"I—I displeased him," she admitted.
"I can understand why," he said bluntly, thinking her to be the most unbiddable female he’d ever had the misfortune to encounter. She also, he noticed with a start, had the softest, most inviting mouth he’d ever seen and, very possibly, the bluest eyes.
"He hasn’t spoken to you, or paid the slightest heed to you in years, and yet you still risk your very life to protect him from me?"
There were several, truthful and safer, answers Jenny could have given, but anger and pain were numbing her brain. "Because," she said flatly, "I despise you, and I despise everything you represent."
Royce stared at her, caught somewhere between fury, amazement, and admiration for her defiant courage. Short of murdering her, which would not give him the answers he sought, he was at a loss as to how to deal with her, and although strangling her held a certain appeal at the moment, it was out of the question. In any case, with Merrick’s daughters his captives, it was possible Merrick might surrender without putting up a struggle. "Get out," he said shortly.
Needing no further urging to leave his hated presence, Jenny turned to flee from the tent, but the flap was down and she stopped.
"I said, get out!" Royce warned ominously, and she swung around.
"There’s nothing I’d like better, however, I can’t very well walk through canvas."
Wordlessly, he reached out and lifted the flap, then to her surprise he bent low in an insulting mockery of a bow. "Your servant ma’am. If there’s anything at all I can do to help make your stay with us more pleasant, I hope you won’t hesitate to call it to my attention."
"Untie my wrists then," Jenny demanded to his utter disbelief.
"No," Royce snapped. The flap dropped down, smacking her in the backside, and Jenny bolted forward in angry surprise, then let out a stifled scream when an unseen hand shot out and caught her arm, but it was merely one of the dozen guards who were posted just outside the Wolf’s tent.
By the time Jenny returned to their tent, Brenna was ashen with fright at being left alone. "I’m perfectly all right, I promise," Jenny reassured her as she awkwardly lowered herself to the ground.
Fires burned at periodic intervals in the valley where the Wolfs men were still encamped that night. Standing in the open doorway of the tent, her wrists bound behind her, Jenny thoughtfully studied the activity going on all about them. "If we’re going to escape, Brenna—" she began.
"Escape?" her sister repeated, gaping. "How in the name of the Blessed Mother can we possibly do that, Jenny?"
"I’m not certain, but however we do it, we shall have to do it very soon. I heard some of the men talking outside, and they think we’ll be used to force Father to surrender."
"Will he do that?"
Jenny bit her lip. "I don’t know. There was a time—before Alexander came to Merrick—when my kinsmen would have laid down their weapons rather than see me harmed. Now I don’t matter to them."
Brenna heard the catch in her sister’s voice, and though she longed to comfort Jenny, she knew Alexander had so alienated clan Merrick from their young mistress that they didn’t care about her any more.
"They do love you, however, so it’s hard to know what they’ll decide or how much influence Father will have on them. However, if we can escape soon, we could reach Merrick before any decision is made, which is what we must do."
Of all the obstacles in their way, the one that worried Jenny most was the actual trip back to Merrick, which she estimated to be a two-day journey on horseback from here. Every hour they would be required to spend on the road was risky; bandits roamed everywhere, and two women alone were considered fair game even by honest men. The roads simply were not safe. Neither were the inns. The only safe lodgings were to be found at abbeys and priories, which was where all honest, respectable travelers chose to stay.
"The problem is, we don’t stand a chance of escaping with our hands bound," Jenny continued aloud, as she gazed out at the busy camp. "Which means we either have to convince them to untie our wrists, or else manage to escape into the woods during mealtime when we’re not bound. But if we do that, our absence will be discovered as soon as they come to collect our trays before we’re very far away. Still, if that’s the only chance that presents itself during the next day or two, we shall very likely have to take it," she announced cheerfully.
"Once we slip into the woods, what will we do?" Brenna asked, bravely quelling her inner terror at the thought of being alone in the woods at night.
"I’m not certain—hide somewhere, I suppose, until they give up looking for us. Or else we might be able to fool them into thinking we went east instead of north. If we could steal two of their horses, that would increase our chances of outrunning them, even if it made it more difficult to hide. The trick is to find some way to do both. We need to be able to hide and outrun them."
"How can we do that?" Brenna asked, her forehead knotted deeply in futile thought.
"I don’t know, but we have to try something." Lost in contemplation, she stared unseeing past the tall, bearded man who had stopped talking to one of his knights and was studying her intently.
The fires had dwindled and their guard had collected their trays and retied their wrists, but still neither girl had come up with an acceptable scheme, even though they’d discussed several outlandish ones. "We can’t just remain here like willing pawns to be used to his advantage," Jenny burst out when they were lying side by side that night. "We must escape."
"Jenny, has it occurred to you what he might do to us when—if," she amended quickly, "he catches us?"
"I don’t think he’d kill us," Jenny reassured her after a moment’s contemplation. "We wouldn’t be any use to him as hostages if we were dead. Father would insist on seeing us before agreeing to surrender, and the earl will have to produce us—alive and breathing —or else Father will tear him to shreds," Jenny said, deciding it was better, less frightening, to think of him as the earl of Claymore, rather than the Wolf.
"You’re right," Brenna agreed and promptly fell asleep.
But it was several hours before Jenny could relax enough to do the same, for despite her outward show of bravery and confidence, she was more frightened than she’d ever been in her life. She was frightened for Brenna, for herself, and for her clan, and she hadn’t the vaguest notion how to escape. She only knew they had to try.