“He’s stealing,” she countered.

Auggie shook his head. “God will understand.”

“There’s more than one way into a castle, Auggie. Gabriel should find another way to feed the clan.”

The old man positioned his staff against the round stone, braced his legs apart, and gave a swing. He squinted against the sunlight to see how far he’d hit the stone, nodded with satisfaction, and turned back to his mistress.

“My stone traveled thrice the distance of an arrow. Beat that one, little worrier. See if you can’t put your stone right next to mine.”

Johanna turned her attention to the game. She surprised a whoop of laughter out of Auggie when she matched his distance. Her stone came to rest just inches away from his.

“You’ve a knack for the game, lass,” Auggie praised. “We’d best go back now. I’ve kept you from your duties longer than I had a right

“I don’t have duties,” she blurted out. She tucked her staff under her arm and turned to her friend. “I’ve tried to take over the running of the household, but no one listens to me. The MacBains are more polite though. They smile while I instruct them, then go about their business without paying any heed to what I’ve said. The Maclaurin servants are far more rude, embarrassingly so. They completely ignore me.”

“What does our laird have to say about this behavior?”

“I haven’t told him. I’m not going to either, Auggie. This is my dilemma to solve, not his.”

Auggie took hold of Johanna’s arm and started down the steep hill. “You’ve been here how long now?”

“Almost twelve weeks.”

“You were content for a time, weren’t you now?”

She nodded. “I was content.”


She was surprised by his question. She shrugged. “Coming here made me . . . free. And safe,” she hastily added.

“You were like a dove with a broken wing,” Auggie said. He patted her hand before continuing. “And as timid as I’ve ever seen.”

“I’m not timid now,” she countered. “At least not when I’m with you.”

“I’ve seen the changes in you. The others haven’t. In time I imagine they will notice you’ve got a bit of gumption.”

She didn’t know if she’d just been given a setdown or praise. “But the stealing, Auggie. What should I do about my husband?”

“Leave it be for now,” he suggested. ” ’Tis the truth I can’t get riled up about a little thieving. My laird promised to bring me barley, and I’m anxious to have it, sin or not. It’s for the making of my brew,” he added with a nod. “The English drank all of my reserves, lass.” He snorted with laughter, leaned closer to her side, and whispered, “They didn’t get to the barrels of liquid gold though.”

“What are barrels of liquid gold?”

“Do you remember the break in the pines beyond the ridge?”


“There’s a cave directly behind,” he announced. “It’s full of oak barrels.”

“But what’s inside the barrels?”

“The water of life,” he answered. “Brew as old as ten, even fifteen, years now. It should be tasting like gold I’ll wager. One of these days I’ll take you there to have a look for yourself. The only reason it’s stayed untouched is because the English didn’t know it was there for the taking.”

“Does my husband know about the cave?”

Auggie thought about the question a long while before answering. “I don’t recall telling him,” he admitted. “And I’m the only one who remembers when the old Maclaurin chieftains stored the barrels there. They weren’t telling, of course, but I followed them one afternoon without their knowing. I can be quiet when I set my mind to the task,” he added with a nod.

“When did you last go inside the cave?”

“A few years back,” Auggie told her. “Do you notice, Johanna, that when you wear the MacBain plaid you play a fair game, but when you’re wearing the Maclaurin colors, you can’t hit a thing?”

He was talking nonsense, of course. He liked to tease her. She thought it was just his way of showing affection.

As soon as they reached the courtyard, Auggie took off down the hill. She spotted Keith, bowed to him, and then hurried past. She’d felt uncomfortable around the Maclaurin soldier ever since he’d explained the real meaning behind the nickname the Maclaurin women had given her.

She also wanted to wash her hands before her husband came home and noticed how dirty they were. He could be very unreasonable about her appearance; but since he demanded little enough from her, she tried to please him whenever possible.

Johanna was just starting up the steps to her home when a shout sounded behind her. She turned and saw soldiers running toward her. Several had their swords drawn.

