Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

  “What?” I asked, puzzled.

  Prest just shook his head. Rafe sucked in a breath. “The way you sit—”

  Keir looked at me sternly. “You should have told me you can’t ride.”

  I frowned. “I can ride.”

  They looked at me, scanning me from head to toe. I sat up a little straighter, but all three shook their heads. The others in our escort all seemed to be very busy adjusting their tunics and weapons. Almost as if they were embarrassed for me.

  Prest frowned. “Maybe a pregnant mare?”

  Rafe looked toward the city. “We could walk the horses—”

  Keir shook his head. “It would take too long. She can ride double with me.”

  “This is ridiculous.” I gathered the reins, clicked my tongue, and urged the horse on.

  Nothing happened.

  Now the guards by the tent were looking at me, shaking their heads. Prest grabbed for my reins, as if afraid the horse would run away with me. Keir moved his horse alongside mine, planning to snatch me from the saddle, but I was having none of that. Whore I may look, Warprize I may be, but I’d be damned before I was taken to the ceremony like a helpless child.

  Rafe pulled his horse to the side, and I saw what he was doing. He used his toes under the horse’s front legs, instead of his heels, and seemed to shift his weight forward. I did the same, and the horse obliged with a few steps forward. I fended off Prest and Keir and urged the beast on.

  Keir’s voice came from behind me. “It’s not safe. You will ride with me.”

  I shifted forward again, and the horse broke into a trot. There were calls from behind me, but I was not going to stop. I could ride. I headed down the path through the tents, toward the road to the city. It didn’t take long for Keir and the others to catch up and form up around me. Rafe was still muttering about my skill, and Prest had a frown on his face, but I noticed that Keir had that look of pride again as he passed me to take the lead.

  There were workers in the fields that we passed, and I gave them no notice at first. But the closer we came to the city walls, the more my awareness grew. They weren’t harvesting or preparing the ground for the spring. They were still gathering the dead. It had been days since the fighting had stopped, yet still they moved about in their work.

  Were there so many dead?

  I had to focus on the road before me, couldn’t look at the men with the carts any longer. I clenched my jaw. The peace had to hold, I had to do my part. Or there’d be more bodies, more lives wasted. If that meant I never heard my name again, so be it. Such a small price to pay.

  OUR APPEARANCE AT THE MAIN GATES OF THE CITY caused quite a stir. The ceremony was still some hours away, and from the reaction of the guard, we were not expected so soon. The gates were normally kept open for the merchant traffic. They had been closed due to the war, and apparently were being kept closed. The Warlord drew up to the gates and stopped.

  The head guard stepped forward. “Hail, Warlord. Do you wish an escort or crier through the city?”

  “My thanks, but no. The warprize knows the way.”

  The guard glanced at me, and his eyes bulged out. I looked away. We sat in silence for a moment as he stared.

  “The gate,” Keir growled.

  The guard started, then gave a shout for the gate to be opened and the portcullis raised. As soon as the way was clear, we headed into the city. The only crowds were the normal crowds of a market day. Keir brought his horse up short and looked over his shoulder at me with a question in his eyes. I moved my horse up next to his. “Is there something you wish to tell me?”

  “Tell you?” I flushed slightly.

  He narrowed his eyes, and studied me. Finally he turned away. “Would there be time to see more of the city? I have only seen the main road.”

  I nodded and pointed off to our left. “That will take us along the west wall, and eventually to the palace.”

  Keir gave me a sly smile. “Where is the shop that sells the vanilla?”

  “Close to where the tinker’s cart was.”

  He nodded, looking around. “We will head that way. What is a ‘crier’?”

  I smiled. “Someone who walks in front of your horse, crying out your name and title. Usually used by someone who thinks he is of great importance and is afraid no one knows it.”

  Keir looked offended. He moved off in that direction, and I fell in behind, with our escort riding around us. That went against road custom in the city, to ride so far abreast. But I doubted any of the City Guard would fine us. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a guardsman running for the palace. I suspected that word would spread fairly quickly that we were in the city.

