Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan


  I smiled as I checked the bindings, pleased that the swelling was minor. “It will be awkward, but we can do it. Is there any pain?” She denied it, but I could see tension in her eyes. “Well, with bathing and all, you’ll start to feel it. I’ll give you something for it before we are done.” I stood. “We can rig a blanket curtain—”

  She looked at me oddly. “It’s not necessary, Warprize.”

  It wasn’t easy. I helped as much as I could, but Atira did most of the work herself. My job was to ensure that the leg stayed as straight as possible.

  Atira moved slowly and carefully, and showed no embarrassment in bathing where all could see. It made sense that a woman warrior would have no qualms about that, but I found it unsettling. It took longer, since she was unable to move, and I had the tent walls lowered to keep the heat in. No sense her taking chill on top of it all.

  By the time we were done, everything near and around Atira was wet, and the rocks that pulled at the leg needed to be retied, but she was cleaner and thankful for it. It was short work to clean the mess and change the linens of the cot. Once dry bedding was in place, and her weapons restored to her side, Atira lay back and heaved a sigh of relief.

  “I’ll get a clean tunic for you.”

  “Thanks, Warprize, but no. More comfortable naked.” She sank back and pulled the blanket up.

  I fixed an eye on her. “I can give you something for the pain now.”

  She wrinkled her nose. “Warprize, I’d prefer not. I’m not in pain as such, just achy.”

  I opened my mouth to argue, but saw that this was a matter of pride. So I merely nodded. Looking about, I could see that my other patients were tending to their own needs. I leaned a bit closer to Atira, picking up soap and cloths. “Atira, could I ask you a question?”

  “Of course.”

  “You might be offended.”

  “Offended, Warprize?”

  I flushed slightly. “Well, the Warlord uses a token . . .” My voice trailed off as she frowned.

  “No one explained?”

  I shook my head.

  It was her turn to shake hers. “The Warlord’s token, or anyone’s token, is for truths or questions that they may not want to hear,” Atira answered softly. “Those who lead have elaborate tokens, and bearers, which bespeak their status.” She shifted slightly to get more comfortable. “We are a warrior people and weapons are always at hand when tempers flare. Without tokens, there’d be little truth telling for fear of killing ourselves off!” She grinned at me. “For one such as I, a token can be a stone, a tool, a shoe even, if that’s what’s at hand.”

  “A dagger?” I asked, nodding toward her weapons.

  Atira wrinkled her nose. “That’s not done, Warprize. It can be done, but it’s insulting in its own way. Now, with leaders, warlords and the like, they set the token out where it can be seen. An invitation to use it. With me, you must ask.” She fumbled for one of the pattern stones. “Now, ask for my token.”

  “Atira, may I have your token?”

  She handed me the stone. “You hold my token, Warprize. What truths would you voice?”

  I clutched the stone in my sweaty hand. “I have a question.”

  She inclined her head. “I will answer.”

  I pointed to the tattoos on her arm. “What do these mean?”

  She chuckled. “You need no token to ask that!”

  “But how do I know?”

  The despair must have been in my voice, for her smile faded as she looked at me. “Healer you may be, but you’re a horse in a strange herd, aren’t you?”

  I nodded, not trusting my voice. My homesickness lay in my stomach like a rock.

  “It’s best, if you are not certain, to use the token.” She spoke carefully, as if to a child. “But as warprize, any who would lift a weapon to you would answer to the Warlord. You need not be concerned.” She looked down, and picked at a nit on the blanket. “Truth is, if the Warlord knew that I had grabbed you that day, I’d like be dead at his hand.”

  “He found out.” Atira went white, her eyes wide. I shook my head. “He saw the bruises. I refused to tell him who had done it.”

  Atira’s color slowly leached back into her face. “You refused?”

  “You didn’t mean any harm, and I lost my temper.” I flushed, embarrassed.

  “It appears that I owe you for both life and limb, Warprize.”

  “No, Atira, please. No debts between us.”

  She tilted her head. “So, at this point I reply, ‘I will answer to your truth.’ Then you return my token. Or, if you fear my anger, you may hold the token, until I answer.”

