“I’ll probably walk in circles for the rest of the day,” Johanna muttered.
Gabriel was going to be furious with her, too. She couldn’t fault him, she supposed. It wasn’t safe to go strolling through the forest, especially with wild animals roaming about.
She notched an arrow to her bow just as a precaution and started walking. A good fifteen minutes later, she thought she was back where she’d started. Then she changed her mind. The boulder in front of her was much larger than the one she’d sat on. She believed she was going in the right direction after all and started walking again.
She found the cave quite by accident. She had stopped in front of another large boulder blocking her path and was trying to decide if she would go to the left or the right. The opening was on her left and was as tall as she was. It was flanked on both sides by tall, narrow trees.
Johanna was so excited about her find, she forgot caution. She literally ran inside. The corridor was lit by sunlight filtering through the cracks in the ceiling. When she reached the end of the pathway, the cave opened into a room the size of the great hall at the keep. On her left were narrow shelves of rock protruding from the wall that resembled broken steps. On her right were the barrels. There were at least twenty of the round casks, perhaps more. The chieftains who’d stored them inside had placed them on their sides. The bottom ones rested on rock. The barrels formed a pyramid that reached the top of the cavern.
Time hadn’t rotted the oak. It was actually quite dry inside the cavern.
Johanna was thrilled with the find. She wanted to run all the way back to the keep and demand that Gabriel come and see the treasure.
She’d have to wait until her husband returned from his day of hunting, she remembered. She let out a sigh then. “Call a dog a dog, Gabriel,” she muttered to herself. He wasn’t hunting. He was stealing. Aye, it was a day of thievery, she thought to herself, but certainly his last, for come hell or heaven she was going to make him learn the fine art of bartering.
Aye, she was going to save his sorry soul whether he wanted her to or not.
Johanna went back outside to wait for the soldiers to fetch her. She walked over to the boulder and climbed up on top. She leaned against the trunk of a giant tree, folded her arms across her middle, and waited.
The soldiers were certainly taking their time. A good hour passed before her impatience got the better of her. She guessed she was going to have to find her owr way back home.
Johanna pulled away from the tree, adjusted her bow on her shoulder, and was just about to jump down from the boulder when she heard a snarling sound coming from the bushes directly in front of her. She froze. The noise intensified. The horrid sound reminded her of Dumfries, but she knew it wasn’t Gabriel’s pet. He was at the keep. It had to be a wolf making all the commotion.
Then she saw the eyes staring up at her. They were yellow. Johanna didn’t scream. Dear God, she wanted to. She wanted to run, too, but she didn’t dare.
Another rustling sound came from across the tiny clearing ... another pair of murky yellow eyes staring at her. The snarling echoed around her now. She heard a movement behind her and knew then she was surrounded.
She didn’t have any idea how many wolves were there, waiting to prey upon her. She didn’t panic. There simply wasn’t time for that frivolity.
She found out something amazing about herself. too. She could fly. God’s truth, she was certain she flew up the branches of the tree. She certainly didn’t remember climbing. She’d almost made it to safety, too, when one clever wolf caught hold of the hem of her plaid. He was in a frenzy to pull her back. His jaws were locked on the material, his head shaking back and forth with his determination. Johanna was draped over a branch, holding her hand over the top of her carrier so her arrows wouldn’t spill to the ground and clutching the tree with her other hand. It was a precarious position. Her feet were only inches above the wolf’s teeth.
She didn’t dare look down. She wrapped her legs around the branch and tried to undo her belt so she wouldn’t be trapped by the plaid. It took her long minutes and when she was finished, she let the material drop down to the wolves.
She was finally free. She kept climbing, whimpering now, and when she was finally high enough up to convince herself she was safe, she settled herself in the crook of a heavy branch and the tree’s trunk.
She finally gathered enough courage to look down. Her heart felt as though it had just dropped to the pit of her stomach. Dear God, there were at least six of the beasts. They circled the tree, growling and snapping up at her and at each other, and there was one, perhaps their leader, who made Dumfries look like a pup. She shook her head, denying what she was seeing. Wolves didn’t get that large. Did they?
