“So is Geralt!” Jura spat. “Can this Englishman know half what Geralt does about Lanconia?” She gestured to the mountains to the north, those beloved mountains that had protected Lanconia from centuries of invaders. “He has never even seen our mountains,” she said as if this were the final disgrace.
“Nor has he seen me,” Cilean said softly.
Jura’s eyes widened. Thal, long ago, had said he wanted his son Rowan to marry Cilean. “Surely Thal has forgotten that. He said that years ago. You were only a child at the time.”
“No, he has not forgotten. This morning when he heard his English son was near the Ciar River, he revived enough to send for me. He wants Daire and me to meet him.”
?Daire?” Jura gasped then smiled as she thought of the tall, handsome, dark-eyed Daire, the man she was to marry, the man she had loved since she was a child.
Cilean gave her friend a look of disgust. “Your concern is only for the man you love? You care nothing that I am being ordered to marry a man who you have described as weak, puny—”
“I am sorry,” Jura said, and felt guilty for thinking only of herself. It would truly be awful to have to marry someone one did not know. To think of living day in and day out with a man whose every movement, every thought was strange and abhorrent to her. “I apologize. Did Thal really say he planned for you to marry this…this…?” She could think of no description for this foreigner.
“He said it is what he has always planned.” Cilean sat down on the ground by the little fire Jura now had going and her face showed her anguish. “I think Thal fears what you fear, that this son of his that he has not seen in over twenty years will be all that you think he is. But Thal is determined to have his way. The more people who try to dissuade him, the more adamant he becomes.”
“I see,” Jura said thoughtfully, and looked at Cilean for a long moment. Perhaps Thal wasn’t such a doting fool after all. Cilean was a logical, intelligent woman who had proved herself on several battlefields in the past. Cilean was able to control her emotions, and, most important, her temper, under the most stressing of conditions. If this English prince was as weak as people said, Cilean’s intelligence and wisdom could perhaps keep Lanconia from falling under his rule. “Lanconia may get a sulking English brat for a king but we will have a wise Lanconian woman for queen.”
“Thank you,” Cilean said. “Yes, that is what I think Thal has in mind and I am honored by his trust in me but I…”
“You want a man for a husband,” Jura said with feeling. “You want someone like Daire: tall and strong and lusty and intelligent and—”
Cilean laughed. “Yes, I can admit to you, my closest friend, that on one hand I am greatly honored, but on the other, I am thinking with the softness of a woman. Does this Englishman really have white hair? Who told you that?”
“Thal,” Jura answered. “When he was in his cups, he talked about the English woman he so stupidly married. He did it once in front of my mother, and my father took her from the room.” Jura’s mouth tightened into a grimace, although the expression did not take away from her beauty. Both of her parents had died when she was five and Thal had taken her in and raised her—raised her in that big stone fortress-house of his without the companionship of women. When a washerwoman had stopped Jura from playing with a sharp, long-handled ax for fear she would cut her toes off, Thal had dismissed the woman.
“Thal told us more than we wanted to know about his time in England,” Jura continued. Cilean knew the “we” referred to Geralt, Jura’s half-brother, and Daire, who had been raised with them.
“Jura,” Cilean said sharply, “are you going to eat that fish or not? If so, hurry up so you can help me decide what to take on the journey. Do you think Thal’s son’s sister will be wearing silks? Will she be utterly divinely beautiful? Will she look down her nose at us Lanconian women as those Frankish women did two years ago?”
Jura’s eyes gleamed. “Then we shall do to her what we did to those women,” she said, mouth full of fish.
“You are wicked,” Cilean said, laughing. “We cannot do that to a woman who will be my sister-in-law.”
“I have no such compunction. We ought to make plans for what to do to protect ourselves from their English snobbery. Of course all we have to do is lead this Rowan into a single battle and that will be the end of him. Or do you think he sits on velvet-cushioned chairs and drinks ale while watching the battle from afar?” Jura stood and kicked dirt over the fire then pulled on her trousers and laced her boots. “And Daire is to go with you?”
“Yes,” Cilean said, smiling. “You can bear to be without him for a few days. We ride out to meet this Englishman and escort him back. I think Thal may be afraid of the Zernas.” The Zernas were the fiercest tribe of Lanconia. The Zernas were as devoted to battle as the Poilens were to books. The Zernas attacked anyone at any time and what they did to captives was what gave grown warriors nightmares.
“No Irial is afraid of a Zerna,” Jura said angrily, coming to her feet.
“Yes, but this prince is English and the English king believes himself to be king of all Lanconia.”
Jura smiled in a nasty way. “Someone should let him walk up to Brocain, the king of the Zernas, and announce his kingship. That would be the end of our worries. At least Thal’s English son would be buried on Lanconian soil, and, I swear, we would bury every piece Brocain hacked from him.”
Cilean laughed. “Come on, help me choose what to take. We will leave in another hour and you must say goodbye to Daire.”
“That will take much longer than an hour,” Jura said seductively, making Cilean laugh again.
“Perhaps I can borrow Daire’s virility some lonely night after I am married to this limp Englishman.”
“That will be the night you die,” Jura said calmly, then smiled. “Let us pray Thal lives long enough to see this English softling of his and sees the error of his ways and corrects it. Geralt will be our king, as he should be. Come on, I’ll race you to the walls.”
ROWAN WAS STRETCHED out on the western bank of the Ciar River, his arm behind his head and sleepily looking up into the trees. His chest was bare, sunlight and shadow playing on the muscles in his stomach and chest, glinting on the thick mat of dark gold hair. He wore only his short, baggy breeches and hose that stretched over heavy, muscular legs.
Outwardly, he looked to be calm but then he had had years of training in keeping his emotions hidden. His old Lanconian tutor had never missed an opportunity to tell Rowan he was only half Lanconian and that the weak, crying English half had to be cut out, burned out, or removed in some other fashion. According to Feilan, Lanconians were stronger than steel, more immovable than mountains, and Rowan was only half a Lanconian.