Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

  Keir stared at me, his jaw working. I could see a small vein pulsing on his neck, but I didn’t drop my gaze. Finally, he took in a deep breath and let it out very, very slowly. He released the reins, and turned his horse in the direction of the castle.

  “What about them?” Rafe jerked his head back at the pile of dead.

  “Leave them to rot.”

  The streets remained empty as we rode to the castle. Buildings that had once been friendly and familiar now held deep shadows where danger lurked. My reins grew damp from my sweaty hands, my shoulders tight with every step. Fear gripped me hard.

  Rafe rode beside me, with bow and arrow in hand. His horse responded to knees and feet alone, as the reins lay knotted in front of Rafe’s saddle. Prest rode in the same manner, but slightly behind us. They both scanned the surroundings constantly, focused on catching the slightest hint of an attack.

  Keir rode in front, his swords sheathed, looking outwardly relaxed, but with his head moving from side to side, watching the buildings around us as we passed.

  I cleared my throat to ask about the lance again, but Keir gestured for silence without even looking back at me. I bit my lip as my throat went even drier, and fought the urge to hunch in my saddle.

  The horses sensed our tension and shifted restlessly under us. But Keir held our pace to a walk. It was only when the castle gates appeared in the distance, ablaze with lights and people, that he urged his horse to a trot. We sped up to follow him the final distance into the main courtyard.

  People, both Xyian and Firelander, were clustered about, and palace guards moved forward for our horses. The sun still filled the area with light, causing my dress to glow like a bright flame. I tried to look confident and relaxed, but my stomach cramped as the Xyians around me reacted to the dress.

  Keir, Prest, and Rafe were still on guard, keeping an eye on the crowd. Keir swung down first, and gave me a concerned look as he helped me dismount, as if he sensed the strain. Rafe and Prest joined us, and they surrounded me as we entered the castle proper.

  Othur appeared before us. “Warlord.” He bowed. When his head came up, his eyes sought mine, filled with concern. I risked a small smile. His eyes crinkled at the edges as he continued. “Allow me to show you to the antechamber.” He guided us into the same chamber where I had waited for the submission ceremony. It had only been days ago, but it felt like a lifetime. As we entered, my shoulders relaxed, now that we were out from under prying eyes.

  Othur stood in the doorway behind us, and bowed again. “I will inform the King of your arrival. He will join you shortly.”

  Keir held up his hand. “We will delay for a few moments. I will send for Xymund when I am ready.”

  Keir moved farther into the room, threw his cloak over one of the chairs, and started to pace. The light of the fire and the lamps played over his face, making his blue eyes dark and forbidding.

  “Who were they?” he asked.

  “Not one of us,” Prest answered firmly.

  “How do you know that?” I asked.

  Prest shrugged. “They missed.”

  “He’s right.” Keir continued his prowl. “Had one of my people thrown the lance, you would have been hit.”

  “The fletching was Iften’s.” Rafe’s voice was soft.

  “Iften’s?” I stared at Keir.

  “Full-tipped,” Prest added.

  “What does that mean?” I asked, frustrated by the cryptic comments.

  Keir sighed. “The tip was whole when the lance was thrown. Lance tips are meant to break when they hit. A scavenged lance wouldn’t be whole.”

  “It’s possible that one wouldn’t break.” My argument sounded weak, even in my ears.

  “Unlikely,” Prest observed.

  “Horses get captured with quivers full.” He shrugged. “But the fletching is Iften’s and he’s not lost a horse that I know of.” Rafe paused, not looking at anyone in particular. “And Iften has been in the city.”

  I put my hand over my mouth. “Remn said that Iften met with Xymund alone.” Or had he? I tried to remember what he’d said, but it slipped away from me.

  Keir interrupted my thoughts, and I focused on him. “Yet those scum were paid well. That speaks of Xyians.”

  “My people would not risk the peace,” I responded firmly. “One of your people could have hired them just as easily.”

  Keir shook his head. “My people are just learning about coinage and money. More like it was a Xyian.” He hesitated. “Or a Xyian King.”

  I glared at him. “Xymund has sworn. He will not risk his crown or break his word.”

