“You left without protection,” she said, her horse dancing about. “And you are in enemy land. Yaine’s men will kill you and they will not question whether you are a king with a noble purpose or not.”
He seemed to be trying to calm his temper. “I am looking for the messenger I sent. He was to travel along this back road, the road the Irials use to steal the Fearen horses, and he should have reached us by now.”
“The Fearens will not let your messenger live—that is, if he ever reached their king.”
“I am king. Yaine is—Hell, Jura, I don’t have time to argue with you. I know you won’t return, so ride with me. And watch my back,” he called over his shoulder.
She smiled in the darkness as she began to follow him. Perhaps he was learning some Lanconian ways after all.
They rode along the rocky path for an hour, the moon their only source of light, when Rowan raised his hand to halt. When he dismounted, so did she, and as silently as possible they led their horses down the steep ridge and tied them to a tree.
“I saw the light of a fire ahead,” Rowan whispered. “Stay close to me and do not do anything foolish.”
“You have ridden alone into enemy territory,” she reminded him. Even in the darkness she could see his warning look.
For such a big man he could certainly move silently, she thought as she followed him along the ridge. And his eyesight was excellent, since they were some distance from the flat place in the trail where the fire burned.
She and Rowan hid behind trees and surveyed the scene for a while before moving. Three men squatted around the fire, gnawing on the remains of a rabbit. They looked tired and their clothes were torn and patched and repatched, as if they had been wearing them for years.
Jura recognized them for Fearens. They were small men, half a foot shorter than the Irials, but as anyone who had fought them knew, they had a wiry strength that was formidable in battle. They were dark men with brows that nearly grew together and their legs had the characteristic bow of the Fearens. It was said that at three years of age a Fearen child was set on a horse and never again allowed off. They were said to love their horses more than each other and that if an Irial on foot met a Fearen on horse, the Irial should pray for a swift death.
Jura turned toward where Rowan was hiding. He was staring at her and he nodded his head toward the distant trees on the far side of the Fearens’ fire. She could barely make out the outline of another person, and as she stared, she thought the person seemed to be tied to the tree. She looked in question to Rowan and he nodded. So, here was his messenger, trussed like a goose for Feastday. She couldn’t tell whether the man was alive or dead.
For all that Rowan was an Englishman, Jura was beginning to be able to understand him. Without saying a word, he directed her to the other side of the Fearens’ camp while he stealthily made his way through the trees toward the man they held prisoner.
It seemed to Jura that Rowan was gone for a long time and she jumped a bit when he at last moved into the shadows beside her.
“They have Keon,” Rowan whispered.
Jura could not see Rowan’s face but she knew the anguish he must be feeling. Keon was the son of Brocain, the prince of the Zernas, the boy Rowan had pledged his life to keep safe. She thought it was a foolish thing to have sent this valuable young man into Fearen territory as a messenger, but she did not tell Rowan this. For now she would hold her tongue.
Rowan motioned to her that he wanted to take the three Fearens so he could rescue the Zerna boy, and for a moment Jura thought he meant to try to take them by himself. Jura gave him a level look that told him what she thought of his plan.
He grimaced in resignation, then said, “No killing,” under his breath and disappeared into the trees.
She sat absolutely still and waited for him to give a signal that they were to begin. Her heart was pounding as it always did before any contest of skills, but now there seemed to be something else. She was worried that Rowan would be all right. She prayed that now was not the time when he would be killed. She offered a prayer to the Christian God, then, just to be safe, she asked the Lanconian god of war, Naos, to watch out for the well-meaning Englishman.
Rowan did not attack in a subtle way, but stepped forward into the circle of light of the fire, his swo
rd in his left hand, and said, “I am the King of Lanconia, put down your weapons.”
All three of the tired Fearens leaped up at once and ran toward Rowan. Jura came from the trees behind them and brought the back of her battle-ax down on one Fearen’s head. The man crumpled at her feet, and before she could turn, a second Fearen had her about the waist.
He was strong—very strong—Jura admitted as she struggled against the man’s hold on her. His arms were forcing the breath from her body. She brought her heels back and her elbows slammed into his ribs, but the man didn’t let go. To her left, Jura could hear the sounds of steel against steel as Rowan fought the third Fearen.
The man holding her kept tightening his grip, and Jura tried to keep her lungs open to breathe but she was failing in her attempt. She was losing strength and she could feel herself growing limp in the man’s grasp as the pressure continued. Her eyes closed and she felt nothing.
She wakened to find herself on the ground, her upper body in Rowan’s arms as he slapped her face and shouted at her. She stirred in his arms and tried to sit up but he held her fast.
“Jura, are you all right?”
“Yes,” she said impatiently. “If you don’t crush me now.” She rubbed her sore ribs. “I could not breathe.”
“Why did I allow a woman to help me fight?” he said woefully, still clutching her.
She pushed away from him to sit up. “Because I knocked one man out and kept a second busy while you were still trying to subdue the first man.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “If we had just sent arrows into them—”