“May God be with you,” he whispered.
Minutes later a shout went up and the games began.
This first day was easy and Jura held herself back, reserving her strength for the days to come. All she needed to do was place high in the winners of each event to be able to compete the next day. She was always in the top four of each race and each contest, but never the winner. Besides, she did not want to show everyone her skill this first day. Mealla won every event she entered, even the foot race, although she elbowed aside an Irial trainee at the last moment.
Jura had no idea how the Zerna woman’s place in the events was affecting Rowan. Each time Mealla was declared a winner, he died a little inside, until by the end of the day he looked more tired than the contestants.
Jura left the field pleased with the day’s events and went back to the women’s barracks to bathe and rest.
By the end of the second day there were only sixteen women left to compete with each other for the final day’s events.
“Jura,” Cilean said, “whoever draws Mealla for the wrestling will lose against her.”
“Perhaps not,” Jura said, but she was lying. Early tomorrow morning lots would be drawn to see who competed with whom in which event. Most anyone could beat Mealla in the contests of speed but the wrestling event would eliminate someone. “Perhaps another woman will draw her, and she will be the one to lose.”
“I just worry that one of us will be pitted against her.”
“Me,” Jura said quickly. “She might beat me but at least you will only have the poles to use against her. And she will be tired after a battle with me. I can assure you of that.”
Cilean did not smile. “Come with me, I want to go into the city.”
“Why?” Jura asked sharply. “There is nothing in the city for us and we need rest.”
“I am meeting Prince Rowan,” Cilean said quietly.
In spite of herself, Jura felt angry. “Oh? He asks for a taste of what is to be his? Is he bedding the other contestants as well? Mealla perhaps?”
“Stop this!” Cilean commanded. “You have changed since he came. No, I am not planning to spend the night with him. If you must know, Daire is arranging the meeting.”
“Daire?” Jura asked, aghast.
“You have been so busy training you have not had time to see your intended, but I am not so. Rowan is my intended, at least I think of him as such, and I want to see him so he can privately wish me luck. I thought perhaps you might like to go with me and see Daire.”
“Yes,” Jura muttered, “of course.” She hadn’t thought of Daire in days. “I would very much like to see him.”
The land immediately outside the city walls and all the area inside the walls was as light as day, with hundreds of torches lighting scenes of drunken people dancing and cavorting in celebration. So many people slapped Jura and Cilean on the back that Jura went to draw her knife, but met only with an empty scabbard.
Rowan was waiting for them in a shadow of Thal’s stone castle. He had been waiting for quite some time and the stones were hurting his back, but he would wait for days if it meant a moment alone with Jura. She had been better at pretending they did not know one another than he had. He was almost glad, at the start of the games, that she had not looked at him because he might otherwise have forgotten himself.
As the games had progressed and she came in second, third, even fourth, he began to doubt if she would eventually win. He had nervously asked Daire to reassure him of Jura’s skill as a guard. At the end of the second day, he knew he could no longer be cautious and that he had to risk a private meeting with Jura and had asked Daire to arrange it.
Now, he stood waiting for her.
Jura sensed his presence before she saw him. “There,” she said to Cilean, her voice choked. Jura watched as Cilean stepped toward the shadow and Rowan’s big arm came out and grabbed her. Jura’s hands made fists at her side. So it was true, she was just one of many. This randy old satyr grabbed and pawed at all women. Did he tell Cilean of his love for her? Everyone said he trained so hard, but if he spent so much time hiding in stables and kissing women, how much time did he have for training?
“You’re Cilean,” she heard Rowan say, and the two of them came into the light while Jura stepped back out of sight.
“Didn’t Daire tell you to meet me?” Cilean asked.
“He said I was to meet the one—Yes, yes, of course, he did. Are you alone?”
Jura saw him searching the darkness.
“Jura is with me. We came for private good wishes.”
His eyes searched the darkness then stopped at Jura, even though she knew he could n
ot see her. “Jura,” he said, and held out his hand toward her.