“Jura!” Thal bellowed, then collapsed into coughing. The woman Lora clucked over him and, to Jura’s disgust, Thal not only allowed it but seemed to want such soft attention. Jura wanted to move away from Rowan but he held her braid fast.
“You will treat my children with respect,” Thal said raggedly, his throat raw from coughing. “You will thank my daughter for her pretty compliment.”
Jura stared straight ahead and said nothing. It was difficult to concentrate on the world around her with this man standing so close.
When Thal started to rise again, Lora soothed him. “Please, Father, do not vex yourself. I’m sure Jura is used to such compliments. Rowan, your squire and your captive look as if they might kill each other. Perhaps you should attend to them.”
Jura didn’t look at him but she felt his hesitation. He moved only when the clash of steel on steel rang out. In spite of herself, Jura turned to watch him move toward the two tall boys who were attempting to kill one another. Jura recognized one as the young man who had told her she was wanted in the stables. He was as dark as a Lanconian and she had not realized he was English. Since he had delivered his message in Lanconian, she wondered if he had memorized the message and repeated it by rote.
She watched Rowan stalk across the field toward the boys. He showed no fear or hesitation as he moved into the middle of the fighting young men with their swords flashing in rage. Rowan merely slammed his open palm into the chest of each boy and sent him flying. The boys landed on their seats in a cloud of dust.
“My men do not fight each other,” Rowan said in a low voice that carried more threat than a shout.
“I am not your man,” Keon yelled up at Rowan. “My father is Brocain and—”
“I am your master,” Rowan said, cutting him off. “You are not Zerna, you are Lanconian and I am your king. Now, both of you go and polish my mail.”
Montgomery, lifting himself from the dust, groaned. To be cleaned, chain mail had to be put in a big leather bag with oil and then tossed from one person to another. It was like tossing a rock back and forth.
Thal chuckled with pleasure at his son’s settling of the dispute.
Jura whirled to face him. “Whatever he does pleases you,” she spat at the old man. “He claims kingship that is not his to claim. He brags that he is king of all Lanconians, but to be that, he would have to declare war on the other tribes. Is he to kill Brocain and Brita? What of Marek and Yaine? We have peace now but will we if this man kills merely to feed his vanity so that he can say he is king of more than the Irial? I beg of you, do not leave us with this braggart for king. We need no more war between the tribes. Each tribe patrols its own borders. If a tribe is destroyed we will be attacked and we will exist no more. Please, I beg you, we all beg you, give us a king who understands what must be.”
Thal glared at her, his face turning purple with a suppressed rage that was making his need to cough so strong that he could not contain it.
“Go!” Lora yelled, coming to her feet and hovering over Thal like a protective she-bear. “You have upset him enough.”
Jura turned on her heel, looking neither left nor right, and left the training field.
Rowan walked back to his father but his eyes were on Jura’s back.
“You are a fool,” Thal croaked up at his son. “She will make your life miserable.”
Rowan smiled. “I do not have a choice in the matter. As I am to be king, she is to be mine.”
“Yours?” Lora asked. “What is going on? Rowan, tell me you aren’t planning a…a union with that woman. She is rude, thoughtless, uncaring of anyone but herself, and she has no respect for your right to be king. She is altogether unsuitable to even live in our house much less in a position of honor.”
“Mmm,” was all Rowan said, and turned back toward the archery range.
Jura trained harder than anyone would have thought possible over the next few days. She attended no banquets of welcome for the arriving contestants nor did she leave the fields to greet them. She was up before dawn, running for miles on the long, winding trails outside the city walls. She jumped across wide streams, walked across four-inch-wide logs, practiced throwing her spear and shooting her arrows. She stopped only long enough to wolf down vast meals and at night fall into bed into a deep, dreamless sleep.
“Jura,” Cilean said on the fourth day, “slow down. You will be too tired to compete.”
“I must be ready. I must win.”
“You want to win?” Cilean asked softly.
“Winning to me is making sure that you win. He must have someone of wisdom on the throne beside him. His vanity and stupidity are overwhelming. Without you beside him, I fear he will destroy Lanconia.”
Cilean frowned. “Jura, I’m not so sure you’re right. He doesn’t seem vain at all. He trains almost as much as you do and he oversees the men all day. He is very fair and impartial in settling disputes and he is very kind to the women who are arriving for the Honorium.” She stopped and laughed. “Do you remember three years ago when we came upon that hunting party of Zerna? You and I were alone and they stopped to water their horses.”
“Yes, we hid in the bushes and waited for them to leave.”
“Remember the leader? That big woman with the scarred face?”
“We heard her speak and thought she was a man.”
“Yes,” Cilean said, “that’s the one. Her name is Mealla and she has come to try for Rowan’s hand in marriage.”