“We shall see, but for tonight, maybe you’d better consider me Zerna and stay near me. I’m not sure my other Lanconians are as forgiving as I am.”
Behind them rode Rowan’s knights and then the cluster of Lanconians, Daire, Cilean, and Xante in front.
“Is he always such a fool?” Daire asked Xante, looking at the back of this man who was supposed to be an Irial but who treated the Zerna boy as a friend. “How have you kept him alive?” he asked in wonder.
Xante was looking at Rowan and the Zerna boy thoughtfully. “Until tonight he has been as tame as a pet dog. His sister has shown more fire than he has. And, until tonight, he has spoken only English.”
“If he continues riding alone against the Zernas, he will not live long,” Daire said. “We should not try to prevent him from whatever foolishness he wishes to try. Judging by what he did today, he will open the gates of Escalon to any invader. Lanconia could fall under a ruler as stupid as he is. No, we will not try to prevent his riding alone against the enemy. We will be well rid of him. Geralt will be our king.”
“Is he stupid?” Cilean asked. “If we had attacked those boys and killed Brocain’s son, we wouldn’t know peace until Brocain had killed hundreds of our people. And now we have an important hostage. Brocain cannot attack us for fear of killing his son. And you say this Rowan has not, in weeks of travel, let you know he speaks our language? Come, Xante, I am surprised at you. What else does the man know about us that you do not know about him?” She urged her horse forward to ride beside Rowan.
All evening Cilean watched Rowan and his sister and his nephew and his men, encircled by darkness around a fire in front of Rowan’s beautiful silk tent. The Zerna boy, Keon, sat near them, quiet, sullen, watchful. Cilean imagined that Rowan’s ways were as strange to him as they were to the Irials. Rowan held his young nephew on his lap and whispered things that made the boy laugh and squeal. No Lanconian child of that age would be held by his father. By four the boys were already being taught to use weapons and so were the girls who had been chosen for the Women’s Guard.
Cilean watched the way Rowan smiled at his sister, heard him ask after her comfort, and she began to wonder what it would be like to live with this man of contradictions, who rode alone against three Zernas and two hours later cuddled a child and teased a woman. How could such a man be a fighter? How could he be a king?
Early the next morning, before the sun was up, the alarm horns were blown by the guardsmen standing watch. Instantly, the Lanconians were out of their light sleeping blankets and on their feet.
Rowan came out of his tent wearing only his loincloth, giving the Lanconians their first sight of the body of the man they had thought soft. Muscle like Rowan’s had been created by hard, heavy work.
“What is it?” he yelled in Lanconian at Xante.
“Zerna,” was Xante’s terse answer. “Brocain comes to fight for his son. We will meet him.” He was already mounting his horse.
Rowan grabbed Xante’s shoulder and pulled him about. “We do not attack because of what you believe to be true. Keon!” he yelled past Xante. “Prepare to ride to meet your father.”
Xante gave Rowan a cold look. “It is your life you lose.”
Rowan choked back words of anger and gave a look of warning to Neile, who took a step toward Xante. He had expected them to doubt him, but they did not merely doubt, they were sure he was useless.
Within minutes he was dressed. He did not dress in chain mail as for battle but in embroidered velvet as if for a social event. Rowan grimaced when the Lanconians smiled at the stupidity of this foreigner and Keon shook his head in wonder. At the moment Keon wished he had been killed yesterday, as death was preferable to facing his father.
Cilean, watching from a distance, saw the anger quickly cross Rowan’s face then disappear. If she were to marry this man, it might be good to ally herself with him now. And, besides, she was very interested in how he planned to deal with an old, treacherous man like Brocain.
“May I ride with you?” Cilean asked Rowan.
“No!” Daire and Xante yelled in unison.
Rowan looked at them, his eyes as cold as steel. “They can spare the life of an English prince but not one of their own,” he said, the bitterness he felt showing in his voice.
Cilean held a tall spear, a bow, and a quiver of arrows flung to her back. “I am a guard; I make my own decisions.”
Rowan grinned at her and Cilean found herself blinking as if against too bright a sun. By the gods above, the man was handsome! “Get your horse then,” he said, and Cilean hurried to her horse like a novice anxious to please her teachers.
Rowan looked after her. Feilan had not told him of the intelligence and generosity of the Lanconian women.
The other Lanconians were not affected by Rowan’s personal appearance and sat on their horses in a long line, watching silently as Rowan, Cilean, the three English knights, and Keon rode to meet two hundred Zerna warriors and certain death.
“Straighten your spine, boy,” Rowan said to Keon. “It is not as if you were facing the wrath o
f your king.”
“My father is king,” Keon shot back, his dark face almost as pale as Rowan’s.
A hundred yards from the Zernas, who sat still and waited for the approach of the small band, Rowan rode forth alone. Sun hit the gold embroidery of his tunic, flashed off his golden hair, winked in the diamond in his sword hilt, played along the trappings of his horse. The Lanconians, neither Irial nor Zerna, had never seen anything like this richly dressed man. He was as different looking from them as possible, a rose amid a field of sand burrs. They gaped at him in wonder.
After a moment’s hesitation, a big man rode toward Rowan. His face was scarred, one deep gouge running from his left eye down to his neck, and half of one ear was gone. There were more scars on his legs and arms. He looked as if he had never smiled in his life.
“Are you the Englishman who took my son?” he asked in a voice that made Rowan’s horse dance about. The animal recognized danger.