At dusk they camped. They did not light a fire because now they were very close to Brita’s walled city.
“It would be too much to hope that you remain behind tomorrow,” Rowan said, his eyebrows raised in question as he looked at her in the fading light.
“Someone must watch your back,” she answered. “I thought we would ride into the city tomorrow: $$$ believe we can get in without question. It is good you speak our language. We will identify Brita and the first time she rides out, we will take her. There is a peasant’s hut a day’s ride back; we can keep her there while you talk to her. We will have to watch that the peasants do not betray us, though.”
“Is that all the decisions you have made?” Rowan asked in a low voice. “You have not also perhaps decided that I am not allowed to participate? Perhaps I would be too much in your way.”
“You are the one who tells me to stay in the forest,” she said, not understanding what she had done now to make him angry. “Do you have another plan that is better than mine?”
“No,” he said through clenched teeth, “it is the same plan I had except that I was to ride into the city alone but—” He stopped.
“What is the difference whether I say the plan or you do? I think it is good that we agree on something.”
Rowan kicked at a rock with his toe. “You are a woman,” he muttered.
“Not enough of one,” she said under her breath, and turned away. Winning a man seemed to be easy. All she had to do was outwrestle, outshoot, outrun, outjump fifty or so other women, but what in heaven’s name did it take to please a man after one won him?
They slept a few feet apart, and during the night Rowan’s restless tossing woke her. Instinctively, she moved beside him, and in his sleep he reached out for her and pulled her to him, clutching her to him tightly He felt so good to her, so strong, so warm, so right. She snuggled close to him and slept.
In the morning she woke before he did and quickly rolled away from him. She couldn’t bear another of his “beg me” talks.
They rode into Brita’s city as soon as the gates were open. It was not a rich city and it was very different from Escalon. Here were houses and tiny, narrow shops and men and women running to and fro. But there was an air of poverty about the place, the city smelling of excrement that hadn’t been hauled away and rotting meat carcasses. She and Rowan, in their rich clothes, were stared at by raggedy peasants.
They stopped to buy mugs of buttermilk from a street vendor.
“And where does Brita live?” Rowan asked.
“Queen Brita,” Jura said, smiling at the vendor. “We have business with her.”
“There,” the man said, pointing to a stone house butted up against the north side of the stone wall that surrounded the city. It was a large but ordinary house, not nearly as large or as rich as the house where Rowan and Jura had stolen the clothes they wore.
“She hunts today,” the vendor said, “and you may see her ride past with her guard. There! The door opens now and there comes her guard.”
Rowan and Jura nodded thanks to the man and moved into the shadow of a building as they waited for the queen and her guard to pass.
No matter that the Vatell tribe did not own good grazing or cropland, their queen did not skimp on the magnificence of her guard. All twenty men who rode with her were richly dressed in fine blue wool, and their weapons were of high-quality steel that Jura knew had not come from Lanconia. Their horses were tall, spirited, beautiful animals that looked well fed and well exercised
But Brita put the men to shame. She rode in the middle of these handsome, erect men and she was like the sun surrounded by twenty moons. She was tall, slim, and absolutely beautiful. She wore a long gown in the English style that fitted about her waist very tightly and it was made of rich, cream-colored wool that set off her dark hair and eyes to advantage.
As she rode past, the city came to a halt as every man, woman and child, and it seemed, every animal, paused to look at her. There was a hush when she had left the gates.
“Old, is she?” Rowan said to Jura. “No wonder men follow her. I might follow her myself.”
Jura glared at him but he was smiling in an insipid way at the gate where Brita had just disappeared. “Are we going to go after her or not?” she hissed at him.
“This is one task I shall love,” he said, grinning idiotically and not seeing Jura’s angry glare.
They mounted their horses and rode out of town to a low ridge where they could look down on the city and the plain below. Brita and her men did not go far from the city walls as they rode into the surrounding forest to begin their hunt.
“I will follow her and—”
“We will follow her,” Jura said. “We will separate her from her men and then take her. I can throw my cloak over her and—”
“You will follow me and do what I tell you. Now come on. We will ride around the east side and watch her, then take her when we can.”
In the end it was Jura who made it possible for Rowan to capture Brita. The queen had separated from most of her men, and with only two guards near her, she was pursuing a big, tusked boar. Jura thought she was ridiculous wearing that white dress while hunting, but Rowan wore an odd expression as he watched her.