journey out of their way. It would cost them time but gain them safety, Royce knew. Still, he doubted if they knew which direction led back to their home. He glanced at the sky; there were only about two more hours of daylight left. The northwest road appeared to climb into the hills in the distance. The shortest route was also the most difficult to traverse at night. Two women, frightened and vulnerable even though dressed as men, would surely take the safest, easiest road even though it was longer. His decision made, he sent Arik and the remaining men to search a twenty-mile stretch of that route.
On the other hand, Royce thought angrily as he swung his own mount toward the northwest route and signaled Stefan to follow him, that arrogant, conniving blue-eyed witch would brave the hills alone and at night. She'd dare anything, that one, he thought with increasing fury as he recalled how politely he'd thanked her for mending their clothes last night—and how sweetly genteel she'd been as she accepted his thanks. She knew no fear. Not yet. But when he got his hands on her, she would learn the meaning of it. She'd learn to fear him.
Humming gaily to herself, Jenny added more twigs to the cozy campfire she'd built using the flint she'd been given yesterday to light their sewing candles. Somewhere in the dense forest nearby, an animal howled eerily at the rising moon, and Jenny hummed more determinedly, hiding her instinctive shudder of apprehension behind a bright, encouraging smile designed to reassure poor Brenna. The threat of rain had passed, leaving a black, starlit sky lit by a round golden moon, and for that Jenny was profoundly grateful. Rain was the last thing she wanted now.
The animal howled again, and Brenna tugged her horse's blanket tighter around her shoulders. "Jenny," she whispered, her eyes fastened trustingly upon her older sister. "Was that sound what I think it was?" As if the word was too unspeakable to voice, she formed the word "wolf" with her pale lips.
Jenny was reasonably certain it was several wolves, not one wolf. "Do you mean that owl we just heard?" she prevaricated, smiling.
"It wasn't an owl," Brenna said, and Jenny winced with alarm as a spasm of ugly, shrill coughing seized her sister, leaving her gasping for breath. The lung ailment that had plagued Brenna almost constantly as a child was recurring tonight, aggravated by the damp cold and by her fear.