Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

  Goddess, was he deliberately provoking Xymund?

  Xymund said nothing and left. Warren followed.

  I released the breath I had been holding. Didn’t he understand, didn’t they know what a horrible thing had happened? To slay a man without warning, for a slur? Bad enough to insult Xymund’s pride, to humiliate him before the Court. The Warlord had made very clear that his token was not for me to use, I had no protections from the consequences of my words, but if the peace were to last past the dawn someone had to voice this truth.

  “Rafe, I want company for our tour. Ask Joden, Yers, Oxna, Senbar, and Uzania to join us. I saw Epor and Isdra in the crowd, ask them as well. Tell the rest to return to camp. In a group, no stops. Tell them to be alert.”

  “Your sword, Warlord?” Rafe paused by the door. “Do you wish me to see to it?”

  “It’s well enough. I will see to it myself.”

  Rafe nodded and slipped out.

  Keir watched the fire. I moved closer, licked my lips, and drew in a breath. He glanced my way. “You wish to point out my mistake.”

  I closed my mouth. His blue eyes glittered in the light of the fire, and I waited for that temper to flare. Instead he gave me a rueful smile. “So much for my talk of change, eh?”

  I didn’t understand, and would have asked, but a knock at the door brought Rafe into the room with the others, talking quietly among themselves.

  The moment was lost. I might risk the truth in private, but not in front of others. As Keir stepped away, I looked for a friendly face and found it in Joden. “You have a wonderful voice, Joden.”

  His smile was wide and a relief to see. “My thanks, Warprize.”

  “Come.” Keir gestured us to the door. “Show us this stone tent of yours.”

  I TOOK THEM TO THE HIGHEST POINT, IN THE tallest turret, to start. The young guard at the top almost dropped his spear, startled to find himself hosting the Warlord when normally his only company were the bees that buzzed in and out of the skeps that Anna kept on the heights. The sun was down, but in the fading twilight, we could still see.

  The battlements fascinated Keir. The views from this height allowed one to look clear into the valley below, and even beyond their camp. Keir, Rafe, and the others pressed themselves against the outer wall, trying to look down as far as they could. The breeze that always blew at this height whistled past, catching at our hair and clothing. Prest, on the other hand, pressed himself against the opposite wall by the door, his eyes wide, the whites showing, his dark complexion turning ashen. He seemed quite grateful when I pulled them away from the views and we headed back down.

  They asked question after question about the building, about how I could stand to be surrounded by walls all the time. Some of the narrow corridors made them nervous, and I’d see them all looking up, as if searching for the sky. Some of their questions I knew the answer to, some I didn’t. They admired the thick walls, wrinkled their noses at the privies with their small holes, and mock fought on the circular staircases. I showed them the places where old kings had started building, and young kings had built on. Impressed as they were with its age and fortifications, I gathered that Keir did not care for the length of time it had taken for the castle to rise to its current heights.

  The halls and corridors were strangely quiet as we proceeded, empty of the normal traffic of servants and nobles. It made me uneasy even as I led them into the castle chapel.

  The room was lit with hundreds of candles, and behind the altar, the white marble statute of the Goddess gleamed brightly. She was lovely, her arms holding a basket of herbs and flowers, her face serene and peaceful. I paused in the center aisle and smiled.

  “So it’s true. You worship people.” Surprised, I turned to see Joden standing behind me, looking around in amazement.

  “This chapel is dedicated to the worship of the Goddess, the Lady of the Moon and Stars.” I fumbled around for the right words. “She is more than a ‘person.’ ”

  “He means no offense.” Keir spoke softly as the others gathered around us, gaping and gawking. There was a general sense of disapproval. “It’s odd to see, that’s all.” Keir waved his hand to encompass the room. “Another difference between us.”

  “A big difference,” Yers muttered, his crooked nose twitching.

  On that note, I turned and led them out, before one of the priestesses should appear. Tensions were high enough without a religious debate.

  “Your Goddess, she is a healer?” Keir moved up beside me.

  “Yes.” I decided to show them my old room and headed in that direction. “She is the Goddess of Healing and Mercy.” I looked over my shoulder. “Not the kind of mercy granted on a battlefield.”

