The old Lanconian remained, sleeping somewhere deep within the castle—William didn’t ask where—and spent every waking moment with Rowan. Rowan had always been a serious child, had always taken whatever duties William gave him seriously, but now it seemed that Rowan’s capacity for study was limitless. The old Lanconian taught Rowan both in the classroom and on the training field. At first William objected because some of the Lanconian methods of fighting were, to a knight like William, entirely without honor. Neither Rowan nor Feilan paid him any attention and Rowan learned to fight on his feet with sword and lance, with a stick, with clubs, and, to William’s horror, with his fists. No knight fought except from the back of a horse.
Rowan did not foster as other aristocratic young men did but remained at his uncle’s castle and studied with the Lanconian. William’s own sons left, one by one, to live with other knights and train as their squires. They returned with their spurs and their knighthood, their resentment for Rowan even stronger. One by one, William’s sons reached manhood and challenged Rowan to a tilt, hoping to lay him low and so gain their father’s esteem.
There was no contest as Rowan easily knocked each young man from his horse then returned to his studies without so much as raising a sweat.
William’s sons loudly protested their cousin’s presence in their home and William watched as his ignorant sons put burrs under
Rowan’s saddle, stole his precious books, laughed at him in front of guests. But Rowan never got angry, a fact that infuriated his loutish cousins. The only time William saw Rowan get angry was when his sister, Lora, asked permission to marry a lessor land baron who was visiting William. Rowan had raged at Lora that she was Lanconian and when she was called she must return to her home. William was stunned, partly by Rowan’s show of temper, but more so by Rowan’s referring to Lanconia as “home.” He felt betrayed, as if all the love he had given the boy was not returned. William helped Lora in her marriage plans. But her husband had died after only two years of marriage and Lora returned to her uncle’s home with her baby son, Phillip. Rowan had smiled and welcomed her. “Now we will be ready,” he had said, putting his arm around Lora and holding his new nephew.
Today William was looking at Rowan. It was twenty-five years since a golden child had been born to William’s lovely sister and in that time William had come to love the boy more than he loved his own soul. But it was over now, for outside stood a hundred of the tall, dark, scarred Lanconian warriors, sitting atop their short-legged, barrel-chested horses, each man wearing a grim expression and a hundred pounds of weapons. They were obviously prepared for a fight. Their leader rode forward and announced to William that they had come for the children of Thal, that Thal lay on his deathbed and Rowan was to be made king.
William’s inclination was to refuse, to fight to keep Rowan until he had no more breath, but William’s oldest son had pushed his hesitant father aside and welcomed the Lanconians with open arms. William knew defeat when he saw it. One could not fight to keep something that did not want to be kept.
With a heavy heart he went up the stairs to Lora’s solar, where Rowan sat in the window enclosure studying. His tutor, old to begin with, was now ancient, but when he saw William’s face, he eased his arthritic body from the chair and went to stand before Rowan, then slowly dropped to one knee. As Rowan looked at his old tutor’s face, understanding came to him.
“Long live King Rowan,” the old man said, his head bowed.
Rowan nodded solemnly and looked at Lora, who had dropped her sewing. “It is time,” he said softly. “Now we go home.”
William slipped away so the tears in his eyes would not be seen.
Jura stood very still in the knee-deep water, her light spear held aloft, poised above the lazily swimming fish, waiting for the moment to skewer the fish. The sun wasn’t quite up yet, just enough to silhouette the Tarnovian Mountains behind her and the shadowy fish at her feet. She had discarded the loose trousers to her warrior’s uniform on the bank and now wore only the soft, embroidered tunic that was the badge of her profession, her legs bare from the middle of her thigh down. The water was icy cold but she was used to discomfort and had been trained from an early age to ignore pain.
To her left she heard a footstep and knew someone was coming, a woman by the lightness of the step. She didn’t show any outward sign of movement but her muscles tensed, ready to spring. She continued holding the spear above her right shoulder but now she was ready to turn and cast the spear at the intruder.
She smiled without moving her face. It was Cilean. Cilean, her teacher and her friend, was soundlessly—almost anyway—moving through the forest.
Jura speared a fat fish. “Will you join me for breakfast, Cilean?” she called as she pulled the flopping fish from the spear and walked toward the bank. Jura was six feet tall with a body made magnificent by years of hard, demanding exercise.
Cilean stepped from the trees and smiled at her friend. “Your hearing is excellent, as always.” She also wore the white tunic and trousers of the Irial warrior, soft leather boots reaching to her knees, wrapped with cross garters from ankle to knee. She was as tall as Jura, with long, lean legs, high, firm breasts, a supple spine, and she held herself as erect as a birch, but her face did not have that startling quality of beauty that Jura’s did. Her face was also beginning to show her age of twenty-four when she was next to Jura’s fresh eighteen.
“He has come,” Cilean said softly.
The only indication Jura gave that she had heard was the slightest hesitation as she arranged the twigs to build a fire to roast her fish.
“Jura,” Cilean said, her voice pleading, “you have to face this someday.” She spoke in the Irial dialect of Lanconian, a language of soft sounds and rolled l’s. “He will be our king.”
Jura straightened and whirled to face her friend, her black, braided hair moving and her beautiful face showing her rage. “He is not my king! He will never be my king. He is English, not Lanconian. His mother was a soft weak Englishwoman who sits by the fire all day and sews. She did not even have the strength to bear Thal many children. Geralt is the rightful king. He had a Lanconian mother.”
Cilean had heard this a hundred times. “Yes, Astrie was a wonderful woman and Geralt is a great warrior but he was not the firstborn son nor was Astrie the legal wife of Thal.”
Jura turned away, trying to get her anger under control. In training she could be so cool, could keep her thoughts clear even when Cilean devised some trick, such as ordering five women to attack Jura at once, but there was one area where Jura’s fury at the injustice of it could not be controlled, and that was when she thought of Geralt. Years before Jura was born, King Thal had traveled to England to talk to the English king, to try to make an alliance with England. Instead of attending to the purpose of his journey, he had neglected Lanconian business and fallen under the spell of some vapid, weak, useless Englishwoman. He had married her and remained in England for two years, producing two puny, mewling brats who were too weak to return to Lanconia with him after his frail wife had died.
People said Thal was never the same after he returned from England. He refused to marry a proper Lanconian woman, although he spent some time in bed with the beautiful, nobly born Astrie. She bore him Geralt, a son who was everything a man could want, but Thal still kept brooding. In despair, hoping to force him into marrying her, Astrie asked permission to marry Johst, Thal’s most trusted guard. Thal barely shrugged his shoulders as he agreed. Three years after Geralt’s birth, Astrie gave birth to Jura.
“Geralt has the right to be king,” Jura repeated, her voice calmer.
“Thal has made his choice. If he wants his English son to be king, then we must honor that choice.”
Jura was angrily scaling the fish with her knife. “I hear he has white skin and white hair. I hear he is as thin and frail as a stalk of wheat. He has a sister too. No doubt she will cry and whine for her English comforts. How can we respect an English king when he knows nothing of us?”
“Thal sent Feilan to him years ago. I have heard legends of the man’s wisdom.”
“Bah! He is Poilen,” Jura said with contempt, referring to another tribe of the Lanconians. The Poilens believed they could fight wars with words. The young men trained with books and learning rather than with swords. “How can a Poilen teach a man to be king? No doubt Feilan taught him to read and tell stories. What does a Poilen know of battle? When the Zernas attack our city, will our new king try to tell them fairy tales until they fall off their horses in sleep?”
“Jura, you aren’t being fair. We haven’t met the man. He is Thal’s son and—”