“There are three Lanconian languages. Which one do you want to learn?”
“Xantian,” she said quickly then gasped. “I…I mean the Irials’ language.”
Rowan was smirking knowingly again but at least he wasn’t angry anymore.
They had not reached camp yet before Xante met them. He was six feet four inches tall, broad-shouldered, with a body as strong and lean as a rawhide whip. His black hair hung in heavy rivulets to his shoulders, framing a dark-skinned face with heavy black brows, deep-set black eyes, a thick black mustache, and a chin that was square and rigid. A deep scar on his forehead was emphasized by the scowl he now wore.
“We have visitors. We have been searching for you,” Xante said in his harsh voice. He wore a belted bearskin over a short-skirted tunic that left his muscular legs bare.
Lora started to reply to Xante’s insolence to his king but Rowan squeezed her fingers painfully.
Rowan did not explain his absence from camp even though Xante had told him he was not to leave the sight of the Lanconians who were to protect him. “Who has come?” Rowan asked. He was a couple of inches shorter than Xante but younger and thicker. Xante had had too many lean winters to have the thick muscle of Rowan.
“Thal has sent Cilean and Daire with another hundred men.”
“Cilean?” Lora asked. “Is this the woman Rowan is to marry?”
Xante gave her a sharp look, as if to tell her to mind her own business.
Lora glared at him in defiance.
“Shall we ride to meet them?” Rowan asked, a slight frown on his handsome face.
His horse was saddled and waiting for him and, as always, he was surrounded by fifty Lanconians, rather like a child who needs constant protection. They rode northwest, toward the mountains, where, in the setting sun, he could see the outline of many troops. As they drew closer together, he braced himself to meet this woman who had been given the equivalent of knighthood.
He saw her from a long way off. There was no mistaking her form for that of a man: tall, slim, erect, high firm breasts, a three-inch-wide belt around her narrow waist, curving hips below.
He kicked his horse forward, ignoring the protests of the men around him, and went forward to meet her. When he saw her face, he smiled. She was quite lovely with her dark eyes and deep red lips.
“My lady, I welcome you,” he said, and smiled at her. “I am Rowan, humble prince of your magnificent country.”
Around him the Lanconians were silent. This was no way for a man to act, especially not a man destined to be king. They looked at the setting sun glinting off his blond hair and they knew that everything they had feared about this man was true: he was a stupid English softling.
At the first guffaw behind Cilean, she urged her horse forward and held out her hand to touch Rowan’s in greeting. She, too, was disappointed. He was good-looking enough but the silly grin he wore made her agree with her men’s opinion of him.
Rowan held Cilean’s hand for a moment and saw her thoughts in her dark eyes. Around him he could feel the superior attitude of the Lanconians and his anger almost came to the surface. Whether it was anger at himself or the Lanconians he did not know. The scar on his leg twitched and his smile faded.
Rowan dropped Cilean’s hand with his smile. It was one thing to look the buffoon before men, but before this magnificent creature who was to be his wife…
Rowan reined his horse around. “We return to camp,” he ordered, not looking at anyone. He knew his own three English knights were the first to obey him.
Suddenly a shout went up and the Lanconians circled Rowan and his three men protectively.
“You are too close to Zernas,” Rowan heard a man say in the Irial language. He was a young serious-looking man, riding next to Cilean, and now he was berating Xante. This must be Daire, Rowan thought.
Even though the Lanconians tried to halt him, Rowan urged his horse to the front of the group to see what had caused the alarm.
On a hill, silhouetted by the dying sun, were three men.
“Zerna,” Xante said to Rowan as if that explained everything. “We will take you back to camp. Daire! Choose fifty men and prepare to fight.”
Rowan’s temper that he had suppressed for days could no longer be contained. “Like hell you will!” he said to Xante in perfect Irial Lanconian. “You will not harm my men and, make no mistake, the Zernas are mine as much as the Irials are. I will greet these men. Neile! Watelin! Belsur!” he called to his three knights.
Never had any men so readily obeyed an order, for they were sick of the Lanconians’ treatment of them. They arrogantly shoved their way through the Lanconians to stand behind Rowan.
“Stop the fool,” Daire said to Xante. “Thal will never forgive us if he’s killed.”
Rowan turned deadly eyes to Daire. “You follow my orders,” he said, and Daire stopped speaking.