  I handed her the stone, and her smile grew wider. “As to your question. This tattoo?” She pointed to her right arm. “It bespeaks my tribes back four generations.” There were two columns of four lines each, black ink against her tanned skin. None of the designs repeated. “So you can see what tribes mix within my blood. Each tribe has its own pattern. The right column is the women, the left are the men.”

  I nodded, not completely sure I understood.

  “Now this,” she said, displaying her left arm, “this is my required births.” This was a row of five lines, each line a separate design. “I took the tribe design of the man for each child.” She had a look of satisfaction on her face.

  My buttocks hit the ground with a thump. “Five children?”

  Atira looked up, puzzled by my reaction. “Aye, Warprize. Before any can enter military service, they must first bear or breed five children for the theas.”

  “Of course,” I answered faintly. There was a roaring in my ears. Keir had similar tattoos. Five children? Different mothers?

  Atira reached for my hand, concern in her eyes. “Warprize?”

  “Do you raise your children?”

  “Skies blessing, no!” Atira laughed. “What would I know of tending babes? Theas do that, in the safety of the Plains. Three months of milk is more than enough for me.”

  “Were you . . . did you . . . marry the fathers?” I had to use the Xyian word.

  Atira frowned. “Marry?” I explained as best I could, and she chortled, shaking her head. “No, Warprize. Bonding is for later, if I meet the right person. Those matings were for the tribes, to flourish the tribes. You understand?”

  Dazed, I think I nodded my head.

  Atira settled back, satisfied. “Now I say, ‘I thank you for your truth,’ and the ritual is complete.” She yawned.

  Concern for my patient cut through my confusion. “Sleep, Atira.”

  She nodded, and I moved away to check the others, my hands steady, but my thoughts tumbled. Sure enough, each one had similar tattoos on their arms. I worked about the tent as my patients dozed, thinking hard about not thinking about Keir’s five children. Or the five women that had borne him five children. Or the fact that I might be required to bear five children.

  Thankfully Gils interrupted my musings, showing up with dinner for my patients. There was another man with him, who walked up to me with a wry grin. “Greetings, Warprize.”

  “You’re Yers. From the senel.”

  “Aye. Gils is one of my group.” He shook his head. “Knocked me off my horse, making his request that way.” He lowered his voice as Gils moved about with the food. “Solved a problem, to be honest. Gils gives his best, mind, but he’s not a natural fighter.”

  “He’s so young.”

  Yers nodded. “Younger than most. Triplets twice, if you can believe.”

  I blinked. “Triplets.” Sure enough, a quick glance showed me the six tattoos on his left arm.

  Yers raised his voice. “He’ll do well enough for you, Warprize, but I’ll not let him slack his duties. Here, now,” he called to Gils. “Done?”

  Gils nodded.

  “Then we’re off.” Yers gave me a wink. “You’ll have him again in the morning.”

  I wasn’t hungry, so I made sure that everyone had what they needed and returned to my small table, more to think than to accom
plish anything. The differences between us seemed so vast. I almost laughed out loud to think of the Archbishop’s reaction. Five children, with no blessing of the Goddess. But then I stopped. Did that mean they were free to lay with each other at any time? If so, what need was there for a warprize?

  A cough interrupted me. I turned to find a stocky woman standing there, skin brown and weathered, her short hair a pale white. “Warprize. The Warlord has directed me to find out what your supply needs are. I am Sal, supply master.”

  I stood. “Sal, I am glad to see you. I had hoped to have a list ready, but . . .”

  Sal snorted, then sat. “What good would that do? Tell me what you need.”

  “Well, if you know what the former healer used, I can work off those items.”

  Sal looked at me, her hands on her knees. “Warprize, the warrior-priest would not have deigned to speak to me, let alone tell me his needs.”

  “But how did he heal so many with such limited supplies?”

  Sal gave me a grim look. “He didn’t. Now, what do you need?”

  So I started telling her about fever’s foe and orchid root and all the other things that would supply me with the basics. She kept her eyes on mine, only occasionally stopping me to ask a question as to what something was, or to make sure that she knew how much I required. Hesitantly, I also asked about braziers and bowls to mix my medicines. She grunted at that.

