“I see.” All Rowan cared about was that she was not a blood relative. “She is a guardswoman? Like Cilean?”
Again, Daire hesitated. “Yes, although Jura is younger.”
Rowan smiled. “She is the perfect age, whatever that is. Good night.”
Rowan didn’t sleep much that night but lay awake in his tent, his hands behind his head, staring into the darkness and savoring every moment of his time with Jura.
He would marry her, of course. He would make her his queen and together they would rule Lanconia…or at least the Irials. Jura would be the softness in his life to make up for the Lanconians’ lack of belief in him. Jura would be the one he could share himself with. As God said, a helpmate for man. He had asked God for a sign and moments later Jura was there.
Before dawn he heard the first stirrings of camp and rose and dressed and went outside. The mountains were hazy in the distance and the air was crisp and cool. Lanconia had never looked so beautiful to him.
Cilean stopped near him. “Good morning. I am going fishing. Perhaps you would join me?”
Rowan looked at Cilean for a long moment, and for the first time realized there might be a bit of a problem in his plans to marry Jura. “Yes,” he said. “I will go.”
They walked together into the forest toward a wide stream.
“We’ll reach Escalon today,” Cilean said.
Rowan didn’t answer. What if King Thal insisted he marry Cilean? What if, in order to be made king, he would have to marry Cilean? Every punishment Feilan had devised for him rose to his throat. “May I kiss you?” he asked abruptly.
Cilean turned startled eyes toward him and color rose to her cheeks.
“I mean, if we are to be married, I thought—”
He broke off because Cilean put her hand to the back of his head and pressed her lips to his. It was a pleasant kiss but it didn’t make Rowan forget who he was or where he was, nor did it tempt him to sign a pact with the devil.
Gently, he broke away and smiled at her. He was sure now. Jura was the one God had chosen for him. Companionably, they walked together to the stream, Rowan with his thoughts on Jura and unaware of Cilean’s happiness. She thought she had been kissed by the man she was to marry, and she was more than satisfied with the coming marriage.
It was a five-hour ride northwest to Escalon. The roads were practically nonexistent and Rowan vowed to set up a road maintenance system right away. The Lanconians cursed the fourteen baggage wagons that Rowan and Lora had brought with them from England that carried their furniture and household goods. The Irials’ one concession to comfort was their walled city, and when they traveled, they took only what could be carried on their horses. Rowan had an idea they stole their food from the peasants as they traveled.
Escalon lay on the banks of the Ciar River, naturally protected by a curve of the river on two sides and a steep hillside on another. A twelve-foot-high wall surrounded the two square miles of the city. Inside, Rowan could see another wall, another rise of land, and on that the sprawling stone castle that must be his father’s house.
“We are almost home,” Lora said from her horse beside Rowan. Young Phillip sat in front of her, his little face showing his weariness from weeks of travel. Lora sighed. “Hot food, a hot bath, a soft bed, and someone to talk to besides these warmongers. Do you think the court musicians will know any English songs? What dances do these Lanconians perform?”
Rowan didn’t have an answer for his sister as Feilan had not thought it important to talk of the pleasures of Lanconians. Besides, there was only one pleasure in Lanconia that interested Rowan and that was the beautiful, delicious Jura, the most perfect of women, the most…He daydreamed all the way into the city.
Their procession into the city of Escalon caused very little interest. It was a dirty place, filled with animals and men, and the sounds were deafening as iron hammers banged on steel, as horses were shod, as men yelled at each other. Lora held a pomander to her nose against the smell.
“Where are the women?” she shouted to Xante over the noise.
“Not in the city. The city is for men.”
“Do you have the women locked away somewhere?” she shot back at him. “Do you not allow them out into the fresh air and sunshine?”
Daire turned to look at her with interest and mild surprise on his face.
“We dig pits in the side of the mountains and keep them there,” Xante said. “Once a week we throw them a wolf. If they can kill it, they can eat it.”
Lora glared at him, not knowing how much of the truth he was telling.
At the northwest corner of the walled city, in the most protected spot, rose the sprawling stone fortress of Thal’s house. It was not a castle as Rowan knew a castle, but lower, longer, and more impenetrable. The stones were as dark as the Lanconians.
Before the fortress was another stone wall, eight feet thick and twenty feet high. There was a rusty iron double gate, covered with vines, in the center of the wall, and to the left was a smaller gate, wide enough only to allow the passage of one horse at a time.
Xante shouted an order and the Lanconian troops began to form themselves into a single line and move toward this narrow gate.
“Wait,” Rowan called, “we’ll have to use the wide gate to get the wagons through.”