  Keir grunted.

  “There is a temple in the city to the God of the Sun, who is the God of Purity and Strength.”

  “You worship the sun as a man?” Joden asked, his disbelief apparent in his voice.

  “How did you come to be a healer?” Keir changed the topic so smoothly I had to smile.

  “I was playing with one of my friends in the castle gardens, chasing him down the paths. We were very young and the kitchen maids lost track of us. We were running and laughing, and suddenly down he went, tripping over a huge . . . porcupine?” I wasn’t sure if they knew what the creature was, but a few people winced in sympathy.

  “Needle-rat,” Rafe clarified, and now everyone understood.

  “His face and arms were filled with quills and he started screaming and crying, and the kitchen maids came running, Anna came running, everyone was screaming and crying, so I started screaming and crying too.”

  “A man appeared, a tall man who looked like a gray lake bird, tall and quiet. With a few words he calmed everyone down, and had my friend giggling as he dealt with the quills. Like a miracle, peace was restored.” The memory was a good one and I smiled at Keir. “He restored my world with his quiet voice and gentle skill.”

  “As you wish to do.”

  I nodded as I opened the door to my old room.

  The room had been stripped down to its simple furnishings. Keir looked around and frowned. “This was your bedroom?” Prest and Rafe crowded in with us, the others watched from the door. Keir continued. “Seems small for a Daughter of Xy.”

  I shrugged. “I didn’t need a lot of room. Besides, I had other rooms to play in. I will show you.”

  Keir looked at me and slowly smiled in response.

  Rafe stood by the fireplace. “Guess they are using it to burn trash now.”

  I turned. There in the fireplace were the ashes of books and papers. The pile looked familiar.

  It was.

  I could still make out the cord I had used before I had left. The fire must have been huge. A wonder that it had not caught the chimney on fire. I knelt and reached out, but the ash collapsed at the touch of my fingers. A lump rose in my throat.

  “Something important?” Keir asked.

  I stood. “No. Nothing important.” I wiped my hands together as I moved woodenly toward the door. “We should move on. There is much more to see.”

  Othur was standing in the hall when I emerged. The lump in my throat grew tighter when he saw my pain. “He burned my books,” I whispered.

  Othur reached out a hand, his eyes crinkled in sympathy, but let it drop when Keir appeared in the doorway. “Seneschal, your presence is not required. The warprize is guide enough.”

  Othur bowed his head. “Warlord, forgive me. I was told that you had no need of me, but I have served two kings in this castle, as my father did before me. Excuse an old man his pride.”

  Keir paused. “Did you ‘inherit’ your place?”

  “No, Warlord. Xyron selected me for my skills, and Xymund chose to retain me as Seneschal.”

  “And your son?”

  “My son has no interest in serving in this capacity, Warlord. He prefers the way of a warrior.” Othur smiled. “I would be honored if you would permit me to show you the castle defenses.”
  “Lead on.”

  Othur did, and was soon explaining about battlements and murder holes. I fell back, not really paying attention to what was being said. Why had he done that? For certain, Xymund burned my notes and books. I couldn’t imagine it. I’d done as he commanded. Why was he so angry? So furious that he couldn’t even greet me, or note my presence in a room.

  Othur led us to the rooms above the castle’s main entrance, and everyone was enthralled with murder holes and the winches for the portcullis. I drifted to the back, and Othur managed to slip to my side. “Durst?” I whispered.

  “He lives, but barely. Eln is with him.” Relief surged over me as Othur continued, keeping his voice low. “Warren’s clearing the castle and the courtyard of hot-tempered fools. He’s got things under control for now. I had Degnan locked in his rooms, under guard. Can’t decide if he’s angrier over the attack or the loss of his inheritance.”

  “Xymund?” I breathed, fearing the answer.

  “In his chambers, refusing to see anyone.” Othur passed a hand over his damp forehead and dried it on his trous. “I fear a bloodletting if Durst dies.”

  Keir and the others were still focused on the defenses. “Othur, there is a ceremony, a ritual. You ask for the person’s token.” I spoke quickly. “It protects you when you tell a Firelander something insulting or that would upset them. I’m not allowed—” I cut my words off as Keir approached.

