“Distract the men,” Jura said to him, “and I will lead the boar away. Brita will follow the animal.”
Jura saw the expression on Brita’s face, that sense of pursuit, the elation of it, the exhilaration. Her guardsmen held back, watchful and listening. Their heads went up when they heard a man’s cry of distress from behind them and all but one of them left their queen to investigate.
Brita heard nothing but the blood pounding in her ears as she charged ahead after the boar. Jura took her spear from the back of her horse and leaped to the ground. For all that Brita did not look her forty-some years, Jura knew she must be getting old to take so long to slay the pig. Brita stood in the animal’s path, then when it ran around her to avoid her, she stuck a lance into its neck. The pain-crazed animal turned and charged Jura, as she knew it would.
Jura grabbed the lower branch of a tree and swung up as the bleeding boar went tearing past and not far behind him was Brita in her spotless white gown.
Jura lost no time jumping onto her horse, and in minutes she had the remaining guard chasing her, and it was easy to lose him. She smiled to herself as she rode toward the direction Brita had taken. No Irial guard would be so easily lost.
She had a glimpse of Rowan as he rode south toward where they had camped last night, and before him in his saddle she could see the white of Brita’s gown. She did not seem to be struggling very hard against Rowan, nor did he seem to have her bound and gagged.
Frowning, Jura galloped after the two of them. She hadn’t gone far when two of Brita’s guard saw her, and Jura had a long, exhausting ride trying to escape them. It was nearly dusk when she reached the little peasant’s hut. She was shaky with fatigue and hunger and she was concerned that Rowan had escaped unharmed, that the devious Queen Brita had not put a knife into him.
There were candles blazing inside the peasant’s hut and Jura feared the worst. Expecting to find Rowan hanging from the ceiling and being tortured by Brita and her men, she cautiously slipped around the side of the building, her sword in her hands, a knife between her teeth, and peered in through the single window.
She could not believe what she saw.
Rowan sat on a stool with an ancient lute in his lap, his hair once again golden, while the dazzling Brita sat on the floor at his feet, her knees drawn up and looking up at him adoringly. A peasant couple and three children sat opposite them, staring at these two lovely people as one would look at a pair of angels.
“Play another one,” Brita said to Rowan, and her voice was as husky as the smoke from the charcoal brazier in the room.
He smiled at her. “Yes, my queen, whatever you request.”
Jura was so aghast at this scene that the knife fell from her mouth and clattered on the stones of the wall.
Instantly, Rowan was on his feet, his sword taken from where it was leaning against the wall, and he was out the door. He caught Jura before she reached her horse.
“Where have you been?” he demanded.
“Where have I been?” she yelled back at him. “I have been leading two guardsmen away from you. I have been protecting you and your…your…” She was too angry to speak.
“Brita sent word to her men. I thought they were all told that she wanted to stay with me. I thought perhaps you were bathing before meeting a queen.” He looked her up and down. “That’s not a bad idea, Jura. You are dripping sweat.”
Jura brought her sword up, fully meaning to chop off any part of his body she could reach, hopefully his head.
He caught her arms. “Jura, what is wrong with you? If I had known you were in danger, I would have come to you, but I had no idea. Brita sent her men home. Come, please don’t be angry. Brita has agreed to stay here with me for a while and we can talk of uniting the tribes. It is what we want. There is no reason to be angry. Come and meet her. She is intelligent and educated and I find her exceptionally pleasant company. You will like her.”
“You certainly seem to like her,” she said stiffly.
“Now is not the time for jealousy. It is one thing to be jealous of a maid but you cannot be jealous of a queen like Brita. Come. No, maybe you should bathe first.”
She jerked away from him. “So, the smell of me displeases you,” she said. “I got this smell from protecting you, but you do not need protection, at least not from swords and arrows. Tell me, am I to bow to this old queen? Am I to beg her for her favors as I am to beg you?”
“Jura, I do not understand you at all. If you want to meet her smelling as you do, that is all right with me. I just thought—”
“You never thought at all!” she shouted at him, and ran away into the forest.
She hated herself for how she was acting, hated the new emotions that were raging inside her. Until this Englishman with his foreign ways had come to Lanconia, she had understood herself. She had known her place in life, where she was and where she was going. She had also understood men. Lanconian men valued strong, sensible women. Thal had shown her maps and asked her opinion of proposed campaigns, and when he thought her answers childish he had told her so—usually at the top of his lungs. Daire had expected her to be strong and fearless, and the two battles they had been in together, he had expected her to protect his back.
But what did this Englishman want from her? He was angry if she protected him, angry if she kissed him. He didn’t want her to ride beside him. He didn’t want to hear her ideas about what they should do to capture Brita. He said he wanted her to hide and cringe in the forest yet here he was fawning over a woman who had terrorized two generations of men. Jura thought that she had done a bit of her own terrorizing today but all she was told was that she stank.
She grimaced as she thought of Brita in her white dress. The stupid Englishman was taken in by her, but Jura knew the woman’s history. She may have said she called off her men, but two of them had chased Jura for hours. What other lies had she told?
No doubt she had told her men to gather an army and attack and kill this Irial king.
Jura left the forest and went back toward the house. Tonight she would stay outside and guard the peasant’s hut, and she would be able to give the fool of an Englishman a warning when the Vatells attacked.