“Oh? Then why did you allow me to caress you that first day we met? I do not think you had ever allowed another man to touch you so. Even your precious Daire. I see the way he looks at you. He no doubt chose you because you could handle a weapon better than any other woman.”
“It is how I won you,” she said, and started toward the bank.
He caught her arm and they stood together, unclothed, on the bank. “You are afraid to let yourself love me, aren’t you, Jura?” he said softly.
She tried to pull away from him. “That’s ridiculous. We had better get back. The others will be awake now and we must travel.”
He still held her arm. “Why are you afraid to love me? Are you afraid you will lose yourself in me?”
She turned to stare at him. “How romantic your thoughts are, Englishman. Is this part of your knightly training? You are right: I do not want to love you, but it is because you do not have long to live. You walk into situations that your English mind cannot understand, and so far your innocence, or perhaps it is God, has protected you, but you cannot
last long. If Yaine does not kill you, someone will soon.”
Rowan looked at her as if she had slapped him, but then he began to smile. “I will never accustom myself to your direct speech.” He released her arm so she could dress. “I am going to surprise you, Jura, because I am going to live. I am not only going to live but I am going to accomplish what I have set out to do. Before I die I am going to unite the tribes of Lanconia.”
She had just slipped her tunic over her head when he pulled her into his arms. “You may deny what you feel for me but they are empty denials,” he said. “Your body has always recognized me as its partner; only your mind is not as smart as your body.” He began to kiss her, his hands on her back. “You were to marry your Daire—who you respect so highly—but I do not believe he ever kissed you and made you feel as I do. Your mind will come to me, Jura. It is only a matter of time.”
She turned her head away from his kisses, but she was not strong enough to move out of his arms. “You should not be king,” she whispered. “You are only half Lanconian. I do not understand you. None of us understands you. You should return to your own country before your meddling starts a war.”
“And take you back to England with me?” he asked. “Take you to a place where a woman is valued for her household skills and not for her ability to outwrestle other women?”
She gave a great push and moved away from him. “I would stay here. I am Lanconian.” Even as she said it, she felt a sudden ache. To never see him again, to never see him smile, to never again see that look that told her she had done something that seemed strange to him. To never feel his arms around her again.
She turned to look at him. He wore only the loincloth of an English knight, and the sight of his big, muscular body with its covering of blond hair made her want to touch him. Suddenly, she straightened. She had to control herself. She had to force her mind to govern her body. She was a guardswoman, not some silly cow maiden who fell in love with the first pair of broad shoulders that she saw. Nor could she afford to follow this man blindly. It was not just herself involved, but an entire country. What she and Cilean, Daire and Geralt did on this trip would affect all of Lanconia. If they acted stupidly or hastily, they could cause the deaths of many people. Whatever she did, she must keep her mind clear. She could love this Rowan but not with the blind love he spoke of. She could never follow him merely because he said, “Come.” She must watch and wait and see what he planned and she must never, never allow what they did in the dark to influence what she thought during the day.
She resisted the urge to touch him. “We must return,” she said softly, and turned away to finish dressing.
He kissed her once before they returned to the others but she managed to control her reaction to him and keep her head cool.
“It will be easier to conquer Lanconia than to conquer you,” he said with a sigh. “Now go on, get up the hill. I fear to leave our brother with Brita too long or she may persuade him to put a knife to my throat as I sleep.”
“You misjudge him!” Jura snapped as she began the climb. “He has been trained from childhood, as I have, in the policies of Lanconia.”
“I know hatred when I see it in someone’s eyes. Will you protect my back from your brother’s knife? Who would you choose if it came to a choice between the two of us?”
Jura stopped at that question for she had no idea what her answer was. Rowan kept climbing and after a moment she followed him. Of course it would not come to a choice, for Rowan would no doubt get himself—and perhaps the rest of their group—killed before he reached the Fearens’ city. Once again, Jura felt a little ache inside her breast at the thought of the loss of Rowan, but she managed to control it. She must steel herself for the time when he would be gone.
AS THEY RODE that day, each step taking them closer to Fearen territory, each person grew more watchful. The road became steeper and in places so narrow the horses shied at having to travel it. They were traveling east toward the rising sun, with the mountains that hid the villages of the Poilens and the Ultens to their left in the north.
No one spoke as they stayed alert for any noise not of their own making. Twice Jura saw Brita looking at Geralt in a hungry way and thought with disgust of the woman’s appetites. One day Brita wanted Rowan and the next she wanted Geralt.
Perhaps it was Rowan’s words that made her doubt her brother, but she looked at Geralt with appraising eyes. He sat stiffly on his horse, never once glancing in Brita’s direction, but something in the way he carried himself made Jura think Geralt was very aware of Brita’s gaze.
Jura looked up to see Rowan’s eyes on her. He gave her a level gaze that for some reason embarrassed her and she looked away. The man was treacherous! He knew that his words had made Jura watch her brother and now he was making her doubt him.
They camped that night in the crook of the river that was the boundary of the Fearen territory. They did not build a fire but ate cold food then put their blankets onto the rocky ground and settled down to sleep. Geralt had the first watch.
No sooner had Jura gone to sleep than suddenly she was awake. The river was noisy and masked a great deal, but her senses told her something was wrong. She eased onto her elbow and looked about. Brita and Cilean seemed to be asleep and she looked toward the deep shadows in some rocks where Geralt hid and guarded. Rowan had moved his blankets away from the others and she could not see him. She looked at Daire and knew he was awake.
Daire lay where he was but his hand moved to point toward Rowan’s place in the trees then toward the narrow trail leading into the Fearens’ land. Jura felt her heart begin to beat faster. For some reason the Englishman had ridden alone into enemy territory.
Jura eased out of the blankets, signaled Daire to stay with Brita and Cilean, then crept toward the horses. She knew Rowan would ride directly toward Yaine’s city, so she mounted bareback and began to ride, slowly and softly at first then with more speed and vigor the farther away from the camp she got.
She had not gone far when Rowan shot out of the trees on his horse with the fury of anger.
“Damn you, Jura!” he yelled at her. “You are worse than a possessive mother. Go back to the others now!”