“King?” a thief said, and snorted laughter before he attacked Rowan.
Jura listened to the sounds of battle behind her and kept her head turned a bit so she could see when or if Rowan needed help, but he was a good fighter, very good. And she was surprised to see that he fought like a Lanconian.
One of the thieves fell and Rowan went after the other one while Jura still stayed close to his back.
She had been trained well and they worked together as if they were dancing. When he moved, she moved.
She heard the second thief scream in pain, but she didn’t turn her head because, just as she thought might happen, a third thief came tearing from the forest, a sword raised above his head and coming straight at her. She parried his blow and steel rang against steel.
“Run, Jura, run,” Rowan commanded, and she cursed him for trying to confuse her. She was trained to obey orders but this was a bad order.
She fought the man with all her strength, not even hesitating when his steel cut into her upper arm. The man was frenzied as his sword raised and lowered, and Jura took each blow on her own sword. Then she counterattacked and began to push him back toward the forest with angry, aggressive blows of her own.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Rowan, finished now with his own fight, come toward her, but he stopped and watched instead.
Jura pinned the thief against a tree, ready to ram her sword into his belly.
“No!” Rowan said. “He is Lanconian.”
“He is Vatell,” Jura said, but she hesitated and didn’t kill the man.
“Here,” Rowan said, holding out a heavy meat-filled pie to the man. “Take this and take your friends. They are only wounded. Remember that your lives are a gift from the king. The king of all the Lanconians.”
The thief looked at Rowan the same way Jura felt, as if Rowan were crazy, and it was good to put miles between them. He snatched the pie and ran into the forest while the other two men, groaning, limped off.
The sun was beginning to rise now and Rowan looked at Jura’s bleeding arm then led her to sit on a nearby rock while he brought linen and fresh water from his saddle carriers. Tenderly, he began to wash and bandage her arm. It was a shallow cut.
“I have not seen that before,” he said softly. “I mean the way you stayed by my back. Feilan said nothing to me of women who guard a man’s back.”
“Perhaps he took it for granted. What does an Englishwoman do? If you had been here with your sister, what would she have done?”
“Lora would have hidden in the forest as I told you to do.”
“And she would have been taken by the third thief or he would have killed you when he attacked your back. Together, we made an impenetrable column with eyes all around.”
Rowan was frowning. “I see that but I do not like it. The men should be trained to guard each other’s backs.”
“Men are the stronger fighters, and quite often a woman only guards, she does not fight. It would be wrong to waste a strong arm merely to protect.”
Rowan finished the bandaging but he was still frowning. “I thank you for your protection this time but next time you must—”
Jura kissed him. Her action surprised both of them.
He drew back from her, his eyes dark with longing. “Jura,” he whispered.
She knew what he was going to ask: she was to beg him. Angrily, she stood and went to her horse. “If we are to reach Brita, then we must ride.” Every bit of her fury told in her voice and her manner as she mounted her horse and rode away, not looking to see if he followed.
They were on higher ground now, always traveling up into the mountains that formed the northern borders of the Lanconian territory and the air was cooler and thinner. They were also off the path Cilean had told Jura about and it was taking longer to reach Brita’s fortified city.
Rowan rode beside her but she did not look at him.
“What does this Brita look like?” he asked.
Jura kept her chin up. “I have never seen her and I have never asked anyone about her appearance. She is Daire’s mother, so she is old; she has led armies against Thal and the Fearens. When I was a child, I heard she even attacked the Zernas, so she must be scarred from battles. I do not imagine she is a beauty if that is what you are seeking.”
“Jura, can’t we—” Rowan began, but Jura urged her horse away from him.
She could forgive much of his strangeness because he was an Englishman, but she could not forgive his flirting with a maid one minute and rejecting her a few hours later. At midday they stopped to eat by a stream and Jura looked at her reflection in a still pool of water. She had never been concerned with her looks before, only with her prowess with a weapon, but she had seen the looks in men’s eyes and knew they found her desirable. So why did her English husband reject her? Was it because she wasn’t blonde as his sister was? Did he only like pale-skinned women?