Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

  Keir seemed skeptical, and turned his attention to his plate. He seemed lost in thought for a moment. We ate in silence, and I wondered how far I could push. Finally, I took a drink of wine. “I will need supplies for the tent.”

  “Supplies?” He pushed his plate back with his thumb and just looked at me. I looked down at my plate and found it empty, as were the other dishes. Guess I was fairly hungry after all.

  Marcus bustled in and cleared the dishes, leaving the skin and the goblets. He stood with a tray in hand and looked at me.


  I looked up, surprised.

  He stared at me, no trace of his former anger, his voice calm. “I have heard of your actions this afternoon. That was well done.” Then he scowled. “But next time I will truly give you the sharp edge of my tongue, you don’t follow my direction. Yes?” He gave Keir a nod and bid us both good night.

  I looked at Keir. He was leaning back in his chair, contemplating his goblet. I took another sip of mine. It was rich and fruity on my tongue.

  Keir stirred. “Supplies? What do you need?”

  “Herbs and the like. I need medicines, especially willow bark.”

  “Willow? What is that?” he asked, puzzled.

  I opened my mouth, shifting on my seat. The rough wood of the stump caught at my trous, and I gasped, realizing what I was sitting on. I stood up, threatening to over turn the table, and knelt by my stool. Crowing in delight, I started to peel the bark off the wood. They’d cut the blocks from willow.

  “Warprize?” Keir leaned forward to see what I was doing.

  I laughed, and tore at the wood, stripping the drying bark off the block. I turned and held it up. “Willow bark!”

  He frowned, not understanding.

  “I can brew a medicine from this. It’s called fever’s foe.” I shook my head. “I’ve been sitting on it all this time and . . .” I piled the bark on the table.

  Keir laughed. I looked over and met his steady appraisal. “You are passionate about your trade.” He cocked his head. “Your profession?”

  I nodded.

  He stood and stretched, taking his time. It was a treat to my eyes. Then he leaned over me, and I was caught by bright blue eyes.

  “Let’s explore what other passions you may have.” With that he swept me up and over onto the bed.


  I CLOSED MY EYES AND CLUTCHED FOR A HANDHOLD as I was lowered to the furs. It had finally come, I wasn’t ready, and yet . . .

  I’d known my duty since I was a girl. I’d thought perhaps, at some point, that I’d lie with a man, one chosen for me by my father, a man bound to me by sacred oaths in a ceremony performed in the throne room of the castle. I’d thought my husband would honor and respect me, and maybe even come to care for me in time. But those dreams had faded over the years, since Xymund had been in no hurry to give me in marriage.

  Now the hands on my body were the hands of a master, and there were no promises or bonds between us. No ceremony, no oaths, no idea of what my future held. I’d been given at the command of my King and I had obeyed, but my heart cried out for all the lost possibilities. Respect. Honor.


  Just like the night before, Keir’s hand pressed against my chest, over my heart. Its warmth blazed through my shirt, and drove all rational thought from my mind. The bed shifted as he lay down next to me, on his side, slightly pressing against my body. I drew in a deep breath, but when nothing else happened, I cracked open my eyes.

  He’d moved forward, his face close to mine. Startled, I turned my face away ever so slightly, embarrassed by the intimacy. He leaned in and nuzzled my ear. As skin touched skin, I gasped at the contact. Undaunted, he placed a gentle kiss at the edge of my jaw. His warm breath tickled my cheek. He leaned in farther, and this time, licked the same spot on my jaw, a light flicker of the tongue. I squirmed. His hand pressed me down slightly, as if to command my stillness. I managed to stop moving, but my breath was coming faster than normal. There were feelings as well, a kind of ache. A kind of longing.

  I wanted to say something at that point, but he moved like a large cat, looming over me. His elbows were on either side, his legs pinning mine. I barely had time to note the look in his eyes before he captured my mouth with his.

  I was swept away, by lips that tantalized and teased and took exactly what they wanted. He didn’t just press lips together, he was using it all, mouth, tongue, and teeth. After a bit, he backed off to allow me to breathe. He didn’t retreat, just pressed soft, small kisses at the corners of my lips as I desperately pulled air in.

