Thal opened his tired eyes. “I chose her when she was just a child. She reminds me of Anne, so calm and kind, yet strong inside. She is the captai
n of the Women’s Guard. She is as strong as she is wise and beautiful. She will make you an excellent wife.”
“Yes, I’m sure she would but—” Rowan broke off at Thal’s glare. The old man’s body might be dying but his mind was perfectly healthy.
“You have not married an Englishwoman, have you? Your children would be more English than Lanconian.”
“There is no other English woman,” Rowan said pointedly, and his father waited, his eyes piercing into Rowan’s, making Rowan shift on the seat. He had felt less fear of Brocain than he did of this old man when he looked like that. No wonder he had ruled for so long. “There is another woman. I believe she is also of the guard and eligible for my wife. Her name is Jura.”
Thal dropped his head back on the furs as if in agony. “How strong are your feelings for her?”
Rowan felt somewhat embarrassed but he tried to control the blood rushing to his face. He wanted Jura enough to risk disappointing this father whom he had always lived for. “Strong,” he managed to say, and in that one word he told of his lust and desire and need for her. He hoped his father would understand that he was willing to fight for Jura.
Thal lifted his head again and looked hard into his son’s eyes. There was strength there, the strength of generations of Lanconian kings. “When I wanted Anne, I wanted her. I would have stolen her in the night if the English king had denied me her. Does Jura feel the same as you?”
Rowan could remember the passion with which she returned his kisses. “Yes,” he said. “It is the same.”
“I don’t want to hear how you met her. She was, no doubt, where she should not have been, which is like Jura. Oh, my son, why couldn’t you have loved Cilean? Jura is a problem. She is as hotheaded as her brother, and as angry as her mother. The girl’s mother tried to threaten me into marrying her after she gave birth to Geralt. To punish me she married my most loyal man, Johst, and made his life hell.”
Thal paused, resting his voice and his mind. “If I give Jura to you, it will cause many problems. Cilean will become your enemy, and the Irials love Cilean and they would hate you for dishonoring this beloved woman. And Jura is promised in marriage to—”
“Promised?” Rowan gasped.
“Yes,” Thal answered. “She is to marry the son of Brita who is the leader of the Vatells. It would not do to anger Brita.”
Rowan’s mouth dropped open. “A woman is the leader of a tribe?” He was to conquer a woman? Did these Lanconians expect him to meet her in hand-to-hand combat?
Thal smiled at his son. “She uses her brain where we men use our backs. She has been the leader since her husband was killed. Brita already hates the Irials, me and my issue in particular, and it would not do to further enrage her. You are going to have a difficult enough time with the people who support Geralt. Cannot you reconsider and marry Cilean? Or someone else perhaps? Jura is—”
“The one I want,” Rowan said flatly, his jaw set rigid.
Thal gave a deep sigh. “There is a way.”
“I will take it.”
“She might lose. You might lose both Jura and Cilean.”
“If it is a fight, I will meet the challenge.”
“It will not be your fight but Jura’s,” Thal said, then began to explain. “Lanconian women have always been strong. They protect their men’s backs in battle. They protect themselves when the men are away. It has always been good to have a strong wife, and at one time a man could choose a wife through an Honorium.”
“Which is?” Rowan asked.
“It’s rather like your English tournament, only the women are the participants.”
“The women joust?” Rowan asked, incredulous.
“No, they have contests of skill, shooting, javelin tossing, running, leaping a bar, wrestling, there are many contests. The winner wins the man who has called the Honorium.”
Before Rowan could speak, Thal took his son’s hand. “An invitation must go out to all the tribes when the king is involved. Jura is young and has never been in a battle. You do not know how she will react in a contest. She could very well lose.” He paused. “As could Cilean.”
“It is a chance I will have to take.”
“You do not understand. Most of our guardswomen are beautiful, but the other tribes, to show their contempt for the Irial king, will send women who are beasts.” Thal’s lip curled. “You have never seen an Ulten woman. They are filthy creatures who are sly and dishonest. They will steal your hair while you sleep if they can find a buyer. And Brocain will send someone hideous, no doubt. I have oxen smaller and better looking than Zerna women. Think what you are doing, boy, and take Cilean. She is beautiful and—”
“Would you have dared an Honorium to win my mother?”
“Yes,” Thal said softly. “I would have dared anything when I was young and my blood was boiling at the sight of her.”