events of the long night and longer morning. All their provisions had been lost when Falin bolted.
Elspeth would trade her best brooch for a single swallow of water right now.
“Ye’ll sleep soon enough once we get where we’re going.” He scooped her up and balanced her over one shoulder, letting her head and arms dangle down his back.
“No, wait, put me down!” She pushed herself up with her hands splayed on his back.
“Are ye willing to walk then?” He made no move to put her down.
“I canna. No’ a single step.”
Rob snorted and started on down the trail. “Then beggars canna be choosers, can they?” He gave her bottom a swat. “Be grateful for small favors.”
Elspeth sagged over his shoulder, but it was hard to breathe when her head was hanging down. Little pinpricks of light pressed against the corners of her vision, and she pushed herself back up again.
“Ye really did yourself some damage when ye hit your head on that log,” she said when she noticed that Rob’s hair was crusted with blood on the back of his head.
“Oh, aye? And I thought the splitting headache was from no’ having my morning bowl of parritch .”
“Do ye think the wolves might come back?” she asked. “Is that why ye insist on pressing on?”
“No. They hunt by night.”
He climbed over a thick trunk that had fallen across the path. A low-hanging branch caught in her hair and pulled out several strands.
If Rob heard her, he gave no sign.
“So long as we have shelter by the time night falls, we should be safe.”
“If our destination truly isna far, ye really should stop and rest,” she said.
“And ye really should stop talking, lass.”
Elspeth heard the weary threat in his tone and decided to heed him.
They left the larger trees of the older forest behind. Rob trudged on through the young, spindly forest, sometimes weaving so she feared he’d topple over.
Then he stopped suddenly, cocking his head to listen.
Something was approaching through the brush, rustling branches and snapping downed twigs underfoot. A big something from the sounds of it.
Elspeth closed her eyes, the better to concentrate, and heard panting coming from farther up the trail. A decidedly wolfish sound.
“I thought ye said wolves hunted only by night.”
“Unfortunately, of the two of us, it seems only ye have the honor of always being right. There’s no tree big enough to bear your weight nearby,” Rob said as he put her down. He stooped and pulled out his boot knife, handing it to her haft first. “If they get past me, dinna let yourself be taken.”
Elspeth accepted the knife. Of all the horrors in the world, the fear of being eaten alive by a wild creature turned a body’s bowels to water quicker than anything.
Aye, she’d put the blade to her own throat first.
Elspeth sheltered behind Rob, her insides quaking. The panting sound was unmistakable now.
Then she heard a sharp whistle and a shouted, “Ho, Fingal, dinna range so far ahead, laddie.”
A thin, shaggy deerhound appeared around an outcropping of rock.
The set of Rob’s shoulders visibly relaxed. He lowered his knife and chuckled. The hound loped toward him, teeth bared in a doggie grin.
“Ye know this beast?” Elspeth stiffened as it sniffed her with thoroughness, Fingal’s great head higher than her waist.
“Aye, and he’s meek as a kitten so long as ye pose no threat to his master.” Rob ran a hand over the deerhound’s spine from neck to tail. Then he cupped his hands around his mouth. “Angus, ye great bear! Come claim your dog, or we’ll fit him with a saddle and ride him back to your house.”
“I wouldna, if I were you,” came a gravel-throated reply. “I gave him leave to eat the last fellow who tried it.”
A man as shaggy as his dog rounded the same rocks. His hair and beard were the color of an old bird’s nest, and Elspeth suspected he might be hiding one or two in the tangled mess. As he came nearer,