It took most of a day to return to the campsite and it was indeed clean, as if the Irial women and Brita had packed and left. Rowan was still not satisfied. He didn’t like being drugged and locked in a wagon. He said he was going after the women.
At that the Ulten women began to cry. They promised Rowan they would do anything if he would return with them. They said they had heard how he was uniting all of Lanconia but they knew he would not think of the Ultens, that everyone hated the Ultens, and they needed him more than any other tribe. They said they would even send a message to the Irials from Rowan if he would just return with them.
Rowan the king and Rowan the man were torn apart. As king he wanted to see this elusive tribe but as a man he wanted Jura back. During the long journey Daire had told him that Jura had gone after him after Keon’s death, so Rowan knew she must have seen him crying. He knew Lanconians did not cry.
Yet Jura, a Lanconian, had seen him cry and she had not ridiculed him or been disgusted with him. Instead, she had kicked him into once again believing in himself.
And he had not realized at the time what she was doing. His own sense of failure had turned to a rage that he directed at her. Rowan ached for her and wanted to go find the women but Geralt had started yelling at Rowan and saying that if the Ultens needed them they should go with the Ulten women. Rowan said Geralt’s thoughts were below his belt, and that had nearly caused a fight. Daire had stepped in and his calm counsel had made Rowan the king win over Rowan the man. Daire said they were close to Yaine, and Jura and Cilean would no doubt take Brita to Yaine, and that Rowan wasn’t needed. Also, Rowan could not afford to insult the Ultens as he might never get another chance to enter their secluded mountain village peacefully.
Reluctantly, Rowan went with the Ulten women.
Over the next few days, he, the only man who spoke the Ulten language, talked to the women. He was disturbed by the promiscuous nature of the women and had he been in England he would have forbidden his men to consort with them, but the Fearens, Geralt, and even Daire slept with a different woman each night.
It was while the others were cavorting in the bushes that Rowan got to talk to the two remaining unoccupied women and he heard some of the recent sad history of the Ultens.
Fifteen years ago, a strange fever that was said to have come from the east struck nearly every person in the isolated Ulten villages. The women recovered quickly but man after man died, hundreds of men, in fact. When the fever was gone, only a quarter of the Ulten men were still alive and by the end of the next year it was found that these men could produce only girl children. So for many years now, the Ultens had been a city of women.
“Why didn’t you go to the other tribes and ask for men?” Rowan asked. “Surely men would have come with you.”
“But King Marek forbade it,” she answered simply.
Rowan began to get a picture of the remaining Ulten men loving having a city full of women to themselves, any of whom would go to bed with them in order to get a child.
When they arrived at the city, Rowan’s worst fears were reinforced when he saw Marek, a fat, slimy, toothless old man surrounded by beautiful young women. Rowan cursed himself for having been seduced into believing what the women had said, that they wanted him merely to give them children and that they wanted to unite with the other tribes. Perhaps the women believed that, but Rowan saw that greasy old Marek had no intention of sharing his private harem with other men. And Rowan thought that, perhaps, Marek meant for the foreign men to impregnate a few women, then Rowan and the others would be put to death.
If only Jura had been with them, Rowan thought. Her skepticism and cynicism would have made him think twice about going with the Ulten women. He cursed himself for being a fool—just like Jura said he was. Now, the men with him thought only of how many women they could bed each night, but Rowan saw beyond that. What was planned for them when their usefulness was over? Rowan had to come up with a plan for e
scape because he sensed that the men would not be allowed to leave peacefully. Marek would not like the information that the Ultens were a city of women living near a palace containing great wealth to leave the Ulten boundaries. Marek had worked hard to make the Ultens seem poor. Whenever an Ulten left the border, she wore rags covered in filth. No one wanted to follow an Ulten to examine the city. And Marek no doubt wanted to keep it that way so he could not allow Rowan or his men to leave alive.
Rowan kept staring out the window, and the more he thought, the more he worried. What had they done to Jura? Why had he been so trusting? Why had he believed the tears of some pretty women? If men had drugged him and locked him in a wagon and he had found out the women were not with them, he would have drawn a sword and removed a few limbs of the men and forced them to tell what they had done with Jura and Cilean and Brita. But like a sheep being led to slaughter he had docilely gone with the Ulten women and left Jura on her own.
If she were on her own, he thought grimly. If they had not killed the women, for unlike Daire, he believed the Ultens capable of more than stealing. They wanted male children, so they captured a king and a couple of princes to use for stud service. They took whatever they wanted.
His face turned hard. I will give these women to the Zerna men, he thought angrily. Let us see if the conniving she-devils can manipulate Brocain’s men.
While he was thinking with so much fury, he became aware of some commotion in the street below. It was some distance away, across the rooftop of another building, but he could see some angry activity. One of the little Ulten women raised a whip and cracked it, hitting another person who was half hidden by the building.
As Rowan watched, from the shadows came a third woman, a tall woman, with a black braid flying out behind her, who leaped onto the smaller woman with the whip.
“Jura,” Rowan whispered, and almost climbed out the window to go after her, but some bit of sense made him stay where he was. With a pounding heart and his face showing his anguish, he watched silently as a dozen Ulten women leaped on Jura and knocked her to the ground. A moment later the Ultens led Jura and Cilean away, out of Rowan’s sight.
He leaned against the window casing and took deep breaths to calm himself. There was more treachery here than he thought, and he, fool that he was, had walked directly into it.
Tonight he must, somehow, escape these women and go to Jura. And he must figure out a plan to get all of them away from the Ultens safely.
SORE?” CILEAN ASKED Jura softly.
Jura shrugged in answer but the truth was, her shoulders and back hurt a great deal from the whip strokes of that afternoon.
They were alone in the little stone house again, this time their guard outside doubled because of what had happened that day. Cilean had fallen under a heavy bag of grain, and when one of the Ultens had cracked a whip over her, Jura had leaped for the woman’s throat. Jura had received a dozen lashes with a whip for that and Cilean had chided her for taking the punishment. They had been worked especially hard the rest of the day and only now, so late, were they allowed to rest.
But Cilean’s anger, reawakened, kept her awake. “We have to escape. I saw two women talking by the gate today when they should have been watching. If we could find a way to distract them, perhaps we could—”
She broke off at the look on Jura’s face and she turned. Standing in the doorway, lit from behind by torches, was a ghost—a thick, wide, golden ghost.
Jura blinked to clear her vision but the ghost remained there.