Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan


  “Make way!” Simus boomed out, his voice filled with laughter. “Make way!” He grinned like a fool, white teeth gleaming in his dark face, carried aloft over everyone’s head, propped up with brightly colored pillows. But his joy changed to a yell of panic when one of his bearers stumbled slightly. This caused an outbreak of laughter in the crowd, as Simus berated his bearers for their clumsiness.

  Finally, Simus was settled next to Keir on his left. Once that was done, Keir looked at me, and I sat down. Keir sat, and the crowd followed after.

  Keir spoke as they settled down. “I have called senel, to speak of events, to hear your views, and to make my decisions. Let us eat as we talk.”

  Marcus and three others started to pass through the crowd with pitchers and wooden bowls. I noticed that one was Gils, who carried his pitcher with extra care. Each person held out their hands and washed in turn as water was poured over their hands. Each uttered soft words that I couldn’t hear.

  Marcus served Simus and then moved to stand before me. It surprised me, since I had washed moments ago. He glared when I did not hold out my hands. Feeling awkward I leaned forward slightly and whispered to him, “Marcus, I don’t know what to say.”

  “Say?” Marcus darted a glance at Keir, who was talking to Simus, and then focused back on me. “You give thanks, Warprize. You say what you wish.” He kept his voice down, and drew no attention to us.

  With relief, I held out my hands and thanked the Goddess as the water was poured. Keir was the last to wash, and as soon as he was done, food and drink were served.

  There weren’t as many people as I’d first thought. I counted heads and came up with ten people seated before us, spread out so that each could rest his plate and cup on a nearby stool. An equal number of men and women, all veterans by the look of them.

  As soon as everyone had food in hand, Keir started asking questions concerning the status of the army, the camp, and the herds. The talk was casual, with each individual joining in with no regard to status or degree. It was clear that they felt free to talk, expressing opinions, and not hesitating to discuss the bad as well as the good.

  I listened, interested in the discussion, comparing it to what I knew of my father’s councils. The talk here seemed free, easy. Unlike the Court, where every statement seemed to hold hidden meanings.

  A cough interrupted my thoughts. Marcus was standing next to me. His eye caught mine, flashed down to look at my untouched plate, then back up to my face.

  I started eating.

  A tall, thin woman with short, curly brown hair was speaking. “We’ve three injured horses and five dead, Warlord. Crossbow bolts, shot from cover.” She scowled.

  “They attacked in the darkness and fled before the herders could react.”

  “What do you need, Aret?” Keir asked.

  “More watchers spread about the herds,” she responded quickly. “Since the attacks come from cover, maybe a squad to patrol the tree line.”

  “Doubt they’ll use the same move twice,” Simus offered.

  “Not the first time an enemy’s made mistakes,” a man with darker brown hair and a crooked nose replied. “Let me take some archers into the trees. We’ll set them up high and let them wait out the night. With starlight, we’ll spot them first and that will end it.”

  Aret nodded. “I like that, Yers. But you may have a long night of waiting.”

  “Me? Not so.” Yers grinned. “I’ll send the young ones, full of enthusiasm and energy. It’ll teach them patience.” That drew chuckles.

  “This morning I sent Iften to speak to the Xyian King about these attacks. Iften, tell us what you learned.”

  It was the blond I’d encountered in Simus’s tent. He rose from his seat near the center of the room, a smug look on his face. “I went into the city with an escort and demanded speech with the defeated King.”

  Simus guffawed. “That attitude made your welcome sure.”

  Iften didn’t look at Simus. “I gave him the courtesy that the Warlord bade me. Not that he deserved it.”

  Keir frowned, and Iften continued hurriedly. “I told him of the attacks, and he denied knowledge of them, and also denied that his people would do such a thing.” Iften turned slightly, as if addressing the room, rather than reporting to Keir. Behind me, Marcus muttered something under his breath. “I told this city-dweller that to murder a horse is to murder a child, and that swift and deadly punishment would fall on any who so dared. The defeated King said that he would investigate the matter.” Iften’s disdain was clear.

