JURA WOKE WITH a start as her body fell forward. She was leaning against a tree and she had managed to stay awake most of the night, but her fatigue had been too much for her a few hours before dawn.
“You’re safe,” said a voice near her.
She turned startled eyes toward Rowan. He was lounging on the ground near her, looking as if he had been asleep.
“How long have you been here?” she snapped, rubbing her eyes.
“When you fell asleep, I moved beside you.”
She straightened, trying to ignore the catch in her back.
“Look,” he said, nodding toward the peasant’s hut where the plump wife was emerging from the door and scratching. “They are awake and we are safe. I told you you should trust me. Brita is interested in my plan to unite the tribes. We talked for hours last night.”
She looked at him and saw the early-morning light touching his golden hair. His eyes were as blue as lake water. “You have washed the grease from your hair to help you talk? Have you found out what she wants so much that keeps her from trying to kill two Irials?”
Rowan grimaced. “Jura, please meet her. She is an intelligent woman and I think you might like her.”
Jura realized she was being childish; after all, this woman was Daire’s mother, and she had always loved Daire, so perhaps she would like her. She stood. “I will meet her.”
Rowan stood also and smiled at her. “You won’t regret this,” he said confidently.
Jura kept her back completely straight as she entered the hut where Brita sat on a small stool on the opposite side of the brazier. She looked up as Jura entered.
Jura felt that she knew this woman instantly. Brita was a woman who had lived always in a man’s world. Jura had, of course, heard Brita’s story and she had often wondered how a woman could gain control of an entire tribe and, even more difficult, retain that control, but as soon as she saw Brita’s glittering black eyes, she knew. Jura saw the ambition and the force behind those eyes. Once Jura had asked Daire why his mother did not fight Thal for the return of her oldest son, but now Jura saw that Brita would not endanger her throne for anyone, even her own son.
And Jura also saw that Brita considered Jura her enemy. The hairs rose on the back of Jura’s neck as she looked at this beautiful woman, and she wondered what she had that this queen wanted.
“So,” Brita said in that husky voice of hers, “you are the woman who left my son at the altar and betrayed her best friend in order to win an English king.”
Jura’s first reaction was to defend herself and explain, but she did not. “Yes,” she answered. “It is better to be the queen of the Irials than of the starving Vatells.”
Behind her, she heard Rowan groan but she kept her eyes on Brita. They understood each other and it was now open war.
“A maiden queen from what I hear,” Brita said softly as she looked Jura up and down, smiling at Jura’s wearing of the deep blue Vatell guardswoman tunic and trousers, a bow and arrows at her back. She was in sharp contrast to Brita in her beautiful white gown with a gold necklace set with heavy emeralds lying across her abundant bosom. “Perhaps your husband does not desire so mannish a woman. Perhaps he would do better with a true woman.”
So, Jura thought, she wants Rowan. “He was easily won and easily lost,” she said, then turned to leave. Rowan was blocking the doorway, and she had to push past him to get out.
She walked about a mile through the forest to a small stream, then tore off the hated Vatell clothes and plunged into the cold water to swim and wash the stink from her body. In all her life she had never been so unhappy. Even when both her parents had died so soon after one another she had not felt so lost. Then Daire had been there to take care of her and he had always been there—until now. Now this Englishman had come into her life and made her miserable. He complained about everything she did. If she saved his life by protecting his back, he told her she should have run into the forest.
He made her feel undesirable and unwanted.
She got out of the water and, wet, put the Vatell clothes back on.
“There you are,” she heard Rowan say, but she didn’t look up at him as she wrapped her cross garters about her legs.
“I have been talking to her,” he said gloomily, “and you were right. The woman wants an alliance between the Irials and the Vatells, but not as I had planned. She wants to marry me. She wants me to put you aside and marry her. If I do this, she will allow the Vatells to marry the Irials.” He frowned at Jura. “You should not have gone so far from the hut. There is danger in these woods.”
“And the hut is safe?” she asked. “I have been thinking that you also are right: I do not belong in this Vatell land. I should not have come. I will leave as soon as I have eaten.” She started back toward the hut but Rowan grabbed her arm.
“You cannot travel alone across this land. Any man who sees you will attack you.”
“Why?” she screamed at him. “Why would a man attack me? I am a maiden, remember? It is known to everyone that I am not wanted.” She jerked her arm from his. “Go back to her. Tell her you will marry her. I will free you and the Irials will be glad to see the tribes united by a royal marriage. You said marriage was the way to unite the tribes. You can set an example as the first.”
He was stiffening with every word. “And you will have Daire,” Rowan said flatly. “He is the man you have always wanted.”
“Yes, Daire,” Jura said, and the familiar name and the love and comfort it made her feel brought tears to her eyes. She turned her head away. “Go back to her. Tell her she will get what she wants. She will have her blond Irial king and you will begin to unite the tribes.”