Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan


  “I miss him,” I said quietly.

  A wave of pain crossed his face. “Aye, Lady,” was the breathless response. “So do we all.” He seemed to gather strength somehow, and he squeezed my hand and gave a slight tug. I lowered my hand to his mouth. With a rasping breath, he spoke. “My hand to yours. Bless you, Xylara, Daughter of the House of Xy, Daughter of Xyron, Warrior King.” He pressed his dry lips to the back of my hand.

  It had been long since I’d heard those old words. I kissed his forehead. “My hand to yours. Blessings upon you, Warrior of the House of Xy.”

  He smiled, slipping into death even as his hand slipped from mine.

  “YOU CARE TOO MUCH.” IT WAS ELN AGAIN.

  His voice floated over the stone tubs that had been set aside to wash instruments. I ignored him for the moment, concentrating on getting things clean and ready for the next wave of wounded. Experience taught that the lulls in the fighting were to be used, not wasted.

  “A good healer is dispassionate. Objective.”

  The warrior’s body had been taken up for burial. He had been the last of the severely wounded. I had a small cluster of unhappy apprentices outside, boiling bandages and linens. Not their favorite chore, but a vital one.

  Eln had started brewing more orchid root at the fire. The sweet scent was a comfort. Others were tending the large kettles of fever’s foe outside. Everyone, no matter how tired, worked and waited. For the sounds of more battle, more wounded. I closed my eyes, giving in to my exhaustion, and prayed for an end to the war that waged outside the city walls. Prayed that the Firelanders would stop using their lances. Prayed that I’d be skilled enough that no more of my patients would die.

  Eln rattled the jars and bottles, and I opened my eyes and watched him. My old teacher, his long arms stretching out, putting them in some kind of order. Slow and steady, moving carefully on tall legs, considering each step. The straight, gray hair that flowed down his back only added to the image of a lake-crane. He gave me a look out of the corner of his eye, and shook his head. “How can one so slight be so stubborn?”

  “Eln, how long was I your apprentice?”

  He stared pointedly at my bruised cheek. “Long enough to learn.” He regarded me with a solemn look.

  “And I have been a master for how long?” I rinsed more of the instruments and set them on a cloth to dry.

  He pursed his lips, and pretended to study one of the jars. “Long enough to learn to talk back.”

  I snorted. “During that period, how many times have you said that to me?”

  “More than I can count, but that does not make it any less true.” He started to gather up the things we would need to check the wounded and tend them. “If you are so wise, Lara, then why do I see guilt in your eyes?”

  I glanced out the kitchen window. The afternoon shadows were growing. “I should not have tried to cut it out. Should have left it alone. If I had . . .”

  “If.” Eln came to stand next to me. “If you had left it in, was his death not as sure? You tried. That was all you could do. All any of us can do when we are overwhelmed like this.”

  I dried my hands, and blinked back tears I didn’t have time for. “We’d better get to work.”

  OUT IN THE COMMON ROOM, MEN LAY SLEEPING on cots and pallets, crammed close together. We moved quickly, checking bandages, dispensing medications and powders. Apprentices scurried back and forth, bringing water and cloths, supplies and instruments. Our medicines were greeted with the usual laments over the taste. We ignored the complaints, as we moved around the room, seeing to each man. There were even more upstairs, on the second floor.

  Our job was made difficult by the enemy’s use of a thrown lance. Four foot long, tipped with sharp metal barbs that were designed to break off in the wound. When thrown from horseback, they tore flesh and muscle in ways that could easily cripple a man, and made healing difficult. Our warriors had seen nothing like it before. Nor had they ever dealt with an army that fought only from horseback. Devil riders, they called them, men and women who could sit on a galloping horse and shoot arrow after arrow, with deadly accuracy. We’d heard rumors that they ate their dead, and tore the hearts out of their kills. That they were black, and yellow, and blue, and that their eyes glowed with madness.