She didn’t know what all the fuss was about. “Get inside, m’lady. Pull the door closed behind you.” Keith shouted his instruction. Johanna wasn’t going to argue with the soldier or question him now. She assumed they were under attack by intruders and hurried to do as she was ordered.

Then she heard the low, menacing growl. She turned around again. She spotted her husband’s pet slowly making his way across the courtyard. She cried out at the sight of the beast. Dumfries was covered with blood. From the distance she could see his left hindquarter had been ripped to shreds.

The hound was trying to come home to die. Johanna’s eyes filled with tears as she watched Dumfries struggle.

The soldiers made a wide circle around the dog. “Go inside, Lady Johanna.” Keith bellowed his order. She suddenly understood what they meant to do. They were going to kill the wolfhound to put him out of his misery. The way they warily moved toward the hound told her they believed he might turn on one of them.

Johanna wasn’t about to let any more harm come to the dog. One soldier started to move forward with his sword raised to strike.

“Leave him alone.”

The fury in her shout gained every soldier’s attention. They turned to look at her, their surprise most evident in their gaping expressions.

A few of the Maclaurin soldiers actually backed away from the dog. The MacBain warriors didn’t move from their positions, however.

Keith rushed up the steps. He grabbed hold of Johanna’s arm. “You needn’t witness this,” he announced. “Please go inside.”

She jerked her arm away from the soldier’s hold. “Dumfries wants to come inside. He sleeps by the fire. That’s where he’s going. Hold the doors open, Keith. Do it now.”

She shouted the last of her command before turning back to the other soldiers. She didn’t believe Dumfries would allow any of the men to assist him. She knew the dog must be in terrible pain, for his gait faltered again and again as he slowly made his way over to the steps.

“M’lady, at least get out of his range.”

“Tell the men to let him come inside.”

“But m’lady ...”

“Do as I’ve ordered,” she commanded. “If anyone touches Dumfries, he’ll answer to me.”

The tone of her voice told Keith it was pointless to argue with her. He gave the command. then grabbed his mistress’s arm again and tried to drag her back through the entrance.

“The doors, Keith. Keep them open.”

Johanna didn’t take her gaze off the dog when she gave the order. Leila and Megan, the two Maclaurin women assigned the duty of cleaning the great hall and the chambers above, came running to the doorway.

“Dear God,” Megan whispered. “What happened to him?”

“Get back, m’lady,” Leila cried out. “Poor Dumfries. He can’t make it up the steps. They’ll have to kill him . . .”

“No one’s touching him,” Johanna snapped. “Megan, fetch my needle and threads. Leila, there’s a satchel under my bed filled with jars of herbs and medicines. Get it for me.”

Dumfries collapsed on the third step. He let out a whimper and tried to stand up again. He alternated between yelps and growls now. Johanna couldn’t stand the sight of his agony a moment longer. She’d hoped to approach the hound inside by the fire while he was at rest but knew he wouldn’t make it inside without her.

She pulled away from Keith and ran to help. The dog let out a loud growl when she approached him. She slowed her pace, put her hand out, and began to whisper words meant to soothe the beast.

Keith once again tried to drag her back. The hound let out an even louder growl when the soldier touched her.

She ordered Keith back. She looked up and saw that two MacBain soldiers had their arrows notched to their bows. They were protecting her whether she wished it or not. If the hound tried to snap at her, their arrows would kill him before real damage was done.

Johanna’s compassion for the wounded animal warred with her fear. Aye, she was terrified; and when she slowly bent down to put her arms around the beast, she couldn’t control her own whimpers.

The hound didn’t let up his growling, but he allowed her assistance.

Johanna didn’t realize her own strength. The dog leaned into her side. She almost toppled over from the weight, righted herself, and once again wrapped her arms around him. She held him behind his front legs. Bent as she was to her task, the side of her face was pressed against his neck. She kept up a steady stream of encouraging words and half-dragged the dog up the rest of the steps. It was backbreaking work, but when they’d cleared the last step, the dog found new strength and pulled away from her. He growled again and went in through the opening.