  “A wondrous tent of stone, Othur.” Keir looked about the room. “I wonder at your ability to keep it repaired and supplied.”

  Othur smiled. “No more than I wonder at the skills required to keep an army on the march, Warlord.” He cleared his throat. “I have a question, Warlord, but I would not offer offense.”

  Keir looked rueful, and glanced at me. “Ask, Seneschal.”

  “Would you be willing to explain the use of tokens by your people?” Othur’s voice was reasonable, but he tensed, waiting for Keir’s reaction.

  “I would.” The tone of Keir’s voice surprised me, for I heard a sense of shame behind his words.

  “Perhaps over food and drink? My Lady Wife is the Castle Cook and would welcome you in her kingdom.” Othur placed a hand on my shoulder. “She’s very fond of the warprize.”

  “That would be Anna?” Keir asked. At Othur’s nod, he nodded. “It’s not wise to offend a cook.” Keir smiled. “Lead the way.”

  The kitchen was empty, save for Anna and one of the serving lads. Anna looked drawn and tired, dressed in a clean gown and fresh apron, her spice keys on her belt. Her face lit up like the sun when she saw me. Either she hadn’t noticed the dress, or someone had seen fit to warn her of its color. We paused in awkward uncertainty for a moment as she debated how to greet me, but I took matters into my own hands. “Warlord, allow me to present Anna, who rules this kitchen and all our hearts.”

  Anna gave out a nervous laugh, and after a quick glance at the Warlord, stepped forward to sweep me up in a hug. As the others came in she turned slightly, and indicated the table, set with sweets and goodies. “Please sit and refresh yourselves, my lords.” The serving lad started forward to hand out mugs of ale, and Keir and Othur settled at the table, deep in conversation. Anna kept one arm around my shoulders and pulled me over to the great hearth. She clung to me fiercely as she whispered in my ear, “Are you all right?”

  “I am fine and well,” I said, smiling at her.

  She pulled back a bit, and gave the scarlet dress an evil look. “No.” She shook her head so hard all her chins bounced. “Are you all right?” She searched my face anxiously.

  I flushed and pulled her back into the hug. “Yes,” I whispered. “Yes, I am all right.”

  She pulled away, wiping her eyes, her face full of doubt. “Remn said as much, but what does he know?” She frowned, more to keep back her tears than in anger. “You must be starved.”

  Now my eyes filled with tears, for that was Anna’s response to any problem or pain. She pulled a mug for me and pushed one of her confections into my hand.


  I turned to find Keir gesturing me over. With an apologetic look at Anna, I moved to sit by his side. Keir shifted on the bench to make room, and as he did I felt his breath in my ear. “Do not eat or drink.”

  Everyone else was laughing and eating, trying the various treats that Anna had prepared. I kept my head near Keir’s, and my voice down. “Excuse me?”

  Keir stared into his cup, still filled with ale. “Prest will tell us when it is safe.”

  I stared at him, the reason for his behavior dawning on me slowly. I opened my mouth to say something sharp, when Prest leaned across the table. “Warlord, you must try these!” In his hand was one of Anna’s special treats, a small tart with nuts and honey.

  Keir reached out for the one in Prest’s hand, and bit into it. His face melted into a look of pure pleasure. “Anna!” She spun around. “Anna, what’s in these wonderful things?”

  She glanced at Othur, who reassured her with a smile. Cautiously, she replied, “Warlord, they are just flour, sugar, eggs, and vanilla, with nuts and honey from the castle bees.”

  Keir looked at me, with that boyish smile. “Vanilla. That’s why I like them so much.” He took another bite. “Could you teach my cook to make these?”

  She looked at him through narrowed eyes, and I knew that she found it hard to see the wild-eyed killer in the eager, boyish face before her. “Aye, Warlord, if your cook has any skill at all.” She seemed to relax slightly.

  Othur leaned forward. “About the tokens, Warlord.”

  As they talked, Anna bustled about, making sure that the others had enough to eat and drink. I stayed by Keir’s side, and listened as Keir explained the use of the tokens much as Atira had.

