Absently, he felt the scar on the back of his thigh twitch, as it always did when he thought of Feilan, but he did not scratch it. Lanconians did not show fear; Lanconians thought of their country first; Lanconians allowed no emotion to govern their thoughts and Lanconians did not cry. His tutor had pounded that into his head well enough. When, as a child, Rowan’s favorite dog, an animal that had comforted him many a lonely night, had died, Rowan had cried, and the old tutor had been enraged. He had laid a red-hot poker across the back of Rowan’s thigh and warned the child that if he cried or so much as flinched, he’d receive a second branding.
Rowan had not cried again.
Behind him he heard someone hurrying toward him. Instantly, he was alert and grabbed his sword, which lay by his hand.
“It’s me,” he heard Lora say, and there was anger in her voice.
He reached for his tunic. In the distance he could hear the Lanconian warriors moving about, no doubt looking for him, afraid he might see a gnat and be frightened of it. He wiped the grimace from his face and looked up at his sister.
“No,” Lora said, “don’t bother to dress. I’ve seen unclothed men before.” She sat on the ground not far from him and was silent for a moment, her knees bent, her arms wrapped around them, her slim young body rigid with what could only be anger. She was heedless of the dampness of the earth seeping into her brocade gown. When she spoke, it was more of an eruption. “They are awful men!” she said furiously, her eyes fixed straight ahead. Her jaw set in rage. “They treat me as if I am stupid, as if I am some spoiled, lazy child who must be patronized at all times. They will not let me walk two steps without aid. As if I were an invalid! And that Xante is the worst. One more of his looks of contempt directed toward me and I’ll set him on his ear.” She stopped when she heard Rowan’s soft chuckle and turned blazing blue eyes on him. She was quite pretty, with delicate features and a tall, slender body, and her anger gave added color to her face.
“How dare you laugh,” she said through clenched teeth. “The way they treat us is your fault. Every time one of them offers you a pillow, you sigh and smile. And yesterday, holding my yarn! You have never done that before, you were always too busy sharpening a sword or knife, but now you delight in pretending to be weak and soft. Why don’t you cuff a few of them, especially that Xante?”
Rowan’s smile softened his square jaw. He was classically handsome with his dark blond hair and deep blue eyes, and next to the Lanconians he looked to be of another species of human. Where their eyes blazed, his twinkled. Where their jaws were gaunt and weathered, Rowan’s cheeks were pale and smooth. Lora was accustomed to seeing men smile at Rowan, thinking they were about to joust with a beardless boy whose tall, big body was no doubt all fat. Lora often laughed with glee when Rowan unseated the smirking knight so easily. The men found out that Rowan’s face changed from softness to blond English oak within seconds—and that big body of his was about two hundred pounds of solid muscle.
“And why don’t you speak their language to them?” Lora continued, her anger in no way abated by Rowan’s seeming unconcern. “Why do you have them translate for you? And who are these Zernas they fear so much? I thought Zernas were Lanconians. Rowan! Stop laughing. They are insolent, arrogant men.”
“Especially Xante?” he asked in his deep voice, smiling at her.
She looked away from him, her jaw working in anger. “You may laugh about them, but your men and your squire do not. Young Montgomery was sporting some nasty bruises this morning and I think he got them defending your name. You ought to—”
“I should what?” Rowan asked softly, looking up at the trees overhead. He would not let Lora see what he felt at the Lanconians’ treatment of him. These Lanconians were his own people, but they treated him with great contempt and made it clear that he was not wanted. He could not let Lora see that he was just as angry as she because Lora needed her fire dampened, not inflamed. “I should fight one of them?” he said teasingly. “Kill or maim one of my own men? Xante is the captain of the King’s Guard. What g
ood would it do me to harm him?”
“You seem awfully sure you are capable of winning a fight with that strutting monster.”
Rowan wasn’t sure he could win a fight at all. These Lanconians were all like Feilan, so sure he was weak and useless that at times he almost believed they were right.
“Would you want me to win over your Xante?” Rowan asked seriously.
“My?” she gasped, then grabbed a handful of grass and tossed it at him. “All right, maybe you shouldn’t fight your own man but you must stop the way they are treating you. It is not respectful.”
“I’m beginning to like a soft pillow offered whenever I sit down.” Rowan smiled toward the trees then turned serious. He knew he could confide in her. “I am listening to them,” he said after a moment. “I sit quietly on the edge of a circle of men and listen to them.”
Lora was beginning to calm down. She should have known Rowan had a reason for playing the fool. But oh, how she had hated it since they had left England. She and Rowan, her son, three of Rowan’s knights, and his squire, Montgomery de Warbrooke, had ridden away with the silent, black-eyed Lanconians. That first day she had felt marvelous, as if her destiny had come at last. But the Lanconians had made it clear that she and Rowan were English, not Lanconian, and they believed that the English were soft, useless people. They missed no opportunity to show their contempt for their English burdens. The first night Neile, one of Rowan’s three knights, had been about to draw his sword on a Lanconian warrior when Rowan stopped him.
Xante, the tall, fierce-looking captain of the guard, asked Rowan if he had ever held a sword before. Young Montgomery had nearly attacked the man, and considering that Montgomery, at sixteen, was nearly as tall as Xante, Lora was sorry when Rowan stopped the fight. Montgomery walked away in disgust when Rowan asked Xante to please show him his sword, as Rowan had always wanted to see one at close view.
Until now, Lora had hated Rowan’s act so much that she had not considered he had a reason for what he was doing—except that there were a hundred of the dark, watching Lanconians and only six Englishmen and a child. She should not have doubted her brother.
“What have you heard?” she asked softly.
“Feilan told me of the tribes of Lanconia, but he did not tell me or perhaps I assumed that they were more or less united.” Rowan was quiet for a moment. “It seems that I am to be king of the Irials only.”
“Our father, Thal, is Irial, isn’t he?”
“And the Irials are the ruling class, so, therefore, you are king of all Lanconians, whatever they call themselves.”
Rowan chuckled and wished life could be as simple as Lora sometimes saw it. If she decided she loved a man, she married him. She did not worry about what would happen in the future if she were called to Lanconia and she was bound to an English husband. But for Rowan, destiny and duty were everything. “That is the way the Irials see it, but I fear the other tribes do not agree. Right now we are only miles from land the Zernas claim as their own and the Irials are concerned and watchful. The Zernas are reputed to be very fierce.”
“You mean these Lanconians are afraid of them?” Lora asked breathlessly.
“Zernas are also Lanconians, and these men with us, these Irials, are more cautious than afraid.”
“But if the Irials fear them…”