Dumfries paused at the top of the steps leading down into the great hall. Johanna again came to his assistance and half-carried him down the stairs.

Men putting the finishing touches on the mantel with their brushes quickly moved out of the way as Dumfries walked toward them. The dog circled the area in front of the hearth twice, then began to whimper. He was obviously in too much pain now to lie down.

Megan came running with the supplies Johanna had requested. Her mistress sent her back with the order to get the blanket off the bed.

“I’ll get a fresh one from the chest, m’lady,” Megan called out.

“No,” Johanna said. “Take the one from my bed. Megan. Dumfries will be comforted by my husband’s scent.”

A few minutes later Megan tossed the blanket to her mistress. Johanna knelt down on the floor and made a bed for the dog. When she was finished, she patted the cover and ordered the dog down.

Dumfries circled once again, then collapsed on his side.

“You’ve gotten the beast inside, m’lady.” Keith whispered from behind her. “That was quite an accomplishment.”

She shook her head. “That was easy,” she answered. “What comes next is a little more challenging. I’m going to sew him up. ’Tis the truth I dread the duty. Dumfries isn’t going to understand.”

She patted the side of Dumfries’s neck again before leaning forward on her knees to look at the deep gash in his left flank.

“You can’t be serious, m’lady. The hound will kill you if you touch his injury.”

“I sincerely hope not,” Johanna replied.

“But you’re afraid of him.” The soldier blurted out the reminder.

“Yes,” she agreed, “I am afraid. It doesn’t change anything though, does it? Dumfries still has an injury and I still have to sew him up. Leila? Have you found the jars of medicines?”

“Aye, m’lady.”

Johanna turned and spotted Leila and Megan standing side by side on the top step. Megan held up the needle and ball of white thread, and Leila clutched her mistress’s gray satchel in her arms.

“Bring them to me, please, and put them on the blanket.”

Leila and Megan didn’t move from the top of the steps. They started toward her when she motioned to them but stopped suddenly. Dumfries was at it again, growling low in his throat. The sound he made was very like what Johanna imagined a demon let loose from hell would make. It was quite chilling.

The women were afraid to come any closer. The realization astonished Johanna. She thought she was the only one who found the hound intimidating. She took sympathy on the women and went over to collect her supplies from them.

“Do be careful, m’lady,” Leila whispered.

Johanna nodded. She was ready to begin her work a few minutes later. Keith wasn’t about to let her take the chance of being bitten by the hound while she worked on him. He knelt down behind Dumfries and positioned himself so that he could easily grab hold of the dog’s neck and pin him down if he tried to harm his mistress.

The dog amazed both Johanna and the soldier. He never made a sound all the while she prodded at him. Johanna made enough noise for the two of them. She whispered apologies and moaned every time she touched the injury with the linen square she’d soaked in the cleaning salve. She knew the medicine burned, and so she blew on each spot after she’d applied the thick liquid.

Into the chaos came Gabriel. Johanna had just threaded the needle when she heard her husband’s voice behind her.

“What the hell happened?”

Johanna let out a little sigh of relief. She turned on her knees to look up at her husband. Lord, she had never been so relieved to see him. She watched as he walked across the hall to stand ever her. His big hands were settled on his hips. His gaze was directed on his hound.

Keith immediately stood up. The other soldiers who’d followed him into the great hall moved back to give Keith room.

“I’d wager Dumfries met up with a wolf or two,” Keith speculated.

“Think he found our pet?” Calum asked the question. He walked over to stand next to Keith.

Johanna went back to her task. She tied the knot in her thread, then put the needle down and reached for the second jar of medicine.

“You have another pet, m’lord?” she asked while she gently dabbed the yellow ointment on the cut. She used another linen square to smooth the healing salve along the jagged edges.

“The Maclaurins call one particular wolf Pet. Your hand’s shaking.”

“I can see it is.”


“Your dog terrifies me.”

Johanna finished dabbing the medicine on the injury. The salve would protect the cut from infection. It also had a side benefit of numbing the area. Dumfries would barely feel the sting of her needle.

“Yet she’s tending him, Laird.”