Rowan blinked at Brita a few times. “I can bed a woman,” he answered.
“No injuries? Not even in your English tournaments?”
“No,” Rowan said softly. “No injuries.” He wanted to tell her, as he told everyone, that he was Lanconian, but suddenly he felt more English than Lanconian. He had made an English vow to a Lanconian woman.
Brita kept talking but Rowan didn’t listen to her. More than anything in life he wanted to go to Jura and talk to her but he dared not offend Brita. He and Jura were two Irials amid a few hundred Vatells and he was not stupid enough to anger their leader.
At noon they stopped to rest and eat. The young Vatell men and women, some of the women still crying, were given coarse bread and water while Brita and Rowan were served a feast on a white cloth. Rowan could hardly eat. He looked for Jura but she was nowhere to be seen.
After the meal he excused himself as if to make a private trip into the forest but he was no sooner in the forest than he fell to his knees and began to pray.
“You have help
ed me, God,” he said in little more than a whisper, “and now I need You again. I want Your forgiveness. Lord, I am merely a man, a foolish man who makes foolish mistakes and I have made one now. I have sworn to You that I would not touch my wife unless she begged me. But I have also sworn to love, honor, and cherish her until I die. I can’t keep both of my vows and, Lord, I ask You to release me from the first stupid vow, the one made by an angry boy, not by a man meant to be a king. Lord, I humble myself before You. I will do penance. I will rule this country to the best of my ability and I will even bring the Ultens to Christianity, but I beg You to release me from this childish vow.”
When Rowan finished his prayer and opened his eyes, the forest seemed unnaturally quiet, as if he were completely alone in the world. Then he heard a noise to his right, a branch breaking, and he went toward the sound.
Jura stood there, her knife drawn, waiting for him. “Oh, it is you,” she said, and wiped her bloody knife on the grass.
“What are you doing?” he asked, smiling at her. He was very glad to see her, for her bloody knife seemed much less dangerous than Brita’s glittering eyes and her never-ending stories about herself.
“I have killed six rabbits and I am sneaking them to those farmers.” She stood up straight and looked at him. “Or do you plan to tell Brita that I am doing this evil thing? These woods are hers and she hangs poachers.”
“I will not tell,” he said, still smiling as Jura shoved the dead rabbits into a bag.
“Why are you smiling? Do you anticipate your marriage to her already?”
Rowan reached out and grabbed her to him. He hadn’t held her in a while. She was too much temptation to him and he knew touching her would make him forget his vow. “You are my answer from God,” he said. “I asked God to release me from my vow and here you are, alone, where I am. It is the answer to my prayer.”
She pushed at him. “You are mad. And you seem to have an extraordinarily intimate relationship with God. Does He talk to you at night in little voices? Or perhaps you see Him now and again?”
Rowan chuckled and held her against him. “I am released from my vow. Jura, we can be man and wife.”
She quietened in his arms then pulled her head away to look at him. “You are to marry Brita and I am to marry Daire.”
“You cannot marry Daire and you know the law as well as I do now. Did you hope to help Lanconia by getting rid of me or did you just want out of our marriage?” He began to kiss her neck.
“Release me. I cannot think when you…”
“When I touch you? When I make love to you?” He was moving his hands up and down her body, that wonderful body that he had dreamed about. During the Honorium he had thought of nothing else but holding her and caressing her. He wanted to kiss away her bruises.
Jura had her head back and her eyes closed. “Leave me and go to Brita,” she whispered huskily.
“I do not want Brita. I have never wanted Brita. I have always wanted you and only you. Tonight, Jura. Tonight I will come to you. We will make camp and an hour later I will come to you. You will not be a maiden after tonight. And, most important of all, you will stay married to me.” He managed with difficulty to pull away from her. His body ached for hers. Her lips were soft, her eyes soft.
“Do you jest with me, Englishman?” she asked quietly. “You will lose Brita if you come to me.”
“I have never wanted her. Jura, believe me, I want only you.”
“I do not know if I can trust you.”
“You can. I swear to you that you can trust me with your life. Now go and give your rabbits away. I do not want to anger Brita’s army and get ourselves slaughtered before tonight. Go, my love.”
Jura’s confusion showed on her beautiful face but she obeyed him as she grabbed her rabbits and left him.
Rowan stood there smiling rather fatuously and thinking of the approaching night when he heard a step not far away. Instantly, he slipped behind a tree and watched. He saw a flash of brilliant yellow then nothing else.
He leaned against the tree. Brita, he thought. She had followed him and no doubt seen him with Jura. His senses had not been alert when he was touching Jura and he had not been aware of Brita sneaking through the forest to spy on them. She had been too far away to hear them but she must have seen them.