On the morning of the third day, just before dawn, she saw Rowan slip from the camp and make his way into the trees. Feeling a little tentative at what she was doing, she followed him.
She half expected him to leap from the trees and curse her for leaving the protection of the others, but he did not. He was squatted by the side of a stream, bare to the waist and washing himself.
He did not turn around. “What do you want, Jura?” he asked, his voice as cool as the mountain stream.
She almost turned back to the camp but she made herself go forward to kneel beside him and drink of the water. The sky was just barely pink. “We have not spoken in days and I thought…” She put out her hand to touch his shoulder, but he looked at her hand in such a way that she removed it.
“I was not aware that Lanconian men and women talked,” he said. “I believe your job is to guard my back.”
She frowned, utterly confused by him. “But we are also married.”
“I see. So, it is the bedding that you want from me. I am to carry steel in my hands and between my legs and that is all you want.”
“If that is what you believe of me, so be it,” she said angrily, and left him alone. Was she supposed to explain to him why she had done what she had? Did he really believe she wanted him dead?
Again, tears came to her eyes, but she blinked them away. Damn him! Why did she love a man who made her cry?
ROWAN DID NOT look at her when he returned to camp and Jura stiffened her shoulders as if his ignoring of her was a physical blow. Her head and body ached when she at last lay down to sleep. It was because of Jura’s turbulent thoughts that she was awake when the others slept and she saw “them” come into the camp. At first she thought she was dreaming, for the people were more shadow than flesh and blood. And they moved without sound, slipping through the darkness as silently as a fish through water.
With wide, unbelieving eyes, she saw one of the small, thin, dark-clad figures bend and put something over Daire’s mouth. But before she could rise up in protest, something hit her on the head and she saw no more.
When she woke, she was aware of pain in her head and her back. Before she opened her eyes, she tried to move her hands but couldn’t.
Painfully, Jura opened her eyes to look at Cilean. They were in the back of a wagon, under a tall wooden frame and on top of lumpy bags of grain, and what felt to be rocks.
“Jura, are you all right?” Cilean whispered.
Jura tried to sit up, but her hands and ankles were tied together behind her. “Yes,” she managed to whisper through a dry throat. “Where are we? Who has taken us? Where are the others?” She grimaced as the wagon hit a deep hole in the road and whatever was in the bag beneath her dug into her side.
“I don’t know,” Cilean said. “I was asleep, and when I woke I was here.”
Jura struggled against her bonds. “I have to save Rowan,” she said. “He will try to talk his way out of this and they will kill him.”
Cilean gave a bit of a smile. “I think we should worry about ourselves now. If they have taken us prisoner, they must have taken the others. I hear other wagons. I think we should sleep now and try to
keep what strength we have.”
Jura had difficulty sleeping because of her worry about Rowan—and the others, she reminded herself. She prayed to God to protect him. It is too early for him to die, she prayed. He had work to do. And he needed her to protect him. What if he lost confidence again? Who would be there to help him?
She slept at last, but she dreamed of Rowan being dead and, in the dream, she knew his death was her fault because she had never told him that she loved him.
The abrupt halting of the wagon woke her. Rough hands grabbed her ankles and pulled her from the wagon, her head hitting hard bags. More hands untied her so she could stand on the ground.
Ultens, she thought as she stared at the thin little man standing before her, and all the horror stories she had ever heard came to her mind. Stories of the Ultens were told around the fire on cold, stormy nights. Parents threatened their children with Ultens.
No one knew much about them really except that they were filthy beyond belief, sly, thieving, untrustworthy, and as far as anyone could tell, they had no concept of honor. Over the centuries the other tribes had done their best to ignore the Ultens. They lived high in the mountains in the northeast corner of Lanconia and no one had any desire to see their city.
Yet there were rumors about the place. When Jura was a child, an old man with an arm and an eye missing had told of being captured by the Ultens, and he had talked of a city of fabulous wealth. Everyone had laughed at him until he had slinked off into a corner and gotten drunk. Days later he had disappeared, never to be seen again.
Now, Jura stood staring in the darkness at the filthy face of her captor, half hidden under a grimy hooded cloak. The ancient man held out a cup of liquid and a stale chunk of bread to her. Jura took the food, and as the old man pulled Cilean from the wagon, she looked about her. There were four other wagons and about them silently moved more of the cloaked figures, but they pulled no other prisoners from the wagons.
Jura’s throat swelled closed. “Where are the others?” she asked the man.
No one said a word but, silently, slicing through the darkness, came another figure and Jura was slapped across the mouth. It didn’t take much thought to realize she was to remain silent. She ate her bread, drank the musty-tasting beer, and she and Cilean were allowed to relieve themselves in the trees, then they were shoved back into the wagons.