They couldn’t climb trees either . . . or could they? The giant wolf started butting his head against the tree trunk She thought that was an extremely ignorant thing to do. Two of the other wolves were shredding her plaid. They seemed to be in a frenzy, too.
They didn’t look like they had any intention of leaving her alone. Johanna worried over her circumstances a long while. When she finally accepted the fact that she was indeed safe, she started worrying about Michael and Lindsay. She didn’t want them to ride into a pack of wolves and she didn’t know if the monsters would leave when they heard the horses coming. Aye, they were monsters all right, and they didn’t look like they would run from anything or anyone.
Johanna’s attention was turned when she caught a movement to her left. One wolf had climbed to the top of the rocked entrance of the cave. The animal looked as though he was getting ready to spring at her. Johanna didn’t know if the wolf would make the distance or not. She wasn’t going to wait to find out, however. She slipped her bow from her shoulder, pulled out an arrow, then shifted her position ever so slightly and took aim.
She caught the wolf in midflight. The arrow went through one eye. The animal crashed down to the ground and landed just a foot away from the others. They immediately turned on the dead animal.
In the next twenty minutes or so, Johanna killed three more. She’d heard that wolves were clever animals. These weren’t. They were safe from her arrows as long as they stayed below her, for the branches obstructed her aim, but one after another climbed up on the rock and tried to leap into the tree to get her. They were slow to catch on, she decided, when the fourth wolf followed the same path the first three had taken.
Her fingers ached from holding her arrow against the string of her bow. She wanted to get the giant wolf in her sights. In her mind, he was surely the one who had injured Dumfries. She didn’t know why she’d come to that conclusion. Perhaps it was the dried black blood on the animal’s fangs when he bared his teeth at her. He seemed to be more demon than animal. His eyes never left her. He was such an evil-looking beast. Johanna shivered with disgust and fear.
“You’re the one they call Pet, aren’t you?”
She didn’t expect an answer, of course. She began to wonder if her worrisome situation had made her mind snap. She was, after all, talking to demons now. She sighed over her own behavior.
Why wouldn’t the wolf leave? And where in heaven’s name were Michael and Lindsay? They surely hadn’t forgotten her, had they?
Johanna didn’t believe her day could get much worse.
She was wrong. She hadn’t counted on the rain. She’d been too busy to notice the sunlight had disappeared, and God only knew she didn’t have time to look up at the sky and see rain clouds. She was so intent on protecting herself from the wolves, she didn’t have time to think about anything else. It didn’t matter, she supposed. Knowing ahead of time wouldn’t have changed anything. She still got drenched.
Lightning crackled through the trees. A torrential downpour followed. The branches became slick, as though they’d been greased with lard instead of water. Johanna couldn’t get her arm all the way around the trunk. She was afraid to adjust her position, fearing she’d slide down.
The monster still waited at the base of the tree. Johanna’s hands were shaking from holding her bow and arrow. Her fingers cramped.
She heard her name being shouted. She whispered a prayer of thank you to her Maker before shouting back. Odd, but she thought she heard her husband’s voice. That couldn’t be possible, of course. He was hunting.
The pounding of horses coming her way finally encouraged the wolf to leave. Johanna was ready. As soon as the streak of lightning moved away from the tree, she dispatched her arrow. She missed her mark. She’d aimed for his middle, but the arrow caught him in the backside. The wolf let out a howl of distress and circled back toward her. Johanna hurried to put the beast out of his misery. She grabbed another arrow from her carrier, sighted it to her bow, and took aim again.
She had little liking for the kill. Even though he looked very like something the devil had let out of hell, the wolf was still one of God’s creatures. He served a purpose more holy than her own, or so she’d been told, and though she didn’t have a clue as to what the purpose was, she still felt guilty.
The MacBain soldiers came riding around the curve in the path just as Johanna’s arrow sliced down through the air and killed the wolf. The animal was lifted back and up by the force of the arrow, then collapsed in a heap on the ground in front of the warriors’ horses.
Johanna leaned back against the trunk and let go of her bow. She clenched and unclenched her hands in an effort to get the cramps out of her fingers. She suddenly felt nauseated. She took a deep breath and peeked around the branch to look at the soldiers below.
