Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

  Marcus grunted from inside the tent, and the two guards exchanged grins. “Sleeping off the celebration last night.” He pointed some ways off. “That is the tent of Simus.” He fixed me with that eye again, and I found myself taking a step back. “You go straight there, understand?”

  I gulped, and nodded. He grunted again and folded his arms over his chest, making it clear that he intended to watch.

  I moved off, walking on what appeared to be a beaten roadway. I had been a bit surprised when he said I could go, but now that I had seen the size of the camp, I understood. There would be no escape, even if that had been my intention.

  The wide path between the tents had been beaten down by the passage of many horses. The shoes I had been given clomped through the bent grass. The sun was in and out of the clouds. Pennants snapped on the poles in front of various tents, of such bright colors that I had to stop and admire them. How did they get such bright colors? I wondered if they were decorative, or had other meanings. The pole in front of Simus’s shelter had quite a few, in a wide variety of colors and shapes. One look over my shoulder told me that Marcus was still watching me. I stopped before the closed flap, suddenly uncertain. Simus might welcome a healer, but what welcome would there be for a slave?

  Before I had time to make a decision, the flap opened and Joden’s face appeared. It lit up when he recognized me. “I thought I heard someone out here. Come in, come in. No guards with you?” He stepped back, holding the flap open. “Simus, here’s someone new to listen to your grousing.” I ducked in and stood there blinking.

  This tent was smaller than the one I had just left. There was a back area, but the front was kind of a sitting room with wooden blocks and pillows and a large brazier in the center that gave off a low heat. Simus was on a platform, propped up on pillows and covered with blankets. He glared at me as I came through the opening, but his face cleared when he recognized me. “Little healer!” He laughed, his white teeth flashing against his dark skin. “Welcome!”

  I relaxed, and returned his smile. “Greetings, Simus. How are you?”

  Simus gestured at Joden. “I am fine, but for this ox telling me that I cannot get out of this bed.” He glared at Joden, who returned the look. “Come, take a look, and tell me what you think.”

  I knelt as Joden uncovered the wound and removed the bandage. I looked at the wound with a great deal of satisfaction. It was coming together nicely, and there was no sign of problems. “It looks well.” I started to put the bandage back in place, but Joden stopped me.

  “Let me get clean ones, Warprize.” He moved to the back of the tent and disappeared behind the flap.

  There was a cough outside the tent flap. “Come!” Simus called.

  A large, blond man with a scraggy beard entered the tent. “Greetings, Simus.”

  “Greetings, Iften.” Simus’s words were welcoming, but his face was reserved. I stayed where I was, daring a glance up at the big man. Not so tall as Simus, he was broad and strong, with big, rough hands. He glared down at me, then flicked his eyes to Simus’s leg. “A bad wound, Simus. Will you walk again?”

  “If he is careful,” I answered. “And follows my advice.”

  Iften stiffened, but did not respond. I could feel his eyes on the back of my neck, and they weren’t friendly. I didn’t move, staying still and silent for fear that slaves weren’t supposed to talk. I kept my eyes on Simus’s leg. Iften continued, ignoring me. “I wish words, Simus. This peace is madness.”

  “Madness? Keir has won his victory, and achieved more than any had hoped.” Simus gestured toward me with his left hand. His right was buried in the blankets, and seemed curiously stiff. “You swore oaths to Keir, knowing his plans. Are you breaking them? Or perhaps you envy him his warprize, eh?”

  Iften growled behind me. “She’s not—”

  “Have a care, Iften. You hold no token.” I darted a glance to see that Simus’s face held a deadly look, which eased as he leaned back against his pillows. “The skies were with me. The warprize saved my life and leg.” Simus stressed the word.

  Iften snorted. “Your life was saved by—” He cut off his words when Joden stepped back in, fresh cloths in his hand. Joden’s face closed off when he saw Iften. Without a word, he handed me the fresh bandages, then stepped back. I took them without comment, and started to work, aware of a curious tension between the men.