  “So, if I have your token, and I use that to insult you, what then?” Othur asked.

  “I’d reply that the truth you voice is a false, and would issue challenge.” Keir looked grim. “Your choice is to withdraw your words or fight me.”

  “So insults are only made under the protection of a token?”

  “No, but when insult is given without a token, it’s expected that you have a weapon ready, for the insult will be answered immediately.”

  “Ah,” Othur responded. “We give insult, but expect to be challenged before a sword is drawn.”

  “I know that now.” Keir placed his mug on the table. “We must return to camp.”

  As the others stood, I placed a hand on Keir’s arm. “Let me show you something.” I led the way to the stillroom door. “I spent a lot of time here over the years, distilling medicines and herbs in this room.” I swung the door wide. “This was my kingdom.”

  The door opened on an empty room.

  I stared. Not a table, not a jar, nothing remained. Only the faint lingering scent of herbs in the air betrayed the fact that it had been a stillroom.

  Othur came up behind us. “I should have warned you, Lara. The King had it cleaned out the night you . . .” He paused almost imperceptibly. “Left.”

  I rounded on him. “Othur, there were valuable supplies here, not to mention my . . . the equipment. What did he do with it?” Othur studied the floor. I grabbed his arm. “Please tell me he sent it all to the Temple of Healing.”

  Othur did not look at me. “He may have. But I don’t know.”

  I SPENT MOST OF THE RIDE BACK TO CAMP LOST IN my own thoughts. Keir had allowed no long farewells. One hug from Anna and we were mounted and gone, traveling quickly through the night, weapons at the ready. Keir hadn’t bothered with the niceties of farewells to Xymund either, and I was convinced that it was calculated.

  The night covered the fields, so I was spared another glimpse of the graves. The stars gleamed bright in the night sky, and I heard the Firelanders muttering something that sounded like prayers. I sighed softly. I shouldn’t use that term anymore, since it wasn’t what they called themselves. I wondered for a moment why Xyians called them “Firelanders.” Of course, I wasn’
t really Xyian anymore, was I? I wasn’t really anything, was I? I closed my eyes, and lost myself in my pain.

  Only when Rafe coughed did I realize that he held my horse’s head and that we were in front of Keir’s tent. I slid out of the saddle and rubbed my forehead to ease its ache. Marcus stood just inside the tent, the lamps bright behind him. “Warprize? Are you all right?”

  Keir came up behind me as our horses were led away. His hands were on my shoulders, and he directed me toward the sleeping area. I stumbled along, guided by his warm hands, over to the bed, where he made me sit down. I could hear murmurs, Keir and Marcus talking. “I’ll get kavage,” Marcus said quietly. “Maybe some bread.” I had to smile. Apparently Anna was not the only one to ease pain with food.

  “No,” Keir responded. He knelt down in front of me and pulled off one of the bright red slippers with a gentle touch. “We need sleep, Marcus. Go to bed.”

  Marcus gave him a doubtful look, but he left. Keir removed the other slipper as well, but I didn’t look up. “Why would he do it? Why would he burn them?” I asked.

  Keir paused and glanced at me.

  “They were just my notes, my observations. Scribbles really.” I stopped as the pain welled up inside my chest.

  Keir snorted. I looked at him in surprise. “You are attacked in the market, insulted by the Court and your brother, and what troubles you the most is the loss of some papers.” He stood rather abruptly.

  Anger surged up inside me. “They may have just been papers, but they were important to me.”

  Keir lifted an eyebrow. “That’s why they were burned.”

  I sagged, exhaustion flowing over me like a wave.

  Keir sat next to me on the bed and removed his boots. He started in on his armor, carefully removing each piece and setting it on the benches. I gathered strength, stood, and went into the bathing area to remove the dress carefully. I tried to fold it, but the material slipped and slid, the dress ending up on the floor every time. Tired, frustrated, and upset, I finally gave up and left it on one of the benches. A tunic and trous were set out for me, and I climbed into them for sleeping. After washing out my undergarments, I washed up quickly. My hair was windblown from the tower and the ride, so I gathered up a comb and returned to the other room to try to deal with the tangled mess.

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