She lay still and listened as the footsteps, one pair, walked all around the room. A maid, she thought, then held her breath as the footsteps came closer. She tensed her muscles to spring.
When the maid lifted the lid of the big oak clothes chest, out sprang two fierce-looking people, both of them going for her throat.
Quite calmly, the woman fainted.
Rowan and Jura, prepared for a fight, looked at the crumpled little woman at their feet and began to laugh. It was the first time they had shared laughter.
Smiling, Jura began to grab garments from the chest. “Here, we take these and we better tie her up and put her in here and give ourselves time to get away.”
They wrapped the maid in one of her mistress’s gowns, stuffed a stocking in her mouth, and Rowan gently laid her in the chest. Her eyes opened and she looked up, frightened, at Rowan.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” he said, “there’s plenty of air and someone will find you in no time. Someone as pretty as you will be missed. Just rest; you’ll be safe.” He bent and kissed her forehead—and just missed Jura’s slamming the lid on his head. He barely got his fingers out of the way.
“Sorry,” she said. “It slipped. Are you ready to go or do you plan to stay and become a manservant?”
“Ready,” he said, smiling at her. “I’m sure you want to lead.”
“The most able should lead,” she said with a sniff, and went to the door.
They were able to get to the larder without incident and Rowan took two pies on the way out. He was feeling very good after Jura’s womanly little fit upstairs. He had almost given up hope that she would ever show any interest in him.
They made it past the guards and ran, crouching, into the forest, jumped on their horses, and whipped them into a gallop. After an hour, Rowan turned off the road and into the forest, reining his horse into the dense growth. They hid there, their hands on the horses’ noses, and waited silently. It wasn’t long before they heard the noise of many horses and many men riding past them.
When they were gone, Rowan motioned to Jura to follow him and they made their way up the steep embankment to the crest of the hill.
“We can sleep here,” he said, and removed the blankets from his horse.
Before they bedded down, they changed into the Vatell clothes, for the riders would be looking for an Ulten and a beggar.
“You’ll have to wash tomorrow,” Rowan said, looking up at the stars, “or they’ll smell you as an Ulten.”
“Perhaps you should have taken the maid with you and left me behind. She was pretty and sweet smelling.”
Rowan smiled broadly in the darkness. “Jura, no woman alive is prettier than you, and even smelling as you do, you are sweeter than a hundred princesses together.”
Jura’s eyes widened. She didn’t know why she had felt so angry at Rowan’s compliments to the frightened maid or why she had sniped at him like a simpering girl, but it was amazing how pleasant his words were to her. Daire praised her when twelve arrows in a row hit their mark, and Geralt and Thal never complimented her at all. Of course men had said she was pretty but not in this lavish, gentle way. If they had, she would have held her knife to their throats, but tonight she rather liked this man’s words. In fact she wished he would say more.
“You…you handled yourself well tonight,” she said tentatively. “And you got yourself into Vatell territory without being recognized. It was good that you darkened your hair.”
“You thought I wouldn’t?” he snapped. Just like a woman, he thought, you give her a compliment and she insults you. He turned on his side away from her. He’d had about enough of her insinuations that he was incompetent. The woman was emasculating! “Tomorrow you go back to the Irials.”
Jura grimaced and didn’t reply. This Englishman was very strange.
But the next morning they did not have time to argue. Jura woke fully alert, her senses knowing that something was wrong. Slowly, she reached out her hand to Rowan, asleep a few feet from her. He opened his eyes the instant she touched him and read the warning in her eyes.
To her consternation, Rowan leaped to his feet and began to shout. “Damn you, woman, always after me, a man can’t even sleep.”
Jura saw that he grabbed his sword as he stood. She also took hers and aimed it for his throat. “After you?” she yelled up at him. “You are a poor thing for a woman to want. I have had lovers twice your age who were better than you.”
“I shall show you who is the better lover,” he said, and leaped on top of her. “Roll to my right,” he said into her ear. “Hide in the forest and wait. There are two of them.”
When Rowan moved, Jura did indeed roll to his right, but she came up to her feet, her sword held firmly with both hands, and she positioned herself at his back as she had been trained.
Two men, thieves by the look of them, came toward Rowan, knives drawn. They looked hungry and ready to commit any crime to take what little Rowan and Jura carried with them.
“I am your king,” Rowan said, “put down your weapons. I will share what I have with you.”
“You’ll not give my horse away,” Jura said, still behind him, watching the forest for more thieves.