  Iften cleared his throat, reached in a pouch at his belt, and pulled out a strip of small bells. “I would have words, Simus. Alone.”

  Simus kept his smile, but the look in his eyes changed. “I am speaking with the warprize, Iften. If you wish to wait . . .”

  Iften snarled. “I will return.” He stomped past Joden, stuffing the bells away, and left quickly.

  Joden let out a breath I had not realized he was holding. “Simus . . .”

  Simus pulled his right hand out from under the blanket, turning his head to give Joden a hard look. “Pah, you worry too much. Iften is all piss and wind.”

  Joden busied himself with a container of kavage, answering in a quiet, worried voice. “He was a candidate for Warlord, and holds influence with many.”

  “And lost the challenge for both Warlord and Tokenbearer,” Simus snapped back. “Iften’s a fool, but an honorable one. He’ll not challenge out of season.” Joden didn’t respond, but a curtain fell over his face. “Work in the shadows, yes. Challenge? No. Leave it to me, old friend.” Simus softened his voice. “You’ve material for a hundred songs now, eh? With more to come.” Joden scowled, but Simus held up a hand. “Yes, there are problems. We will deal with them. Together.” Simus smirked. “With me at your side, and Keir’s support, who can stand against us?”

  Joden relaxed and rolled his eyes. “You’ve conceit enough for all three of us.”

  Simus laughed. “It’s well that I do!” He grinned at me as I finished my task and sat back on my heels. “What say you, little healer?”

  “Is there any of the fever’s foe left?”

  Simus barked out a laugh. “Your warriors took it before we were released.”

  Joden chuckled. “One tried to get the kavage pot from Rafe, but when he smelled the contents he dropped it to the ground and kicked it. Rafe scrambled after it and has it still.”

  I frowned, not liking this. There was always a danger of fever, even at this stage. “Maybe there is a healer here in camp that would have more.”

  Simus growled. “No. Our warrior-priest was killed in one of the skirmishes a few days before my capture.” He sighed. “I wish no man death, but he caused more trouble than it was worth to have him along. He opposed Keir at every turn.”

  “Besides,” Joden added, “I have never seen anything like that stuff you gave us.”

  I perched among the pillows. Joden reached out toward me with a full mug of kavage, and then hesitated, as if not sure I’d accept. I took it, and smiled my thanks. He smiled in return, a big, wide smile, and Simus’s smile echoed his as Joden served them both. Joden also produced a bowl of the little white pellets and held it out. “Gurt?”

  I managed not to wrinkle my nose in disgust. “No, thank you.”

  Mug in hand, Simus growled and pinned me with a glare. “When can I get up and out of this tent?”

  Ah, the familiar cries of a healing warrior. This I could deal with. I took a sip of kavage first, and the bitterness of the liquid burned in the back of my throat. “Not for at least five days . . . maybe more. If you stress the wound it could split open.” I smiled, trying to soften the effect of my words. “You would spoil my hard work.”

  Simus looked away, scowling. “It’s fine.”

  I knew that look. He was going to get up and move, regardless. No different from any Xyian warrior. I glanced over at Joden and caught his worried frown. Well, there’s more than one way to treat a wound. I leaned back on the cushions. “I am sure that you are right.” I let a frown cross my face. “Of course that is what Lanis told me after I bound up his foot when it had been slice
d up in a stag hunt.” I shook my head, looking into my mug. “Lanis was a great bear of a man. Told me that it was a scratch and nothing more. Then he went off to drill his men and marched right alongside them.” I looked over at Joden. “The next time I saw him was when they brought him to me. The wound had split open and putrefied. I did what I could, but the wound would not come clean.” I casually looked over at Simus. I had his complete attention. “He wept like a child when I had to cut off his foot.” I took a swig of kavage.

  “How did he fare then?” Joden asked quietly.

