In a secluded glade, Jura removed her clothing and slipped into the water. Perhaps a long swim would ease her troubled mind.
Rowan rode as hard and fast as his horse would go. He needed to get away, to be alone, to escape the censoring eyes of the Lanconians. Two days ago they had ridden past a peasant’s hut that was blazing. When Rowan halted the army of Lanconians and ordered them to put the fire out, they had merely stared at him in contempt. They had sat on their horses and watched while Rowan and his English men had directed the peasants in dousing the flames.
When the fire was out, the peasants had told a garbled story of a feud between two families. Rowan had told them to come to Escalon and he would hear their case and he the king would personally judge it. The peasants had laughed at the idea of a king. The king ruled the soldiers who trampled their fields; he did not rule the workingman.
Rowan rode back to the Lanconians, who looked at him with contempt for having involved himself with the petty disputes of the farmers.
But Rowan knew that if he was to be king and there was to be peace between the tribes, he must be king of all the Lanconians, the Zernas, the Ultens, the Vatells, all the tribes and all their people, from the lowest peasant to Brocain, who ruled hundreds of men.
Today, Rowan had had enough of the silent hostility and sometimes not so silent hostility of the Lanconians and he had broken away, telling his own knights to keep the Lanconians away. Their eyes reflected every fear he had stowed within himself. Their obvious doubts of him made his own doubts come closer to the surface. He needed to be alone, to have some time to think, and to pray.
He knew he was only miles from the walls of Escalon when he came to a river tributary, a peaceful, lovely stream, so unlike everything else he had experienced in Lanconia.
He dismounted and tied his horse, then fell to his knees, his hands folded in prayer.
“Oh Lord,” he prayed in a choked whisper that betrayed the depth of his pain, “I have tried to ready myself for the duty that You and my earthly father have placed upon my head, but I am only one man. If I am to accomplish what I know to be right, I need Your help. The people are against me and I do not know how to win their loyalty. I beg You, dear God, please show me the way. Guide me. Direct me. I place myself in Your hands. If I am wrong, let me know. Give me a sign. If I am right, then I plead for Your help.”
He hung his head for a moment, feeling spent and exhausted. He had come to Lanconia knowing what he was to do, but with each passing day his confidence had been draining. Every hour of every day he had to prove himself as a man to these Lanconians. They had made up their minds about him and nothing he did changed their opinions. I
f he was brave, they murmured that fools are often brave. If he cared about his people, they said his ways were foreign. What did he have to do to prove himself? Torture and kill some innocent Zerna boy who they seemed to think was the devil incarnate?
He stood, his legs shaky from the emotion he had exerted, then cared for his horse. He removed his sweaty clothes then stepped into the cool, clear water. He dove, he swam, he let the water take some of the anger and feelings of helplessness out of his body, and an hour later when he returned to the bank he felt better. He put on his loincloth, then all at once, his senses came alive. He had heard a noise to his right. It sounded like a person moving about. He pulled his sword from the saddle scabbard and silently crept along the edge of the water toward the noise.
He was not prepared for the blow that hit him. Someone swung from a tree branch above his head, feet slammed into Rowan’s shoulders, and caught off balance, he fell to the ground. Instantly, he felt a steel point at his throat.
“Don’t,” said a woman’s voice.
Rowan had been reaching for his fallen sword, but as he looked up, he forgot about his sword. Straddling him, her legs bare to midthigh, was the most beautiful female Rowan had ever seen in his life. His uncle William’s men had always teased Rowan that he lived like a monk. They laughed because he had no desire to tumble a peasant girl in a haystack. He had had a few sexual encounters, but no woman had ever inflamed his senses so that he desired her above all else in life. If sex was offered and the girl was clean, he took it if he had nothing else to do.
As Rowan looked up at this woman, up past high breasts, up to her face with black eyes that burned as hot as coals, he felt as if his body were on fire. Every pore in his skin was alive, awake as it had never been before. He could feel her, smell her. It was as if the warmth from her body were merging with his and becoming one.
His hands moved to touch her ankles, clasped them, and his eyes followed his hands as he drank of the beauty of her long, lean, muscular legs. The sword point at his throat fell away but he wasn’t aware of it. He saw and felt only his touch of those magnificent legs, his hands traveling higher, caressing, kneading her tanned, beautiful, smooth flesh.
He thought he heard her groan but he wasn’t sure it wasn’t the sound of his own heart melting in ecstasy.
As his hands traveled upward as far as they could reach, her knees began to bend in a slow way, like a wax candle melting when placed too near a blazing fire. His hands moved up and up, lifting the damp tunic she wore. She had on nothing beneath and he saw the precious jewel of her as his hands moved up to clasp the high firm cheeks of her buttocks.
She sank to his chest, and when her bare flesh touched his, Rowan quivered with desire. Her skin was as hot as his, like red-hot iron in the farrier’s forge. His hands moved up her back and pulled her forward.
Her face was near his, her eyes half closed with desire, her lips red and full and open to receive him, her skin pale and perfect. He pulled her face to his.
At the first touch of their lips, she sprang away from him and looked at him. But she seemed to feel the same surprise that he did. But the next moment his surprise was gone as she flung her arms around his neck and kissed him with all the passion he felt. His arms tightened about her so hard, it was a wonder her ribs didn’t break. He pushed her to her back, never breaking contact with her lips as he kissed her violently, deeply, with years of desire that had been waiting for this one woman and this one moment.
Her legs went about his waist as he rolled over with her and his loincloth came off of its own accord.
“Jura,” someone called.
He ate at her lips, gnawing them, trying to get more and more of her. He nestled his hard body into the woman’s saddle of her.
“Jura, are you all right?”
The woman beneath Rowan was beating on his bare back with her fists, but he was too stupid with desire to feel pain.
“They will see us,” she whispered urgently with a shaky voice that went up and down in pitch. “Release me.”
If a horse had run over him, he wouldn’t have felt it. His hand searched for and found her breast.