  “Risk his head, I believe,” Keir retorted. “I’m not so certain of his oath.” Keir moved closer to me. “Not certain that he understands that if you die there is no peace.”

  “And if you die, Warlord?” I asked softly. “Would the peace hold? You were attacked as well, they even doubled up on you.” The memory flashed before my eyes, and suddenly my stomach dropped. I had a flash of vision, of a wounded and dying Keir. Dearest Goddess. I closed my eyes and swallowed hard.

  A warm hand on my shoulder pressed me into one of the chairs by the fireplace. I opened my eyes to find Keir kneeling in front of me. “I am sorry,” I said.

  “Don’t be. You did well.” Then that little-boy mischievous look sparkled in his eyes. “For a healer.”

  Prest and Rafe snorted, a kind of nervous chuckle. I sat up straighter and tried to appear offended. “If you think that Xymund is behind this, confront him. Ask him—”

  “No.” Keir grew serious. “His actions tell me more than words. Say nothing about the attack to anyone. Let our enemy speculate as to what occurred.” Prest and Rafe nodded. I did as well, all too willing to drop the subject. Keir stood, and gestured Rafe to the door.

  When the door to the antechamber opened Xymund entered, followed by Lord Marshall Warren and the members of the Council. I moved to stand, but Keir’s hand on my shoulder pressed me down. I looked up, puzzled, but Keir’s gaze fixed on Xymund.

  Xymund bowed his head to Keir. “Warlord.”

  “Xymund.” Keir’s voice sounded cold to my ears.

  There wasn’t time for more, for Othur had moved to the large double doors. “Honored Lords, the Herald is ready to commence the ceremony. Please take your places.” Keir moved to the doors as well, and everyone in the room started to adjust their position for the entrance into the throne room. I rose from the chair, unsure of where to stand. As I did, my cloak fell open, and there were harsh intakes of breath around the room. Xymund, standing behind Keir, turned his head. His eyes widened as he took in the scarlet on both the dress and my cheeks. While his face remained impassive, his eyes danced.

  Determined to retain some dignity, I spotted Prest and Rafe toward the back and moved in their direction.

  “Warprize.” Keir’s voice cut through the sounds in the room.

  I turned. “Warlord?”

  His eyes flickered over to Xymund standing behind him. “Your place is here, beside me.”

  I gaped at him. The rest of the room quieted, recognizing a power struggle when they saw one. That blue-eyed gaze stayed calm and confident. My eyes darted to Xymund, who was clearly struggling with his temper.

  “Here.” Keir spoke again, indicating the place beside him.

  I moved to Keir’s side. “Yes, Warlord.” He looked down at me, scrutinizing me closely. I could feel Xymund’s eyes like daggers on my back.

  Othur had been watching the action, and had maintained a neutral face. Keir gestured for him to open the double doors. He did so and stepped out into the throne room. The Herald, standing there in full uniform, pounded the floor with his staff three times. “Lords and Ladies, all hail Keir, Warlord of the Firelanders—”

  “No.” Keir’s voice rang out over that of the Herald’s, causing a stir in the throne room.

  The poor man’s eyes bugged out of his head. “Warlord?”

  “That is your word, not ours. We are of the Plains.

  The Herald blinked madly for a moment, then cleared his throat. “Lords and Ladies, all hail Keir, Warlord of the Plains, Overlord of Xy.” He looked at Keir, who gave him a nod. The Herald seemed to relax, until he spotted me, but years of training kept his voice steady. Without hesitation he continued, “. . . and Xylara, Warprize.”

  Keir advanced into the room, every step strong and confident. I walked at his side and one step behind. The throne room overflowed, with people crammed into every nook and cranny. There were as many of Keir’s men as there were nobles. All bowed as we crossed and rose as we passed. The murmurs started at once, reacting to the presence of the Warlord, and his slave walking right behind him. I stared straight ahead. A second, smaller chair had been placed to the right side of the throne. Keir stepped to the throne, turned and faced the room. I made a move to the left, to stand at his side. Keir gave me a quick glance, then gestured to the smaller chair. My eyes widened, but I obeyed. Behind me, I heard the Herald announce Xymund.