  “Oh well, the foot came off, but the blood poisoning had spread up into his leg.” I played with one of the tassels on the pillow. “It started to turn black and swelled to twice its size.” I took another drink. “The puss just oozed out. It was a shame, but we had no choice. A few days later I took his leg off at the knee.” I stared at the coals in the brazier. “I really thought I had gotten all the bad flesh out and that Lanis would make it.”

  Simus coughed. I looked up and smiled at him. “The stump looked great. I was really proud of the work I had done.”

  Simus cleared his throat. “How did he fare after . . .”

  My face fell. “The blood poisoning got into his brain. We dosed him heavily with our best herbs, but he died screaming in agony.” I let the silence go on for a bit. “Could I have some more kavage, please?” I held out my mug to Joden, who filled it woodenly. “Oh, but that was nothing compared to . . .”

  After the second cup of kavage, Simus was gray, Joden looked faint, and I felt wide awake and full of energy.

  I wondered what was in that stuff.

  I didn’t stay much past the second mug. Once his color came back, Simus looked tired. I knew that he should rest. So I stood, said my farewells, and left the tent. Joden followed me out, saying that he needed more wood for the fire. Once outside, he put his hand on my shoulder. “My thanks. Simus will listen to you.”

  I looked up. “I hope so. I didn’t make those stories up.”

  Joden shuddered.

  “Joden, where are the tents of the healers?” I frowned. “I am sure that they must have more fever’s foe, or something like it.”

  “The warrior-priests do not share their knowledge.” Joden pointed off behind the tent and further down the rise to a group of tents clustered together. “His tent was there.” He hesitated. “My thanks again, Warprize. For the life of my friend.”

  I studied him for a moment. “You used my name before, Joden.”

  He smiled ruefully. “You are the warprize now.”

  I grimaced, and turned to leave as he returned to the tent. I moved but a few steps toward Keir’s tent when I heard it. The sound of a whip being applied to someone’s flesh. I hesitated, and turned toward the sound, taking a few steps between the tents. A quick glance told me that the guards weren’t paying that much attention, so I moved a bit farther and looked toward the sound.

  Behind the tents a man was tied to a post, stripped to the waist, his back bloody. Two men were standing there, one lashing at him with a whip. I knew military discipline was harsh, Father had talked about it. But it was one thing to talk of something, another to see. The lash fell with a regular rhythm, the man making harsh grunts as it landed. I froze in fear, horrified, as they stopped, untied him, and watched as he dropped soundlessly to the ground. The other men picked him up by the arms, dragged him to the warrior-priest tent, and dropped him just inside the flap. They walked off, as if he was no longer their concern.

  I expected some kind of outburst, some kind of response from inside the tent, but nothing happened. There were bedrolls, of warriors sleeping around open fires, but none stirred. I could still see the man’s foot in the tent entrance. No one was helping him.

  The camp around us was stirring a bit more. I could see men moving about with weapons and horses, bent on various tasks. He’d be found eventually. But if he roused, and rolled over into the dirt . . . I took a tentative step forward, then another. There was no outcry, no calls of “escaping slave.” I hurried forward to help. The man’s foot never twitched as I carefully raised the flap of the main entrance and went inside.

  I was hit with a terrible stench first thing. Gasping, I covered my nose with my shirt and looked around. What in the Goddess’s name . . .

  It was a large tent, with fewer cots than had been up at the castle. Men lay in them, some moaning. The stench came from the overflowing slop pots under each cot. The man at my feet was unconscious, but breathing. From the look of it, none of these men had been tended, or bathed recently. There was no one about that looked to be caring for the men at all.

  I staggered back out into the light and air, wiping my streaming eyes. I looked around, furious at this lack of care. There appeared to be some dozen warriors, sleeping around a fire pit at the side of the tent. The large cauldrons nearby told me that it was probably used for laundry. I stomped over, braiding up my hair as I went. Sure enough, these men looked healthy and sleeping off a drunk.

  I hauled off and kicked the nearest one in the shins.

  He yelled, coming out of the blanket. I had already moved on, kicking each body in quick succession. Their curses filled the air. I was unimpressed.