  His face held a satisfied look. One hand reached up to stroke my face gently. Keir moved his hand, running his fingers through my hair, spreading it out over the fur. His eyes flared with blue light.

  “Want to know the best part of being a warlord?” came a hoarse whisper.

  I bit my lip, puzzled by the question.

  Keir’s mouth curled up slowly into a smile. “I always get what I want.”

  His lips came down on mine, demanding, coaxing, then taking. Again and again, over and over, he brought me to the brink of something ’til I was unsure of where he ended and I began. At some point, I would be overwhelmed by it all, and a trace of fear would touch me. Each time, he would back off, calm me down with soft sounds and touches. Letting me take in air.

  Then he would proceed to do it all over again.

  I wanted more. My arms had been pinned down, and now I struggled to bring them up to enclose him, touch him. He chuckled, then moved slightly to give me room. My upper arm came in contact with Keir’s hand, and I hissed slightly at the touch.

  Keir froze, and moved back. “What’s wrong?” He frowned. “I hurt you?”

  I shook my head, confused by the comment. It was hard to think, since my body seemed to have other concerns. Keir was not convinced. He reached for my shirt and eased it open and down my arm.

  “Who has done this?” Keir’s voice was a growl.

  I was startled. The man staring at me was one I had not seen before, his eyes cold, his face hard. I looked down, horrified to see bruises on my upper arm. Clearly, the fingerprints of a large hand, probably the woman warrior who had grabbed me.

  “I will kill the one who has hurt you.” Keir jumped from the bed and strode to the tent entrance. “Marcus.” His voice whipped out. He started pacing in the space available.

  “I—” I sat up and struggled to cover myself with the shirt. “It’s nothing . . .”

  Keir turned, his eyes like blue ice, and I froze. Dearest Goddess, he was serious. His eyes were filled with rage.

  Marcus ran in, looking as if he had been roused from sleep. He took one look at Keir and was on his knee, head down. I struggled to cover myself, fumbling with the shirt.

  Keir barely gave Marcus a glance. “Someone has injured the warprize.” He stomped over and towered over me. His hands gently turned me so that the bruises were visible. “Look.”

  Marcus looked up. His eye widened at the sight. He dropped his eye again almost immediately. Keir pulled the shirt back up to cover my breast and shoulder. “Who did this?” he said, in a very calm, very deadly voice.

  I took the example Marcus had set, sank down on one knee, and bent my head as well to let my hair conceal my face.

  Keir resumed his pacing, moving like a caged animal. “I am waiting for an answer.”

  I swallowed. “Warlord, it was an accident. I was at the tents of healing, tending to those in need.” My mouth was so dry I could barely get the words out.

  “You’ve been hurt. No one touches what is mine.” Keir was almost roaring, his anger white-hot. I trembled at the force of his voice, but did not move or look up.

  “Warlord, I was treating a wound.” I swallowed hard, trying to get some moisture in my mouth. “The warrior was startled. The fault was mine.”

  “Are you trying to get yourself killed? Destroy the peace?” There was an odd note of anguish in his voice.

p; “No! I wouldn’t betray—”

  “You will tell me who it was. He will answer to me.”

  “No.” I closed my eyes and held my breath.

  Keir came to stand next to me. I could feel his hot glare, hear his heavy breathing.

  Yet, somehow I knew that he would not hurt me. Slowly, I raised my head and looked up. His anger had not abated; it was merely held in check. Carefully, I reached out and placed my hand on his arm. The muscles underneath quivered with tension. “Warlord, I am unhurt. The bruises will fade.”

  He was unappeased. “You’re under my protection. Whoever did this will pay for his actions.”

  “When the action was unintended?” I rose up slowly and moved my hand to his shoulder. I moved carefully, staying as close as I dared. I could just make out Marcus, still kneeling by the entrance. “A warrior taken unaware?”

  “As Simus was in the garden?”

  I nodded.

  He seemed to understand, but had a grim expression on his face. “You are defying me.” His voice rumbled, but it was softer than before.