  Who now had no place to sit.

  The crowd reacted when I turned to face them, displaying the dress in all its crimson glory. I ignored it, because as he walked across the room, I saw the exact moment Xymund realized what had happened. I dropped my eyes, unwilling to see the look in his as he drew closer. Keir must have made a gesture of some kind, because Xymund went to stand to the left of the throne. I heard the Herald announcing Lord Marshall Warren and the members of the Council, who followed him in and went to stand along the left side, ranging out from Xymund.

  Once all were in position, Keir sat. I waited a pause, then sat as well. Everyone else remained standing.

  Archbishop Drizen, followed by two acolytes, appeared before us, bowed before the Warlord, and began the ceremony. The ancient chants flowed over me, a somber and bittersweet prayer for the dead. The incense smoked from the censers held by the two priests who swung them in slow arcs. Frankly, they could have paraded naked and rubbed dung on their bodies for all the attention I gave it. Instead, my thoughts lingered on Xymund and the insult Keir had just given him. Xymund was not dumb, he would not jeopardize the peace. I hoped. But to place a slave in precedence above the King . . .

  I risked a glance at the Warlord, who sat on the throne with a confidence that I had never seen in Xymund. I tore my eyes away from that profile and tried to concentrate on the priests. I could not see Xymund from where I sat, but I could just imagine his expression.

  I suspected that he would not be inviting us for a drink after the ceremony.

  The Archbishop had concluded the prayer and bowed before Keir. The lords and ladies seemed to think this the end of the ceremony, but Keir motioned with his hand, and Joden emerged from the crowd. His round face held a somber look, and he was dressed in his finest armor and weapons. He approached the throne and bowed. Keir nodded in return. “Joden, you grace our ceremony.” He glanced about the room. “Our tradition is to lament the dead with song. Joden has agreed to sing for us.”

  Joden raised his right palm to the sky. He spoke in his language. “May the skies hear my voice. May the people remember.”

  The response rose from those who understood him. “We will remember.”

  Joden lowered his hand, took a deep breath, and began to sing.

  His voice sounded richer and far deeper than I expected. It filled the room and brought the small rustles and murmurs to a halt. Somehow, the sound of his voice pulled us all in, let us share his pain, and for a brief moment, be as one within it. Language didn’t seem to be a barrier. For those who understood, the words spoke of a loved one that would never see the sky again, nor share the sweetness of a glass of wine. Or the joy of a laugh. It spoke of an emptiness at the table, at the fireside, and in the heart. My eyes filled as I thought of my father, and the warrior who had died giving me his blessing. I lowered my head and tried not to give in to my grief.

  Others were moved as well. A glance showed me Keir’s hand clenched on his knee, knuckles white.

  The song changed then. Joden’s voice rang with the hope of reuniting, riding again under endless skies, sharing wines not yet tasted. I managed to lift my head at that and looked at Joden as the last notes hovered in the air. As I wiped at my eyes and snuffled my nose, I noticed others doing the same.

  The last notes faded. Joden lifted his palm again. “May the people remember.”

  Again, the response came. “We will remember.”

  Keir echoed the words, then continued, “My thanks, Joden. You honor us.”

  Joden bowed, and moved back into the crowd.

  The Archbishop came forward, prepared to give the traditional blessing of the monarch. With an uneasy glance in Xymund’s direction, he stood before Keir, bowed, and recited the blessing. Keir nodded deeply to him at the conclusion.

  Without further thought, the Archbishop turned toward me, and I saw his eyes widen when he realized what he had done. Tradition required a blessing for the Queen as well, hardly appropriate for a warprize. The poor man seemed quite flustered for a moment, then elected to nod his head in my direction. I returned the nod. I doubt he even realized the sigh of relief that he gave as he turned to render the benediction to the crowd.

  Even before he stopped speaking, Keir stood. I waited, but he extended a hand to help me rise, so I joined him at his side. We walked toward the antechamber in silence.