  Finally, I ran out of ideas. She nodded once and settled back on her stool. “So. Let me make sure I have it right.” She took a breath, and started reciting.

  I was impressed. She had remembered every item, the quantity and its description. I listened carefully as she recited, nodding as she went along. I didn’t have to correct her once. When she was done, I nodded and smiled. She relaxed a bit, but there was no smile on her dour face. “All right?”

  “Perfect.”

  “Only the sky is perfect.” She stood and stretched, and moved to where Gils had left a pitcher of kavage. She brought it over with two mugs. “Not the hottest, but wet.” She poured two mugs and handed me one. “Now, I have questions for you.” Seated back on the stool she leaned forward, an odd look on her face. “What do you know of the city merchants?” Her eyes were alight with a strange kind of glow.

  “Well, I know a number of them.”

  She leaned forward. “Have you bought from them?”

  “Yes.”

  “Tell me,” she said, “tell me about them.” There was a scowl as she drank her kavage. “I must needs deal with them for supplies. These ways are new to me. Tell me how they deal and what they are like.”

  I chuckled. I knew that look now. It was the same look that Remn got in his eye when he was haggling over the price of a book.

  We talked for a long time. Sal had questions about sellers of livestock, produce, cloth, and everything an army could want. She already knew all the types of coins used in the Kingdom of Xy, and their relative values. She was not so interested in the butchers and bakers, and I couldn’t answer her questions about the dealers in swords and armor. She seemed well satisfied, and stood and stretched, looking out the entrance of the tent. “I’ve kept you late, Warprize. My thanks.” With that, Sal left as quickly as she had come.

  I looked after her in surprise. “Is she always that abrupt?”

  Rafe and Prest chuckled at my expression. “Unless you’re haggling, Warprize,” said Rafe.

  “Let me check Atira one more time.”

  Atira blinked at me as I checked the leg, and smiled drowsily. “Warprize.”

  “Atira. How do you feel?”

  “Good, Warprize.”

  I sighed. “Lara. My name is Lara.”

  She yawned. “Yes, Warprize.”

  I sighed. Apparently I was wasting my time.

  ON THE WALK BACK TO THE WARLORD’S TENT, WE paused to look at the stars that hung in the sky, and the moon riding low. Rafe was explaining the significance of the fact that Joden wanted to talk to Atira. “It’s an honor, to be in a song.”

  Prest nodded. “A great honor.”

  “To be honored for a broken leg?” I asked, skeptical.

  Rafe chuckled. “Well, it would be better if it were a battle deed, but it is rare indeed to be in a song. Unless you’re particularly brave or cunning—”

  “Or dead,” Prest added.

  “Or dead,” Rafe agreed. “Joden must also be planning on singing about you, Warprize.”

  “Me?” I stopped outside the tent.

  Rafe laughed. “Why sing about the injury unless you sing about the healing?” He clapped his hand on Prest’s back, and they walked off, leaving me standing there with a foolish look on my face.

  Marcus greeted me when I entered the tent. “Can I get you anything, Warprize?”

  I put my hands on my hips. “Lara.”

  He turned his one eye up to study the tent. “Kavage, perhaps? Some hot water?”

  I snorted, but was too tired to fight him. “No, thank you. I think I will go to sleep.”

  Marcus nodded. “I will add some fuel to the braziers. The Warlord is still with Simus, and I think they will talk the stars away.” He bustled about, as I sank down onto the bed, and bade me good rest when he left. I yawned, my face almost splitting with its strength. The bed felt wonderful when I crawled under the blankets and furs.

  Later, much later, I woke to find Keir had crawled into the bed at some point. He lay off to one side, on his back, sleeping peacefully. There on his bare arm were those tattoos. I stared at him in the soft glow of the coals, then went back to sleep.

  THE DRESS WAS BRIGHT RED. BRIGHT, BRIGHT RED.

  Marcus smiled at me. “There, now. That will do us proud.”

  I tried to smile back at him.

