Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

  “Lie still,” I snapped at the man. He did just that, and made no further complaint.

  The lad leaned over my shoulder and craned his long neck. “What ya doing?”

  “Cleaning out this wound. It’s soured.” This was the worst of the injuries, and I was concerned about this man’s condition.

  He didn’t pull back. “How can ya tell?”


  He drew in a breath through his nose, which wrinkled in disgust. “That’s the smell?”

  I nodded as I tied off the bandage.

  He seemed to think for a minute. “I’s need get back, they’ll be looking for me. I’s be back later, with some soup and bread.” He took a step away, then turned back. His brown eyes focused on me thoughtfully. “You’re not like a warrior-priest, is ya?”

  “I am a healer.”

  He looked confused, but smiled anyway. “I’s can ask ya questions? You don’t mind?”

  “Of course I’ll answer your questions.” I looked up into his eager face and had to smile. “What’s your name?”

  “I’s Gils.” He grinned, “I’s be back with the supper.” Off he went, whistling down the path.

  At last, we were done. Each man was warm, clean, treated, and fed. Time to start the last chore. I started at the far end of the tent and worked my way toward the entrance, carefully taking each slop pot and emptying it into a large bucket that looked to be for that purpose. I then took the bucket by the handle and walked it out of the entrance of the tent, passed the slackers, who were by the large fires trying to look busy. And innocent. On my first trip, one had approached me to help, but I had glared him off. Now they just sat and watched. Each time I walked past, they seemed to sink lower in their seats by the fires.

  I emerged from the tent with the last bucketful to a sky faintly tinged with pinks and yellows. I didn’t even glance to the sides, but set my weary eyes on the latrine. A slight noise distracted me, and I looked off to the side to see the slackers standing there at attention, looking rather pale. From behind me I heard a cough, and I turned quickly. Too quickly, as the bucket slopped over onto my trous.

  There sat Keir on his warhorse, all black leather and armor, leaning forward, arms crossed on the saddle before him, looking angry and grim.

  I blinked.

  He raised an eyebrow, and spoke in a calm and even tone. “Would someone care to explain why the warprize is cleaning slop pots?”

  I drew myself up, being careful with the bucket this time. “Because these bragnect are not worthy of the task.” There were gasps from behind me. I ignored them. I turned and headed to the latrine to finish my task.

  I’d have to remember to ask Joden what that word meant.

  When I had finished my job and rinsed the empty bucket, I turned and walked back up the rise. The Warlord was still there by the tent. The warriors that had been standing there were gone. Keir dismounted, secured his horse, and followed me into the tent without a word.

  I stood there for a moment surveying my handiwork. The tent smelled clean and fresh, and the men were resting in comfort. Keir moved past me, and started talking to his men, moving through the tent with ease. I went over to a stool near where they stored what medicines they had, and started sorting them. At least, that was what I pretended to do. Instead, I watched my master. I really hadn’t had a chance to see him clearly. Well, other than this morning. My face warmed at the thought. He moved among them with no ceremony, no formality. Even knelt to speak to the whipped warrior.

  While the movements of other warriors were controlled and powerful, he was different. There was a flow, a grace that I had not seen before. The way he grasped one man’s hand, how he would tilt his head and listen to another. And one breathtaking moment when he smiled at a comment and his face relaxed into a thing of beauty.

  Which made my role as sex slave even more wildly absurd. Especially with women like the blonde around, tall and strong and . . . ample. With women warriors like that wandering the camp, how did one brown-haired, short, and . . . well . . . less than ample warprize compare?

  He finished, stood, and looked around. I looked back down at the various bottles and jars and really had no idea what was in them at all. As he walked over to me, it suddenly occurred to me that I had not done as Marcus had bidden me. I stood when he approached, but kept my head down.

  “There will be men coming with the evening meal who will tend these men.”

  I looked up quickly, scowling.