  “Are you tending the men in that tent?” Spittle flew from my lips as I shouted, I was that angry. “How dare you sleep while men are suffering?” The one I was yelling at rubbed his face, looking at me owl-eyed. A hand came from behind me, gripped my upper arm, and spun me around.

  “What business is it of yours, dog? Eh?” A big blonde woman towered over me, clearly a veteran of long battles and hard living. The wonder of a woman warrior escaped me at the time, since she gave me a hard shake, her fingers digging into the muscle. I tried to pull away, but had no luck. I glared up at her.

  “Those men in the tent need help while you laze by the fire.”

  She shook me harder, and my hair came tumbling down. I braced my feet, trying to yank my arm free. That made her madder. I watched her other hand swing up to strike me.

  The men grabbed her upraised hand, and voices raised, urging her to stop. One leaned over, whispering frantically. The veteran paled, dropped my arm like it was poisonous, and backed away. I rubbed my arm and followed her, step for step. “How can you leave men like that, while you take your comfort?” I stopped and took a deep breath, trying to calm down. They started to offer excuses and explanations, but I was in no mood to hear them. I spit on the ground before them. “That for your stories.” I gestured to the cauldrons. “Get the fires going and heat water, since that seems to be all you are good for.” With that I stomped back to the tent. I turned before I entered. “But don’t one of you set foot in this tent with these men. Do you understand me?” I did not wait for a response.

  With water and much coaxing, I got the whipped man onto a cot, where he passed out again. I struggled to get the sides of the tents rolled up to air out the place. It was not a job for one person, but I’d be thrice damned before I’d ask for any help from the uninjured warriors outside the tent. Once that was accomplished, I moved through the tent and checked each one quickly. The majority were recovering from wounds, although a few were clearly feverous. One had a bad cough that worried me greatly. They all had warm blankets, although it was clear that none of those had been changed in some time.

  I stomped back outside and hollered at those lazy dolts. “Get some kavage and food for these men.” I stomped back in. I didn’t wait to see if I was obeyed. They’d feel my wrath if I wasn’t.

  There were clean blankets and bedding in an area at the back. A table was spread out with some jars, knives, and other tools. Most of the jars held nothing I recognized, but one had a thick, gooey substance. I held it to my nose, and knew it immediately. Boiled skunk cabbage. I tried some on my inner wrist, and felt the tingle. There was soap as well. I made a quick round, assessing them, trying to decide who to aid first. There were five, and it quickly became clear these men were not mistreated, but had been neglected. The
bloody back was in need of aid first, then I’d see to the others.

  Hot water was waiting by the tent entrance, and I bathed the poor man’s back, wishing for my basket of medicines. Thankfully, the man didn’t rouse as I used the skunk cabbage to clean the wounds. I moved on to the others, bathing sweating faces and chests, easing their misery, checking wounds. I noted the ones that would need more treatment in the way of medicines and herbs as we moved along. Goddess knew where I’d get the medicines, but that was a problem for later.

  A young boy appeared soon after I started, a gangly child with red hair and brown eyes. He was loaded down with kavage, warm biscuits, and gurt. He seemed startled to see me, but cheerfully agreed to help. He had a tendency to talk, mouth running like a mountain brook as he gave each man some food and kavage. But his piping voice was a contrast to the rough tones of warriors and put smiles on all our faces.

  Food and care roused the men, and with help, most could manage to get themselves clean. That bunch outside at least managed to keep a supply of hot water coming. I had started a pile of dirty linens outside the tent. When the blonde suggested that they aid me, I didn’t say a word. I just pointed at the pile of linens. They took the hint.

  The red-haired lad popped up next to me as I was cleaning a gashed forearm. “I’s done, warrior. I’s saved ya some biscuits and kavage, though they be cold now.”

  “I’m not a warrior,” I replied absently. “I’m a healer.”

  His eyes got large suddenly. “You’re the warprize.”

  I reddened but kept working. My patient, however, jerked up his head and stared at the boy. “Warprize?”

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