Xante was looking at Rowan with some interest, but he was older than Daire and less easily intimidated. When he spoke, his voice held great patience. “They are Zerna and do not recognize an Irial king. They believe Brocain is their king and they would delight in killing you.”
“I do not please people so easily. We ride,” he said over his shoulder to his own men.
Behind him Xante stopped the Irials from following Rowan. “It is better that the fool is killed now before Thal makes him king,” he said. The Lanconians watched with impassive faces as the prince they disliked so much rode toward certain death.
The three Zernas on the hill stood still as Rowan and his knights approached. He could see, as he drew closer, that they were young men out hunting and no doubt startled at the sight of so many Irials where they shouldn’t be.
Rowan’s anger was still pounding in his ears. Always, he had been taught that he was to be king of all the Lanconians, and here the Irials were trying to kill the Zernas.
Rowan motioned for his knights to remain behind as he rode forward to greet the three young men alone. He halted about a hundred yards from the young hunters. “I am Prince Rowan, son of Thal,” he called in the Irial language that the Zernas spoke also, “and I offer you greetings and peace.”
The three young men still sat motionless on their horses, obviously fascinated by this lone blond man, such an oddity in this country, riding toward them on his tall, beautiful roan horse. The middle Zerna, little more than a boy, was the first to recover his senses. With a movement like lightning, he drew his bow and an arrow and shot at Rowan.
Rowan swerved to the right only just before the arrow reached him and he felt it graze his left arm. He cursed under his breath and spurred his horse to a swift gallop. He had had more than he could bear from these Lanconians. Contempt and laughter were one thing, but being shot at by a boy after he’d offered peace was the last insult he could tolerate. He reached the boy in seconds and, while still galloping, pulled him from his horse and flung him to the ground. Rowan was off his horse instantly, holding the fighting boy to the ground with the weight of his big body. Behind him he could hear the thunder of the hooves of two hundred approaching Lanconian horses.
“Get out of here!” he bellowed to the two boys still on their horses.
“We cannot,” one said, looking in horror at the boy Rowan was pinning to the ground, his voice little more than a whisper. “He is our king’s son.”
“I am your king,” Rowan bellowed, all of his anger behind his voice. He looked up to see his own knights approaching. “Get them out of here,” he ordered, motioning toward the two Zerna boys. “Xante will tear them apart.”
Rowan’s knights charged the two young men and sent them racing.
Rowan looked down at the boy he held. He was a handsome youth, about seventeen and as mad as a cat in water.
“You are not my king,” the boy screeched. “My father, the great Brocain, is king.” He spat a mouthful of saliva in Rowan’s face.
Rowan wiped his face then slapped the boy in an insulting way, like a man might slap a woman whose quick tongue was more than he could bear. He jerked him upright. “You’ll come with me.?
“I’ll die before—”
Rowan turned the boy to face the approaching Irial troops, who were now very close. They were a formidable sight of muscled men, muscled horses, and weapons gleaming in the sunlight. “They will kill you if you try to run.”
“No Zerna fears an Irial,” he said, but his face had lost all color.
“There are times when a man uses his brain instead of his right arm. Act like a man now. Make your father proud.” He released his hold on the boy, and after a moment’s hesitation, the boy stood where he was. Rowan could only hope the boy had sense enough not to do something stupid. No doubt the Irials would take great pleasure in killing this Zerna boy.
The Lanconians surrounded Rowan and the boy, their horses sweaty, nostrils open, the men with their black brows drawn together, weapons at the ready. They were enough to make Rowan want to turn tail and run.
“Good,” Xante said, “you have a captive. We will execute him now for trying to kill an Irial.”
Rowan was proud that the boy did not waver or show any signs of cowardice at Xante’s autocratic words. Rowan’s anger, momentarily exorcised by his tussle with the boy, came to the surface again. Now was the time to establish his right to rule. He pushed his anger down and looked up at Xante. “I have a guest,” he said pointedly. “This is Brocain’s son and he has agreed to travel with us and to direct us through his father’s land.”
Xante snorted as loudly as his horse. “It was this guest who shot you?”
Rowan was aware of the blood streaming down his arm but he would not back down now. “I cut myself on a rock,” he said, his eyes challenging Xante’s.
Cilean urged her horse forward, placing herself between the two men. “We welcome a guest, even though he be Zerna,” she said as if she were welcoming a poisonous snake into her bed. Her eyes were on Rowan, watching him as he glared up at the formidable Xante. Not many men dared challenge Xante and she never would have believed this soft blond Englishman would do so. But she had watched him ride against the Zerna, rather amazingly dodge an arrow, leap from his horse onto the boy, and now the Zerna boy stood close to the Englishman as if this blond man could stay the hands of the Irials. And now this Rowan was daring Xante in a way she had never seen before. Perhaps this man was a fool but perhaps there was more to him than they thought.
Rowan’s knight Belsur held the reins to Rowan’s horse. Rowan mounted then offered his hand to the Zerna boy to mount behind him. As Rowan turned his horse to start back to the camp, he asked, “What is your name?”
“Keon,” the boy said proudly, but there was a catch in his throat, betraying his fear at his narrow brush with death. “Son of the Zerna king.”
“I think we’d better give your father another title. I am the only king of this country.”
The boy laughed in a derogatory way. “My father will destroy you. No Irial will ever rule a Zerna.”