  “Different men, not the ones that were here earlier.” Keir looked around. “Our supper is waiting for us.” He held open the flap and waited for me to go first. I paused and looked up at him. He just stared back, noncommital. No anger that I could see. I stepped through and waited for him to retrieve his horse. I thought he would mount, but he grabbed up the reins and started walking. I followed behind, but he waited for me to move up beside him. Then he wrinkled his nose. The horse snorted, and shook its head. Keir moved to the upwind side and we proceeded on.

  I cleared my throat. “I checked on Simus. He is doing very well.”

  No response. I continued. “He wants to be up and moving, but I think I convinced him to stay off the leg for another day or so.”

  Still no response. I sighed and decided to shut up. The sun was almost gone now, the colors of the night sky fading into black over our heads. We were getting closer to his tent, and I was getting nervous. Finally, I blurted out, “Are you going to punish me?”


  “One of the warriors had been beaten, and just dumped inside the tent.” Nervously, I blithered on, afraid of the silence. “I couldn’t just leave him lying there. Those men needed aid, they had no one to help them, no one to care for . . .” My voice trailed off and died at the expression on Keir’s face.

  “Marcus became concerned when you did not return. He sent for me, and I have been searching for you. It looks bad to lose one’s warprize on the very first day.” The voice was quiet, his face unreadable.

  “Are you going to punish me?” My voice cracked slightly.

  “No.” Keir handed his reins to one of the guards who came up. He turned with an odd expression on his face. “I won’t need to.”

  Just then, the tent flap pulled back. I turned, startled, to find one very angry Marcus standing there. His scarred face transformed into a snarl of rage.

  I gulped, and stepped back a pace, bumping into Keir.

  “Where have the likes of you been?” His voice cut through the night. “Had to send Hisself out to find you, that I did.” He moved back to allow me to step into the tent. “How hard is it to find the tent of Simus? Eh? Then return here?” He glared at me, his hands on his hips. “Where have you been?” He frowned, then drew in a deep breath. His eye widened and his face screwed up in disgust. Keir had followed me into the tent, and I heard a soft chuckle from behind me. Marcus’s glare deepened as he raked his eye over my clothes. I looked down. For the first time I noticed the stains and wrinkles. I swallowed hard and looked over my shoulder for help.

  None was forthcoming. Keir arched an eyebrow at me. “I’ll return after a while.” I could have sworn he grinned as he turned away and left the tent.

  “No sense, no sky-blessed brains.” Marcus grabbed me by the shoulder and pushed me into the back sleeping area. “Been rolling in the muck pits, eh?” He vanished for a moment and returned with a sheet. “Strip and wrap up in this.”

  “Marcus, I . . .”

  That one eye glared at me fiercely. I grabbed the sheet and held it to me as I slid out of my shirt.

  “Hisself says, ‘Take care of warprize, look after warprize.’ ” Marcus stomped off with the shirt. I took the opportunity to shed the rest and get the sheet wrapped around me. His voice floated out of the other room. “Doesn’t tell Marcus that the warprize doesn’t have the brains that the elements gave a gosling.” He stomped back in and gathered up my stuff, holding it at arm’s length. He fixed me with another glare. “Standing there? When t
here is hot water going cold?” He gestured into the privy area.

  I moved rapidly, but with some dignity into that room, closing the flap behind me. Marcus followed me in. “Stand there.” He pointed to the wooden platform in the center. “Water drains out below. You understand? Or do I need to wash you myself?” His one eye cut into me as I shook my head and clutched my sheet tighter around me.

  Exasperated, he flung up his hands. “Warprize you may be, but nothing there I’ve not seen before.” With that he stomped out, but his voice pierced the canvas as he left. “Gosling? Did I say gosling?” He growled out the words. “More like the brains of an ox.”

  I cringed back from the door, and stood for a moment, getting my heart and breath under control. Really, Marcus was no different from Anna, right? I kept trying to convince myself of that as I turned and found four buckets of water steaming there, and soap and scrub rags waiting on a small table. Marcus was still talking, his voice fading in and out as he moved about. Thankfully, I couldn’t make out the details.

