The motion of the wagon seemed to be endless and the days merged into one another. They stopped twice a day during the three-day journey and Jura and Cilean were given meager rations and a brief moment of privacy, then their bonds were retied and they were returned to the wagons.
After the first day Jura and Cilean didn’t talk much, for their hunger, tiredness, and grief were almost too much to bear. Jura was plagued by remorse. If only she had had time to explain to Rowan what she had said. If she could have told him she could not bear the thought of his death. Perhaps she should have held him while he cried. Maybe that would have worked best. If only…
“Do you think they killed the men?” Cilean whispered. Her eyes were sunken in her head and she looked as bad as Jura felt.
Jura’s throat swelled closed and she could not speak.
“No doubt they want women slaves,” Cilean said. “Brita was too old for their use, so they took us.”
Jura swallowed but it didn’t help.
“Yes,” Cilean continued, answering her own question, “I think they killed the men. They would have come after us and these Ultens could not fight our men.”
Cilean waited for Jura’s answer, but when none came, she kept talking. “We did not hear the Ultens come into camp. Even the Fearens who guarded did not hear them.” She closed her eyes a moment. “Brocain will declare war on the Irials when he hears his son is dead. And who will lead the Irials now that both Rowan and Geralt are…gone?”
Jura closed her eyes and envisioned Rowan’s blond hair. She remembered his smile. She remembered the way he tickled her the night they spent in his tent.
“We will never unite the tribes now,” Cilean said. “The Vatells will have lost Brita, Yaine’s brother is dead, Brocain’s son is dead.” She also swallowed. “And our king is dead.”
“Stop it!” Jura commanded. “I can bear no more.”
Cilean looked at Jura in puzzlement. “Is it grief that makes you so strange? Is it Rowan’s death that…?”
“No more, please,” Jura whispered.
Cilean was silent for a moment.
“We must keep our strength up,” she said, trying to get Jura’s attention back on the present. “We have to find a way to escape these slimy people and get home. We have to tell the rest of Lanconia what has happened. We will unite the other tribes to kill the Ultens. We will avenge Rowan’s death. We will—” She said no more as she heard the sound of tears coming from Jura. She had never seen Jura cry before.
Jura tried to sleep but could not. Hour after hour passed slowly and painfully, and she had time to remember every moment since she had met Rowan. She thought of how she had reacted to him at their first meeting and later how angry she had been when she found out who he was. She had felt betrayed, as if he had lied to her and played with her feelings.
And she had been afraid. She hated to admit it even to herself, but the force of her emotions concerning the man scared her. She had been afraid she would follow him and betray her country, betray everything she had ever believed in.
“Oh Rowan,” she whispered into the darkness as hot tears rolled down the side of her face. “If only I could have told you.”
At the beginning of the fourth day the wagons halted and Jura could hear the noise of people around them. Cilean opened her eyes and looked at Jura. Cilean was fighting fear, but Jura looked as if she had given up the battle. They had no idea what the Ultens planned for them, whether it was death or slavery, and Jura didn’t look as if she cared one way or the other.
“We will escape soon,” Cilean reassured her friend and herself. “Perhaps we can arrange a ransom.”
Jura didn’t answer.
The women had time to say no more as they were pulled from the wagon and stood in the bright sunlight. As Cilean blinked to adjust her vision, she was surprised at what she saw. Based on the Ultens she had seen, she would have imagined their city to be filthy and poor, a place of squalor with the lazy Ultens lying in drunken heaps. So what she saw surprised her so much it left her wide-eyed and gaping.
They were inside a walled city with neat, clean buildings against the inner wall. There were cleanly swept stone paths with no pigs or dogs running about. There were shops open in the bottom floor of the houses and people bustling here and there. Clean people, richly dressed people.
No, she thought, not people but women. Everywhere there were women, adult women, very few children, and what children there were were girls.
“Where are the men?” Cilean whispered to Jura.
Cilean received no answer before one of the filthily clad guards shoved her forward and motioned to the bags inside the wagon. Jura could see now that the guard was a woman, a small woman nearly a foot shorter than Jura and thin to the point of frailty.
“What have you done with our men?” Jura asked, showing her first signs of life.
“They are dead,” the Ulten woman said in broken Irial. “We want no men here.” She shoved Jura and Cilean forward.
Jura and Cilean were weak from the long days of being tied and the small amount of food, so they were slow in removing the heavy bags of goods from the four wagons and stacking them inside a long stone building. All the while they worked more of the little Ulten women stopped and watched them and talked to each other in their strange guttural language.
Cilean glared at two women who were pointing at the tall women and nodding their heads.