  The crowd, a mixture of Xyian and Firelander, had filled in the space before the door, and they parted to allow us though. The Xyians were unsure as to the courtesies to extend, whether to bow or curtsy and to whom. The Firelanders had no such problem. They remained tall and upright, with solemn looks. As we moved closer to the door, I saw many familiar faces, including Lord Durst. Scowling, he stepped back as if to avoid touching me, his lip curled in a snarl. He craned his head forward, having caught my eye. “Whore.”

  Durst spoke forcefully, his voice low, but it carried. I flushed and looked away, mortified. I barely registered that Keir dropped my hand. There was a sound of drawn steel and a flash of movement. I looked back to see Keir’s sword buried deep in Durst’s chest.

  In endless time, the man’s eyes bulged and he sank slowly to the floor. Keir pulled the weapon out of Durst’s body and flicked it, sending blood onto the clothes of those nearby. Durst made an odd huffing noise as his hands clutched at the wound. People stepped back to allow Durst to fall at their feet, then the screaming began as they jostled both to escape and to get a better view.

  “Silence.” Keir’s command rang out, even as he pulled out a cloth to wipe the blade clean. The room watched in horrified silence as he dropped the bloody cloth and sheathed his sword in a ring that hung from his belt. The sound of metal on metal almost did more to grab everyone’s attention than his voice. “The insult is avenged.” The quiet grew even deeper, but to my horror, Xyian nobles started to place their hands on their swords, eyeing the Firelanders around us.


  My eyes snapped up to see Keir standing there, his hand held out for mine, the hand that had slain Lord Durst in an instant. The same hand that had saved my life in the market.

  Everyone was frozen, focused on that hand, and I knew that the peace, in that instant, was balanced on the edge of a sword. Reject that hand, kneel to aid Durst, and there’d be those who’d use it as an excuse to draw their swords.

  Mindful of my status, mindful of my obligation, and mindful of the dead still being buried beyond these walls, I placed my hand in Keir’s and allowed myself to be led from the throne room.

  Xymund followed, along with Lord Warren. The voices rose behind us, only to be cut off as the door to the antechamber shut.

  We stood in silence for a moment, then Keir moved to the fireplace. “The ceremony went well.” His voice was as calm as if nothing had happened. As if a man had not died in the throne room. As if I had not left him lying in a pool of his own blood.

  Xymund did not respond. Warren cleared his throat. “Thoughtful of you to include our priests.
It is appreciated.” He too was ignoring what had happened.

  Keir tilted his head. “We honor the dead of both sides.” He gave Warren an appraising eye. “We haven’t spoken outside the confines of negotiations or parley. I would welcome an opportunity to talk with you about your strategies, especially your use of the river.”

  Warren’s mouth curled in a wry smile. “I would welcome that.”

  “Tomorrow? At the nooning. Bring your officers and we will dine.”

  Numb, I watched as they talked of nothing, as if all were well and fine, as if Keir hadn’t just killed a man for a simple insult. My heart drummed in my chest, and the air in the room seemed close and over-warm.

  Keir pulled his cloak off the chair where he’d thrown it before the ceremony. “I wish to see the castle.”

  Xymund’s voice grated. “Othur will show you the building.”

  “No,” Keir interrupted. “I wish to see it through the eyes of the warprize.”

  Xymund’s jaw clenched. Never had I seen him so angry and so afraid. His right eye seemed to twitch very slightly, his hands clenched in fists. I held my breath, waiting to see which emotion would win out.

  Xymund’s hands relaxed. His head jerked as if to nod, and he went to the door. With a resigned look, Warren made to follow.

  “I will need to know the extent of that lord’s holdings.” Keir’s voice came as a low purr. Xymund stopped dead in the doorway. Keir continued, “I will need to appoint a new lord as soon as possible.”

  Warren half turned toward Keir. “Warlord, our tradition is that a man’s son inherits his father’s holdings. Durst’s son, Degnan, is his heir.”

  “Is this Degnan capable?”

  Warren shrugged, clearly at a loss. He looked to Xymund for support, but none came. Finally, he looked back at Keir. “He is the heir, Warlord.”

  “I will consider this.” Keir lifted an eyebrow. “You are excused.”

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