  There were stones under the platform and I realized that it had some sort of drain underneath it. I dropped the blanket, stood on the platform, and carefully poured some of the first bucket over my head and body. The warm water felt wonderful. I grabbed the soap and rags and started to lather, working over every inch of my body and up into my hair. I missed the great pools of the castle bath house, where you could soak in the warm water up to your neck. But this must pass for luxury in an army camp. I relished the feel of the mild soap on my body. I closed my eyes at the feel of the grime of the day washing away.

  “Need help with the water?” Marcus growled, calling from the outer room. “Not be making a mess in there that this one has to clean?”

  I froze in the act of stepping off the platform to reach the next bucket of water. I looked at the floor of the tent and decided that modesty was not worth more of his anger. “Yes, please,” I called, as I returned to scrubbing my hair, trying to keep the suds from flying about.

  Suddenly, there was a small amount of water trickling down over me, rinsing the suds from my hair and body. Grateful for the help, I quickly finished the scrubbing, and used my hands to rinse the soap from my body. The water continued to come down in a steady small stream. It felt wonderful.

  “Thank you, Marcus. I feel much better.” I reached blindly for the towel that had been laid out on the table. One was placed in my grasping hand.


  That was not Marcus.

  My hands jerked convulsively to cover myself when I opened my eyes to stinging soap, and up into blue eyes, but I stilled them. I was his property after all. I dropped my gaze and clutched the towel. Keir took it from my hands and wrapped it around me. He took another one and wrapped up my dripping hair.

  Without a word, he scooped me up, walked into the bedroom, and sat me on the edge of the bed. He stepped back, then sat on one of the tree trunks. I used the towel to work the remaining water out of my hair, keeping my eyes downcast. Fingers through my hair would have to suffice, since I had yet to see a comb. There was a bundle of clothing on the edge of the bed next to me.

  “What scent did you have on your hair last night?”

  “Vanilla.” I shivered as his eyes roamed over me. He stood, and started to remove his armor and weapons, placing them on the bench by the bed. I gathered up the clothes that had been put on the edge of the bed, and very casually moved back toward the bathing area.

  Just as I was about to dart within, he spoke. “I liked it.”

  I froze, but he said nothing else, merely continued to work at the straps on his breastplate. I took a step, dropped the flap, then dried and changed with all the speed I could. Once clothed, I felt much better. The same kind of tunic and trous this time, although black in color. I folded up the drying cloths, and stepped back into the sleeping area.

  Keir was on a bench, removing his boots. Dishes were rattling off somewhere. Marcus must be making our meal.

  Keir glanced up.

  I risked a smile. “I think that Marcus is calming down.”

  “Really?” His expression did not change, but there was a hint of laughter in his voice. “Marcus?” he called out. “The warprize did not eat at noon.”

  The rattling dishes stilled and I heard an enraged cry. I hunched down as Marcus stomped into the room. “What? You think you live on air and light?” He glared at me, with both hands on his hips. “City-dwellers.” He said it with disgust, and switched his glare to the larger man.

  “I had kavage with Joden and Simus.” I voiced a small protest.

  Marcus focused on me again. It was amazing how much anger one eye could hold. “You were told to take nothing except from the hand of the Warlord.”

  I cringed and looked over at Keir, who gazed at us both with a straight face. This time I was sure I saw a glimmer of laughter in those eyes.

  “Marcus is right.” Keir’s eyes grew serious. “While Simus and Joden have my trust, you are not to take anything from anyone else.” He rose from the bed and went to take his turn in the privy room. Marcus let loose a stream of words under his breath, and stomped out, using words and phrases that I did not understand. I sat there quietly as he stomped back in with two buckets of water for Keir. He was still muttering under his breath when he emerged, radiating anger with every step. I opened my mouth to say that I couldn’t have eaten if I couldn’t take food from another’s hand, but closed it quickly. Silence seemed wiser.

  Marcus returned with a heavy tray and started the dishes to rattling as he placed them on the table. “No food.” He transferred dishes at a rate that made me fear for my life. “Didn’t rest.” He stepped back, surveying his handiwork. “Rolled in muck pits, that she did.” That one eye was focused on me again. “Sit.” He pointed to the chair.