  The townspeople’s reactions were almost predictable. First there was outrage at the violation of road custom, then recognition of the Warlord. At that point, their faces were not welcoming. Then they’d spot me as the procession continued. My cloak was open, the dress visible, and it was causing quite a stir. Thank the Goddess that Keir had headed for the shops. The pleasure streets were on the other side of the city; I could only imagine how the denizens would have reacted.

  Our escort stayed close, and Rafe and Prest stayed right by my side, scanning the crowds. Some of the townspeople tried to approach me, but Keir’s glare and the presence of the guards discouraged them. I settled for a nod and a smile to any that I recognized. Most were content to wave and call out to me as we passed by.

  The streets were crowded with market-goers scurrying about, their arms filled with baskets and bundles. One man went by with three chickens in his arms, squawking and flapping their wings. My horse shied a bit, which brought me dire looks from the men around me, but I brought it under control. I could tell that they hadn’t spent time in cities before, or at least cities the size of Water’s Fall. They were on alert, and on their guard, eyes taking in the crowds, the buildings crammed together, some leaning out over the streets. They were doing their best not to be overawed, but I could tell that they were impressed. Once in a while, one would wrinkle his nose at the smells, or start at a strange noise, but no one made a comment. We continued on without incident, moving past the army barracks by the Great South Gate. By now, word of our coming had spread, and there were folk lining the streets to see us. For the most part they were quiet, merely speaking among themselves as we passed. Needless to say, the dress drew its fair share of attention.

  Finally, we arrived at the market. I pointed out Estoval’s shop. Keir dismounted, and gestured for me to follow. The others took up positions, clearing an area in front of the shop. Keir opened the door, and I followed, curious.

  Thankfully, the fragrant shop was empty of customers. Estoval turned to greet us and his mouth fell open.

  I felt the heat rise in my face. Keir stared at the man, then looked at me for a long moment, eyes narrow. He opened his mouth, and took a breath to speak.

  He grimaced then sneezed. Explosively.

  That snapped Estoval out of his trance. “Warlord! How may I serve you?”

  “Merchant, do you sell vanilla?” He pronounced the word slowly and carefully.

  “Yes, Warlord, in many forms, although it is quite expensive. Did you want ground, whole beans, the oil?”

  “Yes.” Keir looked at me. “See to it.” He sneezed, then caught my eye with a flash of a grin that took my breath away. “Buy lots. Buy it all. And whatever else you need.” With a gasping wheeze, he headed for the door, his nose scrunched up against another sneeze. As he passed me, he slipped a purse into my hand. Then he ducked out of the shop, leaving me flushed and embarrassed.

  Once Keir was out the door, Estoval relaxed a little, but I noticed that he kept an eye on the door. “Warprize, you honor my shop.”

  “Estoval, please. My name is Lara.”

  His eyes darted to the door. “Not anymore, Daughter of Xy.” He gestured to his displays. “I have plenty of vanilla, even some scented soap, for no one is buying extravagances. But my stocks of other items are low. The Warlord?
??s supply master was here earlier, and bargained hard.” He shook his head. “Bargained hard and meanly.”

  I suppressed a smile. Estoval started to gather up every kind of vanilla that he had on hand. I stopped, thinking for a moment, considering Keir’s words. He had said . . .

  “Estoval, I need an apprentice to run an errand. Are any available?”

  “Of course.” He raised his voice calling for a lad.

  “And paper and pen, if I may?” He inclined his head. I wrote a quick note and in a moment a lad stood before me.

  “Take these coins and run to the shop of Remn. You know it?”

  “Of course, Lady.”

  “Tell Remn I want two books. Used, mind, cheap as possible. The Epic of Xyson, and a reading primer. Give him this note. Be quick, and I’ll have a coin for you.”

  The lad grinned and was off out the back of the shop. I turned back to Estoval, and we continued our business. I was well satisfied. Remn would have both books, especially the Epic. A hoary old saga of my ancestor’s heroic deeds. It was long, filled with battles, duels, and the discussions of the virtues of various styles of weapons and armor. It was the bane of every child who learned their letters in Water’s Fall. Atira would love it. I could read it to her, or use it as incentive to learn to read my language.

