Rowan stood outside the door to his father’s chamber and tried to brush some of the travel dust from his clothes. He had not been given time to change and make himself presentable. He had been told that Thal insisted upon seeing him immediately, that he would wait for nothing.
Upon reflection, Rowan doubted if his dusty clothes would matter much to Thal after having seen the squalor of his house. Rowan kicked a gnawed bone from under his feet, straightened his shoulders, and pushed the heavy oak door open. The room was very dim and it took his eyes a moment to adjust. His father seemed content not to speak as he studied his son and thus allowed Rowan time to look at his father.
Thal lay on a pile of furs, long-haired, rough-looking furs that perfectly suited him, for he was a rough-looking man. He was extraordinarily tall, at least four inches taller than Rowan, but unlike Rowan, he was lean, without Rowan’s thickness. Perhaps his face had once been handsome, but now it was covered with too many scars from too many battles. Rowan could easily imagine this man atop a charging stallion, brandishing a sword above his head and leading a thousand men into a battle that he would win.
“Come to me, son,” Thal whispered in a deep voice that told of the pain he was in. “Come sit by me.”
Rowan went to sit on the edge of the bed by his father and used every bit of training he had to conceal the anxiety he felt. He had worked for years to make his tutor’s reports to Thal as good as possible. He had always wanted to please this man he had never met and to live up to what was expected of him. Now, looking at Thal’s dark harshness, he felt the man would be disappointed in his blond, pale son. But Rowan let none of these feelings show.
Thal put up a scarred hand, still strong, and touched his son’s cheek. His old, dark eyes softened with unshed tears. “You look like her. You look like my beautiful Anne.” He ran his hand down Rowan’s arm. “And you have the size of the men in her family.” His eyes and lips smiled. “But you have the height of a Lanconian. At least you got something from me, for I see no other resemblance. And that hair! That’s Anne’s hair.”
Thal nearly laughed but it turned into a cough. Rowan sensed that his father would not want comfort, so Rowan sat still until the spasm was over.
“There is something eating my insides away. I’ve known it for a long time but I put death off until I had seen you. Did William treat you well?”
“Very well,” Rowan said softly. “I couldn’t have asked for better.”
Thal smiled and closed his eyes a moment. “I knew he would. He always did love you. From the day you were born he loved you. After Anne died…” He paused and swallowed. “Death brings back memories. I am praying to see your mother again soon. After my dear Anne’s death I would have given you to William to raise if he had asked, but he attacked my men and me; he tried to take you.”
Thal coughed again but soon controlled the spasm.
“You could have sent for me,” Rowan said gently. “I would have come.”
Thal smiled and seemed to be comforted by this. “Yes, but I wanted you to grow up with the English. Anne showed me peace.” He took Rowan’s hand. “No one has conquered Lanconians, boy. We have survived the Huns, the Slavs, the Avars, the Romans, and Charlemagne.” He paused and smiled. “We didn’t survive the priests, though. They made Christians of us. But we fought off the invaders. We Lanconians can outfight anyone—except ourselves,” he added sadly.
“The tribes fight each other,” Rowan said. “I have seen it myself.”
Thal squeezed Rowan’s hand. “I heard you walked against the Zernas alone, that you faced Brocain himself.”
“The Zernas are Lanconian.”
“Yes,” Thal said forcefully, and Rowan waited while he controlled another coughing fit. “When I went to England, when I met Anne, I saw then how a country could have one king. I am called the King of Lanconia but I am actually the king of the Irials only. No Zerna or Vatell will call me king. We will always be a divided nation of tribes. But if we are not united, Lanconia will die.”
Rowan was beginning to understand what his father was asking of him. “You want me to unite the Lanconians?” He did not fully keep the horror from his voice. He had not realized how separate the tribes were until he came to Lanconia. Because he had stood up to three young boys and an old man did not mean he could conquer a whole country.
“I left you to be raised outside of my country,” Thal continued. “You are not Irial, and perhaps because you are half English the other tribes will accept you.”
“I see,” Rowan said, and for a moment his eyes closed. He had known for days that there must be peace in Lanconia and, as king, he’d hoped he could stave off war between the tribes. But unite them? He was being asked to make old Brocain and the arrogant Xante friends! Could one man do this in one lifetime? Now they believed, because he’d opened some old rusty gate, that he was meant to be king, but Rowan didn’t think their belief in him would last. All he had to do was one English-seeming thing and again he’d be the outsider, the foreigner. “I was chosen over Geralt because I am English,” he said softly. “The Lanconians believe my half-brother should be king.”
Thal’s expression changed to anger. “Geralt is Irial. He hates anyone not Irial. I hear you have Brocain’s son with you. Protect him. Geralt will kill him if he can. Geralt dreams of a Lanconia peopled only by Irials.”
“And the other tribes dream of owning Lanconia also?” Rowan said tiredly.
“Yes,” Thal said. “In my father’s father’s time we had outsiders to fight and we were happy. War is in our blood, but now we have no invaders, so we attack each other.” He held up his scarred hands. “I have killed too many of my own people with these hands. I could not stop, for I am Irial.”
He clutched Rowan’s hand and his eyes were pleading. “I am leaving Lanconia to you and you must save it. You can. You opened Saint Helen’s Gate.”
Rowan smiled at his dying father but inside he was remembering an heiress who had been offered to him and he had refused her. If he had accepted her, he could now be sitting by a fire, a hound at his feet, a child or two in his lap. “It’s a wonder the wind didn’t knock those gates down twenty years ago.” Because of a boy, and an old man, and some rusty gates, he was believed to be capable of anything. Part of him wanted to jump on a horse and ride out of Lanconia as fast as possible. But the scar on his leg began to twitch.
Thal smiled and lay back against the pillows. “You have Anne’s modesty and, I hear, her sweet temper also. Were my Lanconians hard on you on the journey here?”
“Fearful,” Rowan said, smiling genuinely. “They don’t have a high opinion of Englishmen.”
“Lanconians believe only in Lanconians.” He looked at Rowan as if trying to memorize Rowan’s blond hair and blue eyes. “But you will change that. You will do what I could not. Perhaps if Anne had lived, I could have done something to bring about peace, but I lost my spirit when she died. Lanconians will kill each other off if the tribes are not united. We will be so busy fighting each other we won’t see the next invading horde that comes over the mountains. I’m putting my faith in you, boy.”
Thal closed his eyes, as if trying to gather his strength, while Rowan considered the enormity of what his father was asking of him. Because Thal had fallen in love with a beautiful woman, he believed the son of that union capable of great feats. Rowan wished he had half as much faith in himself as his father did. The thought of what was ahead of him, dealing with the hardheaded Lanconians, trying to change the way they had thought for centuries, seemed like more than he could bear. Again, he wanted to run away. Home to England, home to safety. But then he remembered Jura. Jura was the one Lanconian he could understand. Perhaps, with Jura beside him, he could indeed conquer a country.
“Father,” Rowan said softly, “is it true that you mean for me to marry Cilean?”