  I ignored the talk and concentrated on my work. The men were grateful, and it tore my heart, how a kind word and a cool cloth would lift their spirits. A few recognized me as a Daughter of the Blood, but most simply welcomed me as the healer that I was. Just as well. I was not particularly proud of my “royal” heritage at the moment.

  We worked our way through the men, cleaning and checking wounds. Tomorrow, we would welcome a small legion of servants who came every morning, for the general bathing, bedding, and slop pots. Volunteers from the city folk, some castle servants, since the need was so great. The healers and apprentices couldn’t do everything.

  It was late by the time I knelt next to the last patient. “It’s well?” He rasped, peering at the gash in his calf as I replaced the bandage.

  “Very well.”

  “It don’t look well.” He reached out a finger to touch it. I smacked his hand. He pulled it back, as shocked as a child.

  “It will not be well if you poke at it.” I frowned at him, and finished covering the wound. “Leave it be.”

  “Aye, Lady.” He bobbed his head, looking sheepish, giving me a toothless grin.

  I rose from the floor, and stifled a cry as the muscles in my back protested. I was feeling all of my twenty-five years. I picked up my supplies and moved off, trying to stretch out the tightness in my back as I went downstairs. Eln was in the kitchen, washing up. He grimaced at me as I grabbed up some soap and a cloth. “Finished?”

  I nodded.

  “I’ve no one to send to escort you.”

  I shrugged. “It’s not the first time I’ve walked to the castle alone.”

  “It’s not proper.” He paused for a moment. “I suppose you are going to those tents now?” I could hear the resignation in his tone.

  I avoided him for the moment and plunged my hands into one of the buckets. The familiar scents of the herbs and mixtures were welcome and I took a deep breath. The bitter smell of fever’s foe came in through the window.

  “The King has told you not to go there, Lara. I thought that maybe . . .” His voice trailed off, hinting at the doubt in his eyes.

  “The King? Let me worry about him, Eln.” I gathered my hair up and tried to tame it back in a braid. “Death and injury aren’t limited to us Xyians. I can’t stop the fighting, can’t bring peace, but I won’t neglect wounded men. We take oaths when we gain our mastery. Remember?”

  He sighed, and thrust a jar toward me. “There’s extra of the fever’s foe. It will go bad if it’s not used.”

  Fever’s foe takes months to go bad. This jar was from last week’s batch. I hid my smile and put the jar in the basket I had pulled from the corner, carefully cushioning all the other bottles inside. “My thanks.”

  “I wish I could do more.” He made a move to follow.

  I picked up the basket and grabbed the jug of liniment that I’d mixed the night before. “Eln, I don’t expect you to come with me.”

  “I have sworn the same oaths.” He tilted his head. “Xylara . . .”

  “You can’t get away with disobeying the King, Eln.” I flashed him a smile. “He’s not your half brother.”

  He laughed ruefully. “That is so.”

  I smiled, headed outside, and paused to let my eyes adjust to the twilight. Summer was still with us, but barely. There was a hint of chill in the evenings now, the first sign of the winter snows to come. I shifted my basket and the jug and wished that I had thought to grab my cloak. It would be late before I would finish my work in the tents deep in the castle gardens.

  The barracks sprawled against the southern wall of the city. I had a fairly long walk ahead of me. Even as I stepped out, my eyes were drawn up.

  I have seen it near
ly every day since I was a little girl, but the sight of the castle of Water’s Fall never failed to amaze. The huge tower was built into the mountainside. Even in the starlight, its gray rugged granite was a stark contrast to the greenery around it. The various waterfalls that gave the city and castle its name trickled and roared down the cliffs, making a striking picture. Ten generations, the House of Xy had labored to build and expand and improve the castle at the head of the valley and its city. I bit my lip, trying to remember which ancestor had named the place. Xyson? Or was it Xyred?