  The lad was as quick as I could ask. He returned with a bundle and the two books. I gave him a coin and asked Estoval if I could use his back room for a moment. Once in that small area, I broke open the bundle.

  Proper undergarments.

  Bless Remn’s wife. She was about my size and had included two of each kind. I could trust their discretion in this. Goddess forgive me, but I was too embarrassed to talk to Keir or Marcus about these items of clothing. I dressed quickly, feeling better able to face whatever was to come. When I emerged, I thanked Estoval, who handed me a small parcel, bowed me out, and locked the door behind me. I had been a while, and oddly enough the street was almost completely clear. Which made sense to a degree. Those that could not attend the Court for the ceremony would observe in their own homes, as part of the evening meal.

  Keir and Prest were already mounted. Rafe stood, holding my mount and his. “Are you finished?” Keir asked, trying to hide his impatience and failing miserably. “I have sent the others before us.”

  “Yes.” I tucked my two packages into my saddlebag and moved to mount my horse. As I swung my leg up, the horse shied and moved away from me, causing me to lose my balance. I dropped back to the ground.

  So the lance passed over my head, instead of hitting my chest.



  I barely had time to register what had happened before Keir somehow swept me back. His hands forced me down, against the wall of the shop. I fell to my knees as the horses danced about in confusion. The air filled with shouts, cries of frustration, and the clatter of hooves on cobblestones.

  “Stay down,” Keir hissed, as he turned and pulled his swords. I looked up to see the horses flee and Keir, Rafe, and Prest use those precious seconds to take positions, sheltering me in their half circle. The attackers came charging from the shadows, a hodgepodge of ruffians, shields at the ready, weapons high.

  “Death to the—” The lead man never finished his cry. Keir smashed through his defenses and plunged into the man’s chest in one quick stabbing motion. I could hear the sound of steel on bone as he pulled the blade free. With fierce quickness, he struck at another, who barely deflected the blow with his blade.

  Prest held his shield up tight, absorbing blows from his two sword-wielding attackers. He waited, patient, then darted in with his sword to take quick strikes when they left themselves open.

  Rafe was barely holding his own against his opponent. A big man, armed with an enormous club, was battering at his shield, striking it with heavy, powerful blows. Rafe took the blows, but each time, his shield went lower. Finally the giant struck with such force that Rafe’s shield came down, hitting Rafe’s forehead. Sensing this weakness, Keir feinted a rushing attack on his remaining opponent. As the man stepped back, Keir turned and drove one blade deep into Rafe’s opponent. The man gave a grunt as it slid in easily. Keir’s attention focused back on his own enemy before the body fell from the blade.

  There was a cry, a clatter, and another man emerged from the shadows, pulling a mace from his belt. He launched himself at Rafe.

  I pressed against the wall, trying to stay small and out of the way. The Watch should have come running by now, but the street remained empty, with no sound of a hue and cry. The only sounds were those of clashing weapons, heavy breathing, and boots looking for purchase on the surface of the street.

  With two down, the remaining attackers shifted their focus. Prest now had one opponent. Two pressed Keir. Rafe faced one as well.

  It proved to be a mistake. Prest bashed at his opponent with his shield, driving the man back, ramming him hard enough to get him off-balance. With a step forward, Prest snaked his sword out around the edge of his shield and plunged it into his opponent’s ribs. As his man went down, I assumed Prest would aid Keir. But he stayed in position, scanning the street, keeping his place.

  Keir needed no aid. He seemed to know his opponents’ moves before they were made, and blocked them with ease. His attackers were breathing heavily as fatigue set in. When one made the mistake of stepping back when his fellow shifted forward, Keir did not hesitate. In a moment, another man lay bleeding in the street, and two were left.

  They broke and ran.

  Rafe made to follow, but Keir barked a command. Rafe froze and kept position. Keir turned his head slightly. “Are you hurt?”

  “No.” My voice sounded so shaky, it embarrassed me. I tried to rise, sliding a hand against the wall for support. The wood felt warm and rough against my trembling hand.

