Long trestle tables had been set up in the main hall and servants were bringing in platters of meat and vegetables. Jura started to take her place toward the end of the table but Rowan, frowning, motioned to the place on the bench beside him. Phillip followed her like a shadow.
“Phillip.” Lora called her son from the other side of Rowan, motioning for him to come sit by her.
“Jura will let me sit by her,” the boy said, his little spine rigid.
Lora started to rise but Rowan stopped her.
A priest blessed the meal and the fifty or so diners fell to as if they were starving. They were loud as they argued about weapons and horses and who was the greatest fighter.
A quarter way into the meal two men made for each other’s throats, each trying to strangle the other.
Rowan, for all he had seen of Lanconian tempers, was still unprepared for these outbursts. He was talking to Lora and did not react immediately.
Not so Jura. She jumped onto the table, took two steps across it, and launched herself onto the men, knocking them off balance so that the three of them fell to the floor amid the debris and the barking dogs.
She drew her knife even as she fell. “I’ll have the heart of the next man who interrupts my meal,” she yelled.
The men calmed themselves and got up off the floor. The other Lanconians had barely interrupted their eating at the sight of this very ordinary event, but it was not ordinary to the Englishmen. Jura stood, dusting herself off, and met the eyes of Rowan and his three knights. The Englishwoman stood to one side, her eyes frightened as she clutched her little boy to her.
Jura had no idea what she had done to cause such looks on the faces of these men. Rowan’s face was as red as a sunset, the veins standing out in his neck, his jaw muscles working, while his three knights merely looked on in horror.
Jura sheathed her knife. “The food grows cold.”
Phillip broke away from his mother and ran to fling his arms around Jura’s thighs.
She put her hand on the boy’s soft hair, smiled, then bent down, took his shoulders, and held him at arm’s length so she could look at him. “What’s this?” she asked softly. “Fear from a Lanconian?”
“Girls cannot fight men,” the boy whispered.
“True, but this was only Raban and Sexan. They always fight. Now straighten your shoulders and stand tall and—” Jura broke off because Lora, recovering from her shock, grabbed her son away.
“How dare you,” Lora said. “How dare you touch my son and teach him your violent ways? You aren’t a woman. You aren’t fit to be near children.”
Jura stood and took a step toward Lora, her eyes cool and hard. Rowan put himself between the two women. “Come with me,” he said, looking at Jura with an expression she’d never seen before.
By now the Lanconians had stopped eating to watch this drama. A fight and Jura leaping across the tables caused no comment, but they wondered what these odd English were doing. Anger because a guard had stopped a fight? That was their duty.
“Come with me,” Rowan repeated, his jaws clamped shut.
“I am hungry,” Jura said, looking toward the tables and the rapidly disappearing food.
Rowan’s fingers clamped down on her upper arm as he began to pull her out of the room. Jura tried to jerk away from him but he held her fast, and she cursed him for embarrassing her before her people.
He pulled her into the first open doorway, a small chamber for the storage of barrels of ale and mead.
“Never,” he said into her face as soon as the door was closed, “never will my wife behave like that again.” He could hardly speak for his anger. “As if you were a common doxy, leaping on the tables and…and…”—he nearly choked—“throwing your body on those men.”
Was this man crazy? “That is my duty,” she said patiently. “The guardswomen are trained to settle disputes, and as Thal’s representative it was my duty. Had Geralt been at dinner, he would have handled the men.”
Rowan’s face was turning purple. “Thal is dead,” he said. “I am king. I will settle disputes between my own men. My wife will not.”
Anger began to rise in Jura. “I begin to understand. It is that I am a woman. Do you think that Lanconian women are as cowardly and as useless as that sister of yours?”
He advanced on her. “Leave my sister out of this. I am telling you that you will not act as if you were my sergeant-at-arms. You are a woman and you will act as one.”
The man was absurd. “I must sit and sew in order to prove to you that I am a woman? Do I look like a man?”
Involuntarily, Rowan looked down at her body with her high firm breasts, long round thighs, and that short tunic of hers clinging to her curving backside. For the thousandth time he cursed his quick temper that had made him swear he would keep his hands off of her.