Rowan understood her meaning and smiled. These tall, scowling, scarred, humorless Irials did not seem to fear anything on this earth. No doubt the devil did not risk tempting a Lanconian. “I have yet to see these Lanconians do anything but swagger and talk of war. I’ve not seen one in battle.”
“Yes, but Uncle William said they fought like demons, like no Englishman ever had.”
“William is a soft, lazy man. No! Don’t protest, I love him too, but love doesn’t keep me from seeing him clearly. His men are fat and spend their time fighting among themselves.”
“Not to mention his sons,” Lora said under her breath.
“Would you rather be with William’s four buffoons or here in this beautiful land of ours?”
She looked at the wide, deep, rapidly flowing river. “I like the country but without these men. This morning a Lanconian told me to turn away while he skinned a rabbit because he said he feared for my health at the sight. Grrrh! Remember the boar I shot last year? Who does he think I am?”
“A soft English lady. What do you suppose their women are like?” Rowan asked.
“These men are the sort who lock their women away in a cellar and bring them out twice a year, once to impregnate them, once to take the child.”
“Doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me.”
“What?” Lora gasped.
“If the women look like the men, they should be locked away.”
“But the men aren’t bad looking,” Lora protested, “merely bad tempered.”
“Oh?” Rowan looked at her, one eyebrow arched.
Lora blushed. “I do want to be fair. They are all rather wonderfully tall and not at all fat and their eyes are—” She stopped talking when Rowan’s smile grew into a knowing smirk.
“That is why we are here. I assume our mother felt the same way about the Lanconians as you do.”
Lora despised his smirk and while she was cursing all men everywhere, she suddenly stopped and smiled. “I’ll wager I heard something you didn’t. Our father has chosen a bride for you. Her name is Cilean and she is the captain of something called the Women’s Guard. She is a female knight.” Lora was pleased to see Rowan’s smile vanish; she had his attention now. “From what I can find out, she is as tall as you are and spends her days learning to use a sword. I believe she even has her own armor.” She smiled at Rowan and batted her lashes. “Do you think her bridal veil will be chain mail?”
Rowan’s face had changed from soft, smiling boyishness to one of cold steel. “No,” was the one word he uttered.
“No, what?” Lora asked innocently. “No chain mail?”
“I did not choose to be king, it was given to me before birth, but I have dedicated my life to it. I will marry a Lanconian woman—I had planned that—but I will marry no bull of a woman. There are some sacrifices a man cannot make for his country. I will marry a woman I can love.”
“I imagine the Lanconians would consider that a soft attitude. They marry but I cannot imagine one of them in love. Can you see Xante with his scarred forehead offering a bouquet of flowers to a woman?”
Rowan didn’t answer. He was thinking of all the lovely women in England he could have married but didn’t. No one, not even Lora, knew of the pain, both physical and mental, that Rowan had suffered through Feilan as that old man tried to beat the English half of Rowan out of him. The old man seemed able to read Rowan’s mind. If the boy had a doubt about himself, Feilan sensed it and worked to drive it away. Outwardly, Rowan had learned never to allow anyone to see his fear or see that he sometimes believed he was not the right one to rule Lanconia. But after years of Feilan’s training, Rowan honestly believed he could now laugh in the face of death. What he felt inside would never show to anyone.
But, through all the years with Feilan, he had kept a dream of someday being able to share himself with a woman, someone soft and gentle, someone loving, someone whom he could trust.
Every year Feilan had sent a letter to Rowan’s father Thal, listing Rowan’s every fault and telling Thal he had doubts that the boy would ever be fully Lanconian. Feilan had complained of Rowan being like his English mother, and that he wanted to spend too much time in his sister’s gentle company.
Silently, Rowan had fought old Feilan on this. He trained all day, endured whatever the man could devise in the way of torture, but he also learned to play the lute and sing a few songs. And he found he needed Lora’s softness. Perhaps he never would be wholly Lanconian, for he imagined his home life being like what he shared with Lora. As they were growing up, they had grown close as they clung to each other against Uncle William’s stupid, cruel sons. Rowan
used to hold Lora as she cried after the boys had taunted her with sticks for an hour, scratching her face and tearing her clothes. He calmed her by telling her stories of Lanconia.
As they grew older they learned to stay close to one another for the physical protection of Lora, and Rowan had grown to love Lora’s soft ways. After a day on the training field when Feilan had once again tried to kill him, Rowan would ease his tired, sore body to the floor at Lora’s feet and she would sing to him or tell him a story or just caress his hair. The only time he had allowed his emotions to show since he was a child was when Lora said she planned to marry and leave him. He had been miserably lonely the two years she was away when she was married, but she had returned with Phillip. Sometimes Rowan thought they were a family, and when he imagined a wife, he knew he wanted her to be soft and sweet like Lora, with a woman’s anger over minor jealousies and squabbles. He did not want some female Lanconian warrior.
“There are some privileges a king has, and one is to marry whomever he wants,” he said with finality.
Lora frowned. “Rowan, that’s not at all true. Kings marry to form alliances with other countries.”
He started to rise, quickly pulling on his clothes in a way that let Lora know that was the end of the matter. “I will make an alliance with England if I must. I’ll ask Warbrooke for one of his daughters, but I will not marry some witch who wears armor. Come on, let’s go. I’m hungry.”
Lora wished she had never brought the subject up. As much as she felt she knew her brother, there were times when she felt she knew nothing about him. There was a part of him that remained secret. She took his extended arm. “Will you teach me Lanconian?” She hoped to get his mind to a different subject and so bring back his good mood.