  “Only in defense of one who does not deserve your wrath.” I looked up into angry blue eyes. “Don’t you take the occasional bruise when you practice with your weapons?”

  “No.” He snorted, but I could feel some tension leave his arm. “I am better than that.”

  “Well, I’m not.” I shivered. “Forgive me.”

  “Marcus. Leave us.” Marcus was out of the tent as fast as he had entered.

  In no time, I was covered in the furs, warming up nicely. Keir lay beside me, on his side, head propped up with his hand. I yawned, trying to fight sleep, unsure of his expectations.

  “You have no skill with weapons.” It was more a statement than a question.

  “You mean, like a warrior?” It seemed an odd question.

  “You cannot defend yourself.” His voice sounded odd.

  I yawned again. “I can always run.”

  He snorted. There was a pause as my eyelids got heavier.

  “You are untouched.” His voice rumbled in my ear.

  “I got bruised,” I argued.

  “No,” he paused again. “I mean you are untouched. You have no children.”

  I sucked in a breath, suddenly wide-awake. “I am an unmarried Daughter of the House of Xy.” I stared at the ceiling, and worried my lower lip. “I am . . .” I rolled my eyes and considered the absurdity of this conversation. It was hard to continue, but he waited patiently. I could feel his eyes on my face. “I was a candidate for a marriage of alliance. As such, I was . . . am . . .” The rest froze on my tongue.

  “Untouched.” He looked at me through half-closed eyes, studying me like prey. “Ignorant.”

  I blushed, then frowned. “I am a healer. A Master Healer. I am not ignorant. I have the knowledge. I just lack . . .”

  “Experience.” He raised an arm and brushed a curl off my forehead.

  I moved my head away from his hand, but a huge yawn overcame me again. “That’s right. Knowledge, but no experience.”

  “Yet you heal. You see . . .”

  I could feel the heat on my cheeks. “Yes, I know what men and women look like and I know what they do. I just haven’t . . .”

  “This is your people’s way?”


  He sighed and rolled over onto his back. As I watched, he closed his eyes and sighed again. Without opening his eyes, he spoke. “Sleep, Warprize.”

  I closed my eyes, wondering if I would ever hear my own name again.


  There were voices, speaking softly. Keir was talking to someone. I wasn’t really interested in opening my eyes. It was so warm and I felt so boneless under the furs. It felt so good to just lie there.

  The voices stopped and footsteps faded off. Keir spoke softly. “I must be up. Sleep awhile longer.” With that, he slid out, letting in cooler air, ignoring my mumbled protests. I crawled over into the warmth, trying very hard not to wake up. The splashing noises, and the scent of breakfast made that impossible.

  Whatever was cooking smelled spicy. When my stomach made its opinion known, I sat up and let the furs pool around my waist as I adjusted my tunic, which had twisted in the night. I reached my arms up, twining them around each other, and stretched, arching my back. When the bones in my back had realigned themselves I lowered my arms.

  Keir was standing there, watching me.

  He was naked from the waist up. Water still glistened on his face and neck.

  He had the oddest look on his face.

  I flushed and looked away. Once out from under the covers, I darted into the privy area. There was plenty of warm water left, and someone had left a change of clothes for me on one of the benches. I splashed through a wash as quick as I could.

  When I emerged, Keir was already eating and Marcus was standing there, his arms crossed. He pointed to the other chair, and I sat quickly. Marcus fixed me with his eye and didn’t stop staring at me until I started eating. He gave me a last look and left the room.

  Keir leaned back, a cup of kavage in his hands. “You wish to return to the healing tent?”

  I nodded, my mouth full of some kind of porridge. He drank his kavage hot and bitter. I noticed that he did not add anything to it. “And check Simus, if I may.”

  “I am calling senel at the nooning. I want you to be there.”

  I nodded and wondered what a senel was.

  Keir continued. “I am assigning two guards to be with you at all times.”

  I choked on my food.

  Marcus had come in with more bread. “Good,” he muttered, and left the room.

  Keir held up a hand as I tried to clear my throat. “No arguments. I would have you protected, something you cannot do for yourself.”