  I sat.


  I held them out, and Marcus poured the water over them, muttering something that did not sound like a prayer.

  “Eat.” He crossed his arms.

  “Shouldn’t I wait for . . .” My stomach chose that moment to express its interest in the food. At the sound, Marcus’s sole eye tapered its focus and drilled into me.


  I ate.

  As soon as my mouth was full, Marcus started to explain, in detail, the meaning of the words “food” and “rest.” I decided that the wisest choice was to keep nodding and eating.

  Finally, Keir emerged from the privy room. “Marcus.”

  Marcus stopped and looked over.


  Marcus clamped his mouth tight, poured the water over Keir’s hands, then stomped off, muttering.

  The food in my mouth turned to straw. I managed to swallow, but it was a struggle. I’d no idea what to say, how to act, suddenly very aware of the bed behind me. I worried my lip, kept my face down, and focused on the table.

  The Warlord was in no hurry. He helped himself to the food and started eating. After a bit, I decided that it looked odd, to sit without eating or talking, so I started back up as well, careful to take small bites.

  “It was my fault.”

  I stopped chewing when he spoke. With a mouthful of food, I simply raised my eyebrows.

  “The tents. I knew that our warrior-priest had been killed in one of the battles. I meant to assign someone else to the wounded, but Simus went missing and in my rush, I forgot.” He looked down and toyed with his food. “I apologized to the men.”

  I swallowed hard at the last and stared at him in disbelief.

  Marcus chose that moment to come back into the tent, a wineskin and two goblets in hand. As he poured, he eyed us both. “Much good the food does, sitting on the table. Eat.” He set the goblets down on the table, slung the wineskin on the back of Keir’s chair, and cuffed Keir lightly on the head. “You as well, oh mighty one.” Then he stomped off, still muttering to himself. I held my breath at his nerve. Keir smiled a wry smile, and reached for the meat.

  Uneasy, I kept
eating. Thankfully, Keir seemed more focused on his food than on me. I took another bite, determined to stay quiet, but something was bothering me. After a sip of kavage, I risked a question. “What of the other healers?” I asked. “Why didn’t they just do what needed to be done?”

  Keir shrugged. “There are no others.”

  “What?” I dropped my bread. “An army of this size, and you have no other healers? No assistants or apprentices?”

  Keir pulled some bread from the loaf. “Every man in this army is a warrior. There are no healers. The men pick up some basic knowledge on campaign. Men assigned to the wounded are on punishment detail.” He shrugged. “So it has always been.”

  “That’s insane! With an army this size? What about wounds like Simus’s?”

  “Men die from them.” His face was shadowed. “Either the wound kills them, or they are granted mercy.”

  I stopped, appalled to see his face full of pain. Someone this man had cared for had died that way.

  Keir turned his head. “Marcus is coming.”

  I started shoveling food into my face. Marcus walked in and surveyed the table with a frown. He grunted, apparently satisfied, and walked back out. As soon as I figured it was safe, I spoke. “That ends now.” I glared at him. “That is what I do, part of what I am, and I am good at it.”

  He looked at me. “You would do this? Would ask to do this?”

  I faltered and dropped my eyes. A little late to be remembering my place, but I’d be damned before I let those men be neglected. “I would.” I risked a glance up, trying to read that expression, with no success. But hope grew when he nodded slowly. “You’ll let me?”

  He gave me a long look. “Yes. It would strengthen the peace, after the deaths.”

  “Deaths?” I asked, then remembered. “The horses?”

  “Slain with bolts from crossbows. A weapon only Xyians use.”

  “You must get word to Xymund. He will find the—”

  His look was dark. “What if he has ordered these attacks?”

  “Xymund would not do that. He has given his oath, he has given—” I stopped, not wanting to think about that aspect. “He would not do that.” Yet deep within I remembered the hatred in his voice when he talked to Warren about the horses of the Firelanders.

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