  “What was his manner?” Keir’s voice was soft.

  “As one who brushes aside a fly,” Iften snarled. “I told him to report to you and he said that would be done.”

  Keir sat quiet as the room stirred about us. I half expected an explosion of temper from him, but none came. “Aret, set the extra watchers. Yers, your idea is a good one, but I want patrols as well. You and Aret decide the placement and timing.”

  Aret seemed well satisfied, as did Yers. Iften, as if realizing Keir was done with him, moved to sit down with a disgruntled look.

  “Iften.” Keir’s voice carried over the heads of everyone present.

  “Warlord?” Iften stopped and rose to his full height.

  “Have a care, Iften, for Xymund is my defeated King, and you will offer him respect or answer to me.”

  Everyone fell silent, and seemed to study their kavage closely. Iften gave Keir a nod, then settled back onto his stool. I noticed that the disgruntled look had become more pronounced.

  “Sal?” Keir turned to an older, gray-haired woman. “Supplies?”

  They launched into a discussion of food and gear, and I was stunned to learn that the Warlord’s army was paying for supplies. While the conversation had moved on, clearly Iften remained unhappy. But I had other concerns. There was such a need for medicines and the like, but I didn’t know my place at this meeting. I felt more prize than participant. The Warlord had a temper, that much was clear, one that flared fast and hot. I shuddered inside, remembering his fury at the sight of a few bruises. How angry would he be if I spoke out now?

  Keir finally sat back, and handed his empty plate to Marcus. “We’ve covered the concerns I had. Before I speak as to my plans, is there anything else?” The other servers were passing though the room with fresh kavage. Marcus was leaning over to get my plate when he stiffened. I looked around him to see a man step forward, and pick up the bundle from the stool in the center of the room.

  “Wesren?” Keir’s voice held a questioning tone.

  He was a short, stocky man with thick black hair and beard. “I hold your token, Warlord. I give voice to one truth.”

  Marcus moved back beside me, handing off the plates to another server. His eye was firmly fixed on the speaking man.

  “You’ve said there’s to be no releases from regular duties, or leave of camp.” Wesren drew a quick breath. “Been some time since that’s been granted, and that’s passing hard, Warlord.” He shifted, uneasy under Keir’s stare.

  Keir paused for a long drink of kavage, looking at the man over the rim of his cup. “Any further truths to voice?”

  Wesren stood, holding the token. “No, Warlord.”

  “You felt the need to hold my token for this?”

  Wesren stiffened. His movement jangling the bells of the token. “Ways are changing under your hand, Warlord. Felt the need to be careful.” Keir’s gaze never wavered and Wesren shifted his weight again, his eyes darting about the room as if looking for support.

  Keir put him out of his misery. “I will speak to your truths.”

  Wesren nodded, placed the token back on its stool, and returned to his seat.

  “Although it appears that we have won, still I have doubts about this peace.”

  I jerked, alarmed at his words. If he noticed, Keir did not react. “This peace calls for their King to acknowledge me as Warlord of this land. His oath has been given, yet our horses are attacked in the night. Until
I am satisfied of his obedience and our safety, we will remain on alert and on guard, as if in enemy lands.” Keir held up a hand to control reactions, since the decision was not popular. “Besides, I remind you that their ways are not our ways. Before our peoples intermingle, we need to make sure that there is understanding. For example, Xyian women do not lie with men until they are bonded.” That set them all aback, and every eye focused on me. The expressions ran the gauntlet from pity to amazement to mirth. I flushed at the attention, and focused on my shoes.

  “To prevent problems, everyone remains in camp.” Keir emphasized his order.

  “What of a pattern dance, Warlord?” Simus flashed his grin. “That would work off excess energy.”

  That was met with laughter and smiles. Keir laughed as well. “Good idea. What say you, Wesren?”

  “We’d all enjoy a good pattern, Warlord.”

  “Announce it then, for two days hence. Plenty of time to weave new patterns.” Keir stood and stretched. “If there are no further—”

  “I hold your token, Warlord.”