  I sputtered. “I am not helpless.”

  His eyes strayed to my upper arm. I flushed at the implication and opened my mouth to argue. He cut me off with a gesture. “If it is not acceptable, you may stay here, nap, and let Marcus feed you.” I heard an exclamation from the other room.

  I glowered at Keir.

  He was impervious. “I have sent for the guards. They will be here shortly.” He finished his kavage and stood. I grabbed some bread and tore at it, trying not to watch as he strapped on his weapons.

  Marcus came in and started to clear dishes. “It’s for the best, Warprize.” I glowered at my mug of kavage. “And yourself?”

  “Simus and I need to talk,” Keir responded.

  “The attacks on the horses.” Marcus’s tone was grim, and he muttered something under his breath.

  “Aye.” Keir caught my questioning look. “Someone is shooting at the herds, killing horses. We believe they are your people.”

  I opened my mouth to deny it, but closed it with a snap. Keir was watching me carefully, but he said nothing further. I finished my food in silence, as Keir armed himself, and Marcus fussed.

  Sounds at the outer entrance let me know that my guards were coming, and I quickly started to peel the bark off the stump I was sitting on. Marcus demanded to know what I was doing, as Keir moved to greet the guards. I looked up to see Prest and Rafe standing there, grinning like fools. I smiled when I saw them. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.

  Keir led the way, with Rafe and Prest flanking me. Marcus’s voice called out behind us. “Mind now, be here for the senel. With time to get cleaned up!”

  SIMUS WAS NOT IN THE BEST OF MOODS. “ABOUT time,” he grumped as we entered his tent. Rafe and Prest took up positions outside. “What about these attacks? Any sign it’s the damned city—”

  Keir cleared his throat as I entered.

  “Good morning, Warprize.” Joden greeted me with a twinkle in his eye. “Be warned that Simus has not yet had enough kavage to be human.”

  Simus growled, and I almost laughed out loud. Who’d think a patient in a foul mood could be such a comfort? “I could come back later,” I offered.

nbsp; “No!” Simus struggled up on his elbows, furious, then drew a deep breath when he realized I was teasing. A small smile crept over his face. “Good Morning, Warlord. Warprize.”

  “Good morning, Simus of the Hawk.” Keir sat on one of the stumps off to the side. “Can’t say that I blame you for being in a foul mood.” He gestured toward the leg. “I’d not have the patience to endure.”

  Simus glared at him. “Made all the harder when I get no word of what is happening—”

  Keir held up a hand. “Let the warprize look at your leg.”

  “You talk while she works.” Simus was pushing aside his blankets and furs, exposing his leg. Joden moved to help him, and I knelt alongside.

  “There were no attacks last night. Bolts were found in the horses that were slain. We will discuss our actions at the senel that I called for this nooning.”

  Simus grunted. “Which of us uses crossbows? Even if we did, none of us would do such a thing.”

  “I’ve decided to send Iften to the Xyian King, to inform him of the attacks and to get answers.”

  “Iften?” Simus’s full attention was on Keir now. “Why Iften? Why not go yourself?”

  I looked over my shoulder, curious as to what Keir’s response would be, only to find him giving me a veiled look. “I’ll not leave camp.”

  “Ah, well. Maybe ’tis best. Let him show his true—”

  Keir cut him off. “Let the warprize finish her work and be on her way. You and I have much to discuss. Including Joden.”

  I glanced at Joden, but his face was impassive. Simus was not so silent. “There’s nothing to talk about.”


  “No.” Simus looked at Joden, then gave Keir a sly look. “Joden’s not the first to deny mercy to a friend.” When Keir didn’t react, Simus grinned. “Joden and I will be at the senel.”

  “Simus . . .” Joden was standing there frowning.

  Simus glowered at his friend. “We will both be there.” He raised a hand to prevent Joden from saying anything further. I looked at both men’s faces. Joden was clearly unhappy, and Simus looked angry. I didn’t understand that at all, but Joden was uncomfortable. I cleared my throat and drew Simus’s attention. He shifted his gaze, focusing his dark eyes on me. “Well?”

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