The scraggly groups at the well departed soon afterward, heading down the road that led across the moors and wound upward into the hills.
Two of the men, however, did not continue beyond the bend in the road. Once out of sight of the villagers, they veered off to the right, sending their horses at a furtive gallop into the forest.
Had Jenny been watching, she might have caught a brief glimpse of them doubling back through the woods that ran beside the road right behind her. But at the time, she was occupied with the terrified pandemonium that had broken out among the citizens of Belkirk, which happened to lie directly in the path between England and Merrick keep.
"The Wolf is coming!" one of the women cried, clutching her babe protectively to her breast. "God have pity on us."
" 'Tis Merrick he'll strike at," a man shouted, his voice rising in fear. " 'Tis the laird of Merrick he'll want in his jaws, but 'tis Belkirk he'll devour on the way."
Suddenly the air was filled with gruesome predictions of fire and death and slaughter, and the children crowded around Jenny, clinging to her in mute horror. To the Scots, be they wealthy noble or lowly villager, the Black Wolf was more evil than the devil himself, and more dangerous, for the devil was a spirit, while the Wolf was flesh and blood—the living Lord of Evil—a monstrous being who threatened their existence, right here on earth. He was the malevolent specter that the Scots used to terrify their offspring into behaving. "The Wolf will get you," was the warning issued to keep children from straying into the woods or leaving their beds at night, or from disobeying their elders.
Impatient with such hysteria over what was, to her, more myth than man, Jenny raised her voice in order to be heard over the din. " 'Tis more likely," she called, putting her arms around the terrified children who'd crowded against her at the first mention of the Wolf's name, "that he'll go back to his heathen king so that he can lick the wounds we gave him at Cornwall while he tells great lies to exaggerate his victory. And if he does not do that, he'll choose a weaker keep than Merrick for his attack—one he's a chance of breeching."
Her words and her tone of amused disdain brought startled gazes flying to her face, but it wasn't merely false bravado that had made Jenny speak so: She was a Merrick, and a Merrick never admitted to fear of any man. She had heard that hundreds of times when her father spoke to her stepbrothers, and she had adopted his creed for her own. Furthermore, the villagers were frightening the children, which she refused to let continue.
Mary tugged at Jenny's skirts to get her attention, and in a shrill little voice, she asked, "Isn't you afeert of the Black Wolf, Lady Jenny?"
"Of course not!" Jenny said with a bright, reassuring smile.
"They say," young Tom interjected in an awed voice, "the Wolf is as tall as a tree!"
"A tree!" Jenny chuckled, trying to make a huge joke of the Wolf and all the lore surrounding him. "If he is, 'twould be a sight worth seeing when he tries to mount his horse! Why, 'twould take four squires to hoist him up there!"
The absurdity of that image made some of the children giggle, exactly as Jenny had hoped.
"I heert," said young Will with an eloquent shudder, "he tears down walls with his bare hands and drinks blood!"
"Yuk!" said Jenny with twinkling eyes. "Then 'tis only indigestion which makes him so mean. If he comes to Belkirk, we'll offer him some good Scottish ale instead."
"My pa said," put in another child, "he rides with a giant beside him, a Goliath called Arik who carries a war axe and chops up children…"
"I heert—" another child interrupted ominously.
Jenny cut in lightly, "Let me tell you what I have heard." With a bright smile, she began to shepherd them toward the abbey, which was out of sight just beyond a bend down the road. "I heard," she improvised gaily, "that he's so very old that he has to squint to see, just like this—"
She screwed up her face in a comical exaggeration of a befuddled, near-blind person peering around blankly, and the children giggled.
As they walked along, Jenny kept up the same light-hearted teasing comments, and the children fell in with the game, adding their own suggestions to make the Wolf seem absurd.
But despite the laughter and seeming gaiety of the moment, the sky had suddenly darkened as a bank of heavy clouds rolled in, and the air was turning bitingly cold, whipping Jenny's cloak about her, as if nature herself brooded at the mention of such evil.
Jenny was about to make another joke at the Wolf's expense, but she broke off abruptly as a group of mounted clansmen rounded the bend from the abbey, coming toward her down the road. A beautiful girl, clad as Jenny was in the somber gray gown, white wimple, and short gray veil of a novice nun, was mounted in front of the leader, sitting demurely sideways in his saddle, her timid smile confirming what Jenny already knew.
With a silent cry of joy, Jenny started to dash forward, then checked the unladylike impulse and made herself stay where she was. Her eyes clung to her father, then drifted briefly over her clansmen, who were staring past her with the same grim disapproval they'd shown her for years—ever since her stepbrother had successfully circulated his horrible tale.
Sending the children ahead with strict orders to go directly to the abbey, Jenny waited in the middle of the road for what seemed like an eternity until, at last, the group halted in front of her.
Her father, who'd obviously stopped at the abbey where Brenna, Jenny's stepsister, was also staying, swung down from his horse, then he turned to lift Brenna down. Jenny chafed at the delay, but his scrupulous attention to courtesy and dignity was so typical of the great man that a wry smile touched her lips.
Finally, he turned fully toward her, opening his arms wide. Jenny hurtled into his embrace, hugging him fiercely, babbling in her excitement: "Father, I've missed you so! 'Tis nearly two years since I've seen you! Are you well? You look well. You've scarce changed in all this time!"
Gently disentangling her arms from about his neck, Lord Merrick set his daughter slightly away from him while his gaze drifted over her tousled hair, rosy cheeks, and badly rumpled gown. Jenny squirmed inwardly beneath his prolonged scrutiny, praying that he approved of what he saw and that, since he'd obviously stopped at the abbey already, the abbess's report had been pleasing to him.
Two years ago, her behavior had gotten her sent to the abbey; a year ago, Brenna had been sent down here for safety's sake while the laird was at war. Under the abbess's firm guidance, Jenny had come to appreciate her strengths, and to try to overcome her faults. But as her father inspected her from head to toe, she couldn't help wondering if he saw the young lady she was now or the unruly girl she'd been two years ago. His blue eyes finally returned to her face and there was a smile in them. "Ye've become a woman, Jennifer."