  Conversation stopped. Iften was standing with the bundle in his hand. I caught Keir and Simus exchanging a glance as Keir sat back down. Iften lifted the item in his hand and shook it slightly so the bells chimed.

  “I give voice to two truths. Joden remains unpunished for his violation of our ways.”

  There was a stir at this statement.

  “The other truth?” Keir’s voice was very noncommittal.

  “That your attempts to rescue Simus by going into the city alone were reckless, and showed disregard for this army and your responsibilities.”

  My mouth dropped open. A statement like that would have Xymund calling for executioners. Keir merely sat up a bit straighter on his stool. “Any further truths to voice?”

  Iften stood, holding the token. “No.”

  “I will speak to your truths.” Iften nodded, placed the token back on its stool, and returned to his seat. “Before I speak to these truths, I would tell you that a rider fell in practice this morning, breaking her leg.”

  The overall reaction was one of dismay. One voice rose from the back. “Her name?”

  Keir responded. “I do not know. We will ask it of the warprize, who saw the incident, had the warrior taken to the healing tent, and healed the leg.”

  All eyes focused on me. I swallowed my food. “Her name is Atira.” There was a general murmuring at that. I darted a quick glance at Keir. “But the leg is not yet healed. Bone healing takes time.”

  One woman leaned forward on her stool. “You have done this before? Healed a broken limb?”

  I looked at her. “Yes.”

  Talk swelled, but Keir spoke over it. “I acknowledge the truth that Joden’s actions were not of our tradition. I leave it to Simus as to what punishment there should be for the man who failed to grant him mercy in the face of capture. However, I voice the truth that had he followed our tradition, there would be no warprize.” He looked at me, a pleased expression on his face. “I think you all begin to see what I see.”

  I shifted on the stool, uneasy as the object of attention.

  Keir focused back on the group. “I answer to the other truth that has been raised.” He grinned ruefully. “I acknowledge the recklessness of my action. When have I not acted so?” Laughter met that statement. “I’ll consider the truth that I had no regard for my men and my responsibilities.” I could see Iften scowling, less than satisfied. But Keir was not finished. “But do not think to turn me into a fat king that directs his men from a tower.” There was another burst of laughter at that, and from the sly looks in my direction, I had a feeling they were talking about Xymund.

  Keir gestured, holding his hands up, palms flat. “Who can say what caused Joden to stay his hand. I cannot. I have spoken to these truths, and I thank Iften for his truths.”

  Simus raised his hand. “Warlord, I would speak to this truth. I would speak as to Joden’s punishment.”

  Keir turned a bit, so he could see Simus. “Speak, Simus.”

  Simus’s voice carried far, yet he seemed to make no special effort. “The Warlord has left to me to determine the punishment for Joden, who has violated our tradition. I say, how is one to punish the man who saved his life?” Simus shifted a bit on his pillows. “But tradition has been broken and punishment there must be. Summon Joden to stand before me.”

  Joden stepped into the tent, as if he had been waiting just outside. He looked anxious, but his step was firm, and he stood with an easy confidence. “I am here.”

  Simus’s teeth gleamed as he smiled. “As I have done privately, so I now do publicly. I thank you, Joden, for the gift of my life.”

  Joden smiled back, his round face made rounder so.

  “Now, as to punishment. As you all know, Joden is a singer. Not yet a Singer of the Tribes, but singer nonetheless. So, hear now the punishment I would impose. Joden must sing of his decision on the field of battle.”

  There was a stirring at this, but I couldn’t tell what their reaction was. Simus waited for a bit, then continued, “Now, the words of a singer cannot be forced or dictated. That too is tradition. So I say to Joden, do you accept this punishment? Will you sing of this for all the Plains to hear?” More murmurs, more reaction. I was getting the idea that the offense and the punishment were so unusual that no one was sure how to react.

  Joden nodded. “I accept the punishment. I will sing of this.”

  “So be it.” Simus leaned back on his pillows and waved his cup in the air. “Bring me and Joden kavage, Marcus. This is punishing work.” There were groans at that, and Simus laughed as Joden took a stool. “I have spoken to this truth. I thank you, Warlord.”