  “Stay down.” Keir still scanned the street and rooftops, weapons at the ready.

  It had happened so fast, my heart still raced in my chest. I concentrated on my breathing, trying to slow it down. For tense minutes, we stood there waiting to see if they would try again. After a lifetime, Keir relaxed. “It’s clear. Anyone hurt?” Prest and Rafe responded in the negative, as they both moved to check the fallen.

  I pushed away from the wall. “Rafe, you’re cut.”

  “Scraped myself on my shield rim.” Rafe turned his man over. “This one’s dead.”

  I took a step forward, toward the other downed men.

  “No.” Keir stopped me.

  “Please, let me . . .” I pushed against him, trying to move past. I might as well have pushed the wall.

  Rafe spoke up. “Doesn’t matter, Warprize. They’re all dead.” He was kneeling by one of the bodies, cleaning his sword. “Strange that they have no armor.”

  “An ambush planned in haste.” Keir stood grim, scanning the market area, which remained strangely empty for the time of day. There was no sign of the Watch. “Warprize, do you recognize them?” Keir moved with me as I stepped forward to look at their faces.

  They lay in their own blood, the smell of feces and death in the air. None of them looked familiar as Rafe rolled them onto their backs, and they wore nothing to identify themselves with any noble family. Even as I shook my head, Rafe pulled a belt pouch off one, and it spilled bright gold coins onto the cobblestones. More gold than a mere soldier might see in a lifetime.

  Keir growled low in his throat. “Assassins. Xyian, all of them.”

  “This isn’t.”

  We turned to see Prest standing at the wall, holding the lance in his hands, the tip broken. Black shards lay on the ground at his feet. “Full-tipped when thrown.” Prest’s eyes gleamed as he displayed the feathering on the lance.

  Rafe sucked in a breath with a hiss.

  Keir’s lips tightened, then he glanced at Rafe. “Gather the horses.” The animals hadn’t wandered far, and Rafe moved toward them, making soothing sounds. Keir turned back to Prest. “Wrap that and put it in my quiver. We’re r
eturning to camp.”

  “Camp?” I stepped back from the bodies, wrapping my cloak around my body. “But the ceremony . . .” I let my voice trail off as Keir ignored me, cleaning his swords on one of the dead. Prest was next to me, wrapping the lance in a cloth he’d pulled from his saddlebags. Hadn’t Atira said something about featherings? Their patterns?

  It was my turn to suck in a breath. “Who made that lance?”

  Prest looked at me, then flicked his eyes to Keir. Rafe came up with the beasts and Keir took the reins. With a nod, he had Rafe stripping the corpses of gold and weapons. With an equally quick movement he motioned for me to mount. “Up, Warprize.”

  “You know who made it.”

  Keir’s eyes rested on mine for a moment, softening slightly. He spoke, but not to answer my question. “Mount. We ride for camp.”

  I just stood there, trying to think past the rapid beating of my heart. “The ceremony . . .”

  Keir drilled me with a glare. “Ceremony be damned.”

  I went to the horse, and clung to the saddle, trying to will strength into my legs. Trembling, I mounted. “What does it say if the Warlord runs to camp and hides when attacked by six men?”

  Rafe chimed in. “Six men who weren’t very good.”

  Prest snorted, but kept his eyes on the street.

  Keir didn’t glance at Rafe. “So speaks the man who will be practicing his shield work for the next week.”

  Rafe shut his mouth.

  Keir grabbed his own horse and swung into the saddle. “It says that the Warlord is no fool.” Prest and Rafe mounted up as well.

  “We are not hurt.” I swallowed hard, and fought down my fear. “There are many people gathered for the ceremony. What will they say when the Warlord does not appear?” I moved my horse in the direction of the castle.

  Keir grabbed my reins as I passed, bringing my horse to a halt. “Then I will go alone. Prest and Rafe will escort you to camp.”

  I shook my head. “That leaves you alone and a target. If we all go, then we will have the escort of all the men who are attending on the way back.” I caught his eye. “Besides, my people are expecting me. What rumors will start when I do not appear?”

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