As soon as she regained a bit of strength, she was going to give the men hell for making her wait so long. Then, after they offered her their apologies, she was going to make them give her their pledge not to mention this shameful incident to their laird. By God, she’d nag that promise out of every one of them.
“Are you all right, m’lady?”
She couldn’t see the soldiers’ faces. She recognized Calum’s voice though.
“Yes, Calum,” she called back. “I’m quite all right.”
“She doesn’t sound all right,” said Keith. In a near shout, he added, “You killed our pet.”
The Maclaurin soldier sounded stunned. Johanna felt an explanation was necessary. She didn’t want any of the soldiers to think she had derived any sort of malicious satisfaction or pleasure from killing the beasts.
“It isn’t how it looks,” she shouted down.
“You didn’t kill them?”
“They look like her arrows,” Keith remarked.
“They wouldn’t leave me alone, sir. I had to kill them. Please don’t tell anyone, especially our laird. He’s too busy to be bothered by such an insignificant incident.”
“But m’lady ...”
“Calum, don’t argue with me. I’m not in the mood to be polite. I’ve had a trying morning. Just give me your word you’ll keep my secret.”
Johanna’s skirt was caught on the branch. While she worked at tugging it free, she waited for the soldiers to give her their pledges. She wasn’t going to get down from her perch until they did.
Gabriel would be furious. Just thinking about his reaction gave her goosebumps.
The men still hadn’t given her their promise. “It’s little enough to ask,” she muttered to herself.
Calum started laughing. It didn’t take her any time at all to understand why.
Gabriel already knew.
“Come down here. Now.”
The fury in her husband’s voice almost shook her out of the tree. Johanna grimaced. She leaned back against the crook in the tree, hoping to hide from her husband . . . and his wrath. She quickly realized what she was doing, muttered an unladylike expletive under her breath, and then leaned forward. She pushed a limb out of her way and looked down. She wished she hadn’t. She spotted Gabriel right away. He was looking up at her. His hands rested on the pommel of his saddle and he appeared to be only mildly irritated.
She knew better. Her husband hadn’t been able to keep the anger out of his voice when he’d rudely bellowed his command.
His mount was between Keith’s and Calum’s. Johanna let go of the branch and leaned back against the trunk of the tree. She could feel her face heat up with embarrassment. Gabriel had obviously been there all the while she was demanding his soldiers keep her secret from him.
Some sort of explanation was probably due now, she supposed, and given enough time, she could surely come up with something plausible. Johanna decided she wasn’t going to move until she did.
It was taking all of Gabriel’s concentration to keep his anger under control. He turned his gaze to the ground and once again counted the number of dead wolves, just to make certain his eyes hadn’t deceived him. Then he looked back up at her.
She hadn’t moved to do his bidding. God’s truth, she couldn’t. The threat of the wolves wasn’t over yet. There was still one down below, waiting to pounce on her.
“Johanna, get down here.”
She didn’t appreciate his surly tone of voice. She would have told him so, too, but she didn’t believe her opinion would matter much to him. She guessed she’d better try to accommodate him.
Unfortunately, her legs refused to accommodate her. She’d been gripping the branch with her thighs for so long, they seemed to turn to jelly when she tried to scoot down the trunk.
In the end, Gabriel had to come up and fetch her. He had to peel her hands away from the branch. She couldn’t seem to let go.
He placed her arms around his neck, then pulled her up against him. His one arm was spanning her waist, his other was draped over the branch to keep the two of them from slipping.
He didn’t move for a long minute. Johanna hadn’t realized how cold she was until the heat from his body began to warm her. She was shaking now.
So was he, she noticed. Was he so furious with her, he was shaking with rage?
The fear he heard in her voice was his undoing. “You will cease being afraid of me, damn it,” he told her in a low, furious whisper. “God’s truth, I would like to throttle some sense into you, woman, but I won’t ever harm you.”
His rebuke stung. She hadn’t done anything to cause his displeasure . . . except perhaps ignoring his ridiculous order to rest. Aye, she thought to herself, she did disregard his suggestion.
“I have already ceased being afraid of you, damn it,” she muttered against the side of his neck. She let out a sigh then. Gabriel was partial to honesty, and she supposed she’d only prick his anger further if she didn’t give him the full truth now.