Rowan smiled at the man, successfully covering the fact that his heart was pounding in his ears. He doubted if any amount of combat training could prepare one to fight with such a man as this. “I am Lanconian, King Thal’s successor. I am to be king of all the Lanconians,” he said with an amazing amount of firmness in his voice.
For a moment, the older man’s mouth dropped open, then he closed it again. “I will kill a hundred men for each hair that is harmed on my son’s head.”
Rowan yelled over his shoulder. “Keon! Come forward.”
Brocain looked his son up and down, grunted satisfaction that he was unharmed, then told him to join the Zernas on the hill.
“No!” Rowan said sharply. His hand dropped to his knee, so that it was inches from his sword hilt. Whatever fear he felt, he could not let it show and he could not let this man have Keon. Fate had delivered the boy into his hands and Rowan meant to keep him. He was not going to let this small chance at peace escape him. “I’m afraid I cannot allow that. Keon stays with me.”
Once again, Brocain’s mouth dropped open but he recovered himself quickly. This man’s words and attitude did not match his handsome, unscarred, pale-skinned face. “We will fight for him,” he said, reaching for his sword.
“I’d as soon not,” Rowan said pleasantly, and hoped no one saw the greenish tinge his skin was taking, “but I will if necessary. I want to keep Keon with me because I believe he is your successor.”
Brocain gave a quick look to Keon. “He is if one so stupid can be allowed to rule.”
“He’s not stupid, merely young and hot-blooded and a very poor shot. I’d like to keep him with me, to show him that we Irials are not demons, and perhaps someday there can be peace between our people.” Rowan’s eyes twinkled. “And I would like to teach him to shoot straight.”
Brocain looked at Rowan for a long time and Rowan knew the hideous old man was deciding on life or death for his son and this Englishman. Rowan did not believe a man such as Brocain would be moved by such a weak emotion as love for his son. “Old Thal did not raise you,” he said at last. “He would have killed my son by now. What guarantee do I have for his safety?”
“My word,” Rowan said solemnly. “I will give you my life if he is harmed by an Irial.” Rowan was holding his breath.
“You are asking for a great deal of trust,” Brocain said. “If he is harmed, I will kill you so slowly you will pray for death.”
Brocain did not speak for a while as he studied Rowan. There was something different about this man—different from any Lanconian. And even though he was dressed more gaudily than any woman, Brocain sensed that there was more to him than first appeared. Suddenly, Brocain felt old and tired. He had seen son after son killed; he had lost three wives in battle. All he had left was this young boy.
Brocain turned to look at his son. “Go with this man. Learn from him.” He turned back to Rowan. “Three years. Send him home three years from today or I will burn your city to the ground.” He reined his horse away and went back to his men on the hill.
Keon turned to Rowan with eyes wide in wonder, but he didn’t say anything.
“Come on, boy, let’s go home,” Rowan said at last, releasing his breath and feeling as if he’d just escaped death of a most vile nature. “Stay close to me until people get used to seeing you. I don’t like the idea of being tortured.”
As Rowan and the boy rode past Cilean, Rowan nodded at her and she followed them. She was beyond speech. This Englishman who dressed in clothes as pretty as a courting bird’s feathers had just won a verbal battle with old Brocain. “I’d as soon not,” he’d said when challenged to fight, yet Cilean had seen the way he kept his hand near his sword. And the way he’d told Brocain that the Irials would keep the Zerna boy! He had not flinched a muscle, had not registered any fear.
She rode back to the others and still could not speak. This Rowan not only looked different, he was different. Either he was the biggest fool ever made or the bravest man on earth. She hoped for Lanconia’s sake and—she smiled—for her future life as his wife that it was the latter.
JURA STAYED MOTIONLESS, her bow drawn back, ready to fire as she waited for the buck to turn toward her. The dark green of her tunic and trousers concealed her from the animal. The instant the animal turned, she shot and it fell down gracefully and soundlessly.
Out of the trees seven young women came running from their hiding places. They were all tall, slim, and each wore her dark hair in a thick braid down her strong back. They wore the green hunting tunic and trousers of the Women’s Guard.
“Good shot, Jura,” one woman said.
“Yes,” Jura said distractedly, looking about the forest while the women began to skin and gut the buck. She was restless this evening, feeling as if something were about to happen. It had been four days since Cilean and Daire had left and Jura missed her friend very much. She missed Cilean’s quiet humor, her intelligence, and she missed having someone to confide in. She also missed Daire. She and Daire had grown up together and she was used to his being around.
She rubbed her bare arms beneath the short sleeves of her tunic. “I’m going swimming,” she murmured to the women behind her.
One woman paused in her cutting of a haunch of meat. “Do you want someone to go with you? We are far from the city walls.”
Jura didn’t turn around. These were trainee guards, none of them over sixteen years old and, by comparison, she felt old and lonely. “No, I’ll go alone,” she said, and moved through the forest toward the stream.
She walked farther than she meant to, wanting to rid herself of the feeling she had of impending…what? Not danger, but somewhat like the air felt before a storm broke.
There had been only one communication from the army that was bringing the English Rowan to the Irial capital city, Escalon, and his dying father. Old Thal was keeping himself alive by sheer willpower as he waited to see what kind of man his son had grown to be. So far, judging from what had been reported, Rowan was proving to be a fool. He involved himself in village disputes, he single-handedly challenged the Zernas while Xante and Daire had to protect him. Rowan was said to be a soft weakling who knew more about velvet than he did about a sword.
The word had spread rapidly throughout Escalon and already there were murmurings of uprisings and revolts in protest against this stupid Englishman who was not fit to rule. Geralt and Daire and Cilean would have to use all their powers to keep this oaf from destroying the tentative peace of the Lanconian nation.