  Keir lifted a mug. “The sky favors the bold.” Other mugs were lifted in response. As they were lowered, Keir caught Iften’s eye. “I thank you for your truths, Iften.”

  Marcus moved to offer more kavage to him and Simus as the rest of the room talked among themselves as if nothing had happened. Under its cover, Simus leaned over. “That one grows brazen.”

  Keir made some response, but I did not hear it. My eyes were drawn to the bundle, the token, there on its stool. Maybe I could use its protections to ask for medicines and supplies. Without further thought I slipped off my stool and moved toward the token. It was almost in my grasp when my wrist was caught and jerked back. I gasped and shrank back from Keir, his face contorted in rage.

  CHAPTER 6

  KEIR’S GRIP ON MY WRIST TIGHTENED AS HE pulled me back to the platform. Ice-cold sweat formed down my spine as a vision of the man tied to the whipping post filled my eyes.

  I was pulled back to reality when Keir released my wrist and pushed me back down on my stump. “What would you say, Warprize?” The words ground out between his teeth as he towered over me. Wanting nothing more than to sink into the earth, I dropped my eyes and caught a glimpse of Iften behind Keir, smirking in delight.

  “Well?”

  I glanced over at Simus, who nodded as if encouraging me to speak. Lifting my chin, as well as my courage, I met Keir’s eyes. “I have two truths.”

  “What?” Keir snapped at me, and I got a clear glimpse of his teeth.

  “Supplies for the healing tent.” I swallowed hard. “I can do more with medicines, herbs, and equipment.”

  There was a murmur of reaction to that, but Keir’s eyes continued to bore into mine. “More?” The anger that had flared seemed to smolder beneath the surface. “You would aid any who came to you?”

  “Yes.” My wrist throbbed, but I sat still and straight.

  One of the men snorted from the back. “Our warriors will become soft as city-dwellers if we let them complain of every ache and pain.”

  “Oh, and they fight so much better when they have a rash under their arms, or flux dribbling out of their ass,” I snapped back, letting my temper flare.

  The room exploded in laughter.

  Simus threw back his head and roared. “Ah,” he gasped, wiping
his eyes. “This one’ll not let slackers lie idle. She’ll have them empty slop pots!”

  More laughter. Keir’s posture didn’t relax, but there was a hint of a smile on that stern face. I carefully kept my eyes on his, not daring to look away. After a moment he returned to his stump and gestured for more kavage. “And your second truth, Warprize?”

  I shifted so that I looked directly at him, but he stared ahead, so all I had was his profile. “You need to understand that I am a healer, not a—” I bit my lip, at a loss for the right word. “Not a worker of wonders. I can’t wave my hand and fix Atira’s leg so that she can jump up as if nothing happened.” I drew a breath. “I have set her leg, but bone healing takes time.” I dropped my eyes to the rough planks of the platform. “I can’t heal all illness. Would to the Goddess that I could.”

  There was silence in the tent. Keir’s voice was low, but it carried. “You’d try to help any who came to you?”

  I looked up, surprised he even had to ask. “Of course.”

  Keir looked around the room, and I could see that some of the warriors were nodding their heads, although Iften and a few others were scowling. Keir opened his mouth to speak, but at that moment Marcus approached and bowed to Keir. “Warlord, there is a man of the city outside. He says that he has business with you, as you owe him a debt. He will talk to no one but you.”

  “Let him approach.”

  The tent flaps parted and Remn entered, moving with quiet dignity toward the high seat. I sat up and smiled. His eyes caught mine, and a look of relief flashed over his face for just a moment. He made no sound. Instead, he focused his eyes on Keir and continued to advance. A servant followed him with a small bundle. About five steps from Keir, he stopped, and bowed low.

  “Greetings, Warlord. I am Remn, a humble bookseller. I thank you for this audience. I apologize that I do not speak your language. Is there one who can interpret my words?”

  Keir nodded. “I speak your language. I am told that you have come to collect a debt from me, bookseller. I owe no debt to you that I am aware of.”

 
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