"Even if it wasn't an owl," Jenny said gently, "no predator will come near this fire—I know that for fact. Garrick Carmichael told me so one night when the three of us were on our way back from Aberdeen and the snow forced us to make camp. He built a fire and told Becky and me just that."
At the moment, the danger of building this fire concerned Jenny almost as much as the danger of wolves. A small fire, even in the forest, could be seen for a long distance and, although they were several hundred yards away from the road, she couldn't shake the feeling that their pursuers might still find them.
Trying to divert herself from her own worries, she drew her knees up to her chest, propped her chin on them and nodded toward Thor. "Have you ever in your life seen a more magnificent animal than that? At first, I thought he was going to toss me off this morning when I mounted him, but then he seemed to sense our urgency and he settled down. And all day today—it's the oddest thing—he seemed to know what I wanted him to do, without my ever having to urge him or guide him. Imagine papa's delight when we return, having not only escaped from the Wolf's very clutches, but with his horse, to boot!"
"You can't be certain it's his horse," Brenna said, looking like she was seized by second thoughts about the wisdom of having stolen a steed of great value and greater fame.
"Of course it is!" Jenny declared proudly. "He is exactly as the minstrels tell of him in their songs. Besides, he looks at me whenever I say his name." To illustrate, she called his name softly, and the horse raised his magnificent head, regarding her through eyes so intelligent they seemed human. "It is he!" Jenny said jubilantly, but Brenna seemed to cringe at the thought.
"Jenny," she whispered, her huge hazel eyes sad as they studied her sister's brave, determined smile. "Why do you suppose you have so much courage and I have so very little?"
"Because," Jenny said with a chuckle, "our Lord is a just God and, since you received all the beauty, He wanted to give me something for balance."
"Oh, but—" Brenna stopped abruptly as the great black horse suddenly lifted his head and whickered loudly into the night.
Leaping to her feet, Jenny rushed over to Thor, clamping her hand against his nose to keep him quiet. "Quickly—put the fire out, Brenna! Use the blanket." Her heart pounding in her ears, Jenny tipped her head, listening for the sounds of riders, feeling their presence even though she couldn't hear them. "Listen to me," she whispered frantically. "As soon as I mount Thor, cut your horse loose and send him crashing down into the woods in that direction, then run over here and hide beneath that fallen tree. Don't leave there or make a sound until I return."
As she spoke, Jenny was vaulting onto a log and hoisting herself up onto Thor's back. "I'm going to ride Thor out onto the road and race him up that rise. If that devil earl is out there, he'll chase me. And Brenna," she added breathlessly, already turning Thor toward the road, "if he catches me and I don't return, take the road to the abbey and follow our plan—send papa to rescue me."
"But—" Brenna whispered, shaking in terror.
"Do it! Please!" Jenny implored and sent her horse charging through the woods toward the road, deliberately making as much noise as possible to draw any pursuers away from Brenna.
"There!" Royce shouted at Stefan, pointing to the dark speck racing toward the ridge high above, then they spurred their horses, sending them flying down the road in pursuit of the horse and rider. When they came to the spot in the road near where the girls had camped, the unmistakable smell of a newly doused fire made Royce and Stefan rein in abruptly. "Search the camp," Royce shouted, already spurring his horse to a gallop. "You'll probably find the younger girl there."
"Damn, but she can ride!" Royce breathed in near-admiration, his gaze fastened on the small figure bent low over Thor's neck as she tried unsuccessfully to stay three hundred yards ahead of him. He knew instinctively it was Jenny he was chasing, and not her timid sister—just as surely as he knew the horse was Thor. Thor was running with all his heart, but not even the gallant black stallion's speed could make up for the time he lost whenever Jennifer refused to let him jump a particularly high obstacle and made him go around it instead. Without a saddle, she was obviously in jeopardy of being unseated if she let him jump too high.
Royce had narrowed the distance to fifty yards and was closing fast when he saw Thor suddenly veer away from the path he was on and refuse to jump a fallen tree—a sure sign that he sensed danger and was trying to protect himself and his rider. A shout of alarm and terror tore from Royce's chest as he peered into the night and realized there was nothing but a steep drop and thin air beyond the fallen tree. "Jennifer, don't!" he shouted, but she didn't heed the warning.
Frightened to the point of hysteria, she brought the horse around again, backed him up and dug her heels into his glossy flanks, "Go!" she screamed, and after a moment's hesitation, the huge horse gathered his hindquarters beneath him and gave a mighty leap. A human scream split the night almost instantly as Jenny lost her balance and slid off the leaping horse, hanging for a suspended instant by his thick mane, before she fell with a crash into the limbs of the fallen tree. And then there was another sound—the sickening thud of a huge animal plunging down a steep incline and rolling to its death.
Jenny was climbing unsteadily from the tangle of tree limbs as Royce vaulted down from his horse and ran to the edge of the cliff. She shoved her hair out of her eyes and realized there was nothing but blackness a few feet beyond her, then she dragged her eyes to her captor, but he was staring down the steep slope, his clenched jaw as hard as granite. So unnerved and disoriented was she that she made no protest when he grabbed her arm in a painful grip and yanked her with him as he deliberately slid down the steep hill.
For a moment, Jenny couldn't imagine what he was about—and then her mind cleared a little. Thor! He was looking for his horse, she realized, her gaze flying wildly over the rugged terrain, praying somehow that the magnificent animal might not be harmed. She spotted him at the same time Royce did—the still, black form lying only a few yards away at the base of the boulder that had broken his fall, and his neck.
Royce flung her arm aside, and Jenny stayed where she stood, paralyzed with remorse and anguish as she gazed at the beautiful animal she'd inadvertently killed. As if in a dream, she watched England's fiercest warrior kneel on one knee beside his dead horse, slowly stroking the animal's glossy black coat, and speaking words she could not quite hear in a voice that was raw.