The Maiden (Montgomery/Taggert 12) - Page 42

“I must go alone. Just draw me a map as quickly as possible so I can leave at once.”

Cilean began to draw but she argued all the while. “How will you find him? He is many hours ahead of you.”

“I will think like a blond Englishman. Do you think he is wearing mail and carrying an English banner? Oh, Cilean, pray for me. If he is killed, it will mean war. The Irial people will glorify his memory after his honey-tongued speech yesterday.”

“Here is the map,” Cilean said, then hugged Jura hard. “I am sorry I doubted you. Go and find this errant king of ours and bring him back safely.” She pulled away. “How will you dress?”

Jura grinned. “As an Ulten. That should keep people away. My aunt has Ulten clothes in storage and I plan to remove them.”

Cilean kissed her friend’s cheek. “Go with God and come back soon.”

Jura rode into Vatell territory cautiously. The old, ragged Ulten garment she wore stank so bad her horse had pranced in anger at first and Jura did not blame it for she could barely abide herself. She had stolen

the faded, once-brilliant costume from her aunt’s house and dipped it in the muck of a pigsty then rolled it in ashes to get the proper aroma and color of an Ulten costume. Smelling herself, Jura knew why Ultens were the only tribe to be allowed to roam freely. No one coveted anything that belonged to an Ulten, although quite often Ultens were hanged for little or no reason.

Under the filthy garment Jura wore the green hunting uniform of the guards and an arsenal of weapons.

She rode west, staying on narrow paths that wagons and large groups of people could not travel. Whining, she begged food and water from people in front of leaky huts and dried-up vegetable patches. After a day of travel she began to almost understand why Brita had attacked the richer Irial lands to the south.

Late at night she came to a public house. Candles blazed from inside the little wattle-and-daub shack and she could hear raucous laughter and the clank of steel. She tied her horse in the darkness of the surrounding forest and went to the door. A fight surely meant she had found her English husband. She just hoped she had time to save him.

She walked in the door but no one paid her the least attention as they were all watching two Vatell guards play-fighting each other with broadswords. Feeling a little foolish, Jura pulled her filthy hood further over her face and took an empty seat at a table. Immediately, everyone at the table looked about in horror at the smell, then when they saw the hooded figure, they moved away. A skinny woman asked Jura what she wanted to drink and bade her give a copper bead in exchange.

From under the shade of the hood, she looked around the small tavern but she saw no sign of the blond Englishman. Along the walls stood several Vatells almost as dirty as she was.

Jura drank her ale and the fight ended and goods and garments and animals traded hands as wagers were won and lost.

“What is that smell?” a drunken voice yelled.

Jura put her mug down and started to stand. She meant to leave as quickly as possible, but someone put a heavy hand on her shoulder.

“An Ulten boy,” someone yelled. “Let’s teach him a lesson.”

A hand grabbed Jura’s hood just as she moved away. Her face was exposed.

“Gor,” someone said. “A girl.”

“And a beauty.”

“Let’s teach her another kind of lesson,” said a man, laughing.

Jura held a knife in each hand under her concealing garment as the men, about twenty of them, advanced on her.

“Here, now,” came a deep voice from behind the crowd. He spoke Lanconian but it was an accent Jura hadn’t heard before, very country sounding. A bentover, burly man with greasy black hair and a patch over one eye, wearing many layers of rags, pushed his way forward. “Don’t hurt me daughter,” he said, and moved toward Jura.

Instinctively, she drew back from him.

“Follow me, or they’ll kill you,” he said into her ear, and Jura recognized Rowan’s voice.

She was so astonished she followed him without question and the men were drunk enough and had just had enough excitement that they were sated, so they allowed Jura to follow the bent old man out of the tavern.

“You!” Jura hissed as soon as they were outside. “I have come to take you back to safety.”

“Safety!” Rowan spat at her. “What do you know of safety? I just saved your virtue and probably your life.”

“I could have protected myself.”

Rowan cursed in reply. “Do you have a horse? We must ride quickly and get away from this place. Or did you leave your horse in the open so one of these vandals stole it? God’s teeth but you stink.”

Tags: Jude Deveraux Montgomery/Taggert Historical
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