  The morning had started well enough. When I awoke, I found the bed empty and Keir already gone. After breakfast and kavage, I returned to the healing tent, to find Gils there feeding everyone and asking as many questions as he could with one breath. After some negotiation, I allowed some of Atira’s friends into the tent, so they could make their plans. Whenever I wandered in their direction, they would cover up the board, and wave me off. The only times I pushed the issue was when I needed to check the leg; other than that I left them to their schemes. The morning passed quickly, and I soon found myself hustled back to Marcus and food and the dress.

  As dresses went, it was quite comfortable. A high neckline and long sleeves, with a flared split skirt. I especially liked the skirt, given the chance of a sidesaddle in this army camp was nonexistent. The fabric slid between my legs like water glides over skin. It was nothing I’d ever seen or felt. Somehow Marcus had even gotten slippers that matched the dress.

  I smoothed the dress, running my hands over the fabric with mixed emotions. I certainly didn’t fill the bodice, the cut being made for more generous curves. The skirt fit fine over my more than ample hips, and the cloth flowed down my legs. Ordinarily I’d be pleased to own such a dress.

  But not a scarlet dress.

  In Water’s Fall, red was the color worn by women whose profession I was not supposed to know about. At times, some of the bolder women of the Court would dare to have a scarf, or some trim of that color, but not a whole dress. What made it that much worse was that I had never seen a red like this before, so bright and vivid. It was the bright red of new blood, brighter even than the roses in the briar of the palace garden. It put all the Xyian colors to shame, making them look drab and dowdy. A dress like this, as bright as it was, all but screamed my position in no uncertain terms.

  I bowed my head, hiding my face with a curtain of hair. If I said something, Marcus might not understand, but he might not make me wear the dress. Trous would raise eyebrows, certainly, but this dress would have the lords and ladies of the Court collapsing with seizures. I didn’t want to offend him, but I couldn’t wear this. In the back of my head I heard Great Aunt Xydella’s quavery voice. “Speak up, child,” she’d say. “I can’t read minds.” Of course Great Aunt Xyd
ella would have worn the dress and loved every outrageous minute of it.

  I bit my lip, then opened my mouth. “Marcus—”

  Keir walked into the tent and stopped short. His eyes widened, and his face lit up. “Fire’s blessing.” He stood, looking at me with approval.

  I swallowed what I had been about to say.

  Keir made a gesture, and I turned slowly, allowing him to see it. “Marcus, where did you find such a dress?”

  Marcus drew himself up and arched his eyebrow. “The clothing of one woman is a task well within my skills, Warlord.”

  Keir smiled and acknowledged Marcus with a slight bow. “I stand corrected, old man.” He straightened. He was outfitted in full chain that held a high gloss, with a black cape edged in fur. The hilts of his swords peeked over his shoulders. He moved to stand before me, a look of pride on his face. He held out his hands, and there were the bracelets that I had worn at the surrender ceremony.

  I stiffened and looked away. They lay open in his hands, heavy silver symbols of my status. I didn’t look up, for fear that I would betray my feelings. I simply extended my wrists and kept my head down as he snapped them into place. They felt heavy, like the bindings they were, and I let the weight pull my arms down to my sides.

  There was a slight pause. Then Keir asked, “Is there a cloak, as well?”

  There was, thankfully as black as Keir’s own. I took it from Marcus, who looked at me with a puzzled expression. I put on the cloak as I followed Keir out into the evening air.

  The dress was even brighter in the sun. If that were possible.

  Our escort awaited us. There were ten mounted men, besides Rafe and Prest. Rafe was holding the horses. Rafe and Prest were also in their best armor, and they gleamed in the afternoon sun. Rafe’s face lit up when he saw me. Prest turned, and a smile spread over his face. Rafe handed me the reins of one of the horses. “Warprize, you look—”

  Keir coughed.

  Rafe didn’t miss a beat. “Well. Very well.” He mounted his horse, as did Keir and Prest.

  I had some difficulty, trying to get the skirt in the correct position, but managed to get up and into the saddle. I gathered the reins and turned, only to find everyone looking at me in varying degrees of dismay.

 
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