  I crossed the ward to the small gate that would let me out onto the main street. There was an older guard there, and he raised a hand in greeting as I passed him. I nodded back, then plunged into the hustle and bustle of the avenue. This late, everyone was starting to head for home. Rather than head north to the main thoroughfare, I went south. It was the more direct route, although it would take me past the farmers’ markets. Hopefully the crowds would have dwindled, having made their purchases earlier in the day. I strode along as quickly as I could, watching where I stepped. For all the ordinances about refuse, one was never sure what might be tossed out into the street at any given moment. Of course there were fines, but the Guard had little time to worry over that issue. They had more than enough problems on their hands.

  It had not been a good summer for us. Spring had brought with it what we’d thought would be the normal raiding along the border by the people we called the Firelanders. But the warriors we faced this time were led by a warlord they called the Cat. His armies had descended on our southern borders, devastating the countryside and the towns and villages that lay there. Usually the Firelanders looted and pillaged on the border and then disappeared into their wide grasslands without a trace. But this warlord had different ideas. He was seizing towns, and holding them, forcing the folk to swear fealty to him. It was said that he would kill all the men if the people resisted, torture the women and children, and burn the town to the ground. All through the summer, he’d fought his way up the valley, securing the lands behind him.

  Water’s Fall had filled with those fleeing the conflict. King Xymund had assured his Council and the lords that this upstart would be crushed under the might of the armies of Xy. But over the months, our army had been pushed back by the warlord’s thundering horses and flights of arrows. The healing temple overflowed with the injured and displaced. Many were taken in by families in the city who opened their homes. With the influx of people, the city was a crowded, unhappy place. Eln said that the crowding would bring more illness with it, and I feared he was right.

  The farmers’ market wasn’t its normal noisy, boisterous self, with vendors calling out the virtue of their wares. There was a dullness to it, fear that hovered in the very air. Still the clamor from the poulterer’s was as loud as ever. Geese, tied to the stall in every way possible, honked and gabbled and beat their wings. Chickens and ducks, their legs trussed together, floundered on the ground nearby, their clucking adding to the cacophony. There were feathers everywhere, and the smell of drying blood.

  Even with the armies of the warlord drawing close to the city, Xymund, Lord High King, had evidenced great mercy to his opponents. He had publicly decreed that wounded prisoners taken on the field were to be housed and cared for as our own. But his private hypocrisy was the few prisoners that had been taken were isolated in the deepest part of the gardens that lay within the castle walls, surrounded by guards and given the barest of necessities. As the days passed, it was clear that Xymund regretted his public stance. It was only the need to live up to his honorable image that kept those men alive.

  Certainly no other healer dared to venture there. The King seemed to feel that caring for these men was treason of the highest order. I’d fought hard to be Eln’s apprentice, fought harder to claim journeyman’s status, and then defied my father himself to claim my mastery. Xymund could bully the entire guild, but I’d sworn oaths to deprive no one in need of my services, and I’d ventured to the tent, with no support, and much opposition. I’d ignored them all, and dared any and all to say me nay, but in my heart of hearts, I wasn’t sure if I cared for their wounds out of a higher ideal, or simply as a way to anger my elder half brother.

  My elder half brother had, in turn, suggested, asked, demanded, ordered, and forbidden my visits. I disregarded him. He had cursed, ranted, and shouted to no avail. He’d kept the pressure up, making it a daily battle for me to render aid to those men. Pressure had been brought to bear, and I’d come close a time or two to wavering. But each time I’d reconsider my defiance, there’d be another wounded Firelander dragged to the tent and dumped on the floor. I could not turn my back. Not when I had it within my power to heal and ease their pain.

  Nevertheless, Xymund had made one thing very clear. None of the prisoners was to know that I was a Daughter of the Blood. If anyone learned that fact, he said that he would chain me in my room for the duration of the war.

  Even I could see the sense in that.

  I walked through the city, dodging animals and people, carts and wagons. It was very crowded on the streets. People of all shapes and sizes were moving about their business before the markets closed for the night and the Watch was about. At one intersection a cart had lost its wheel, its cargo spilled onto the street. Men were shouting at one another, trying to clear the way. I turned down one of the side streets, trying to avoid the mess. Here, the buildings were built tight to one another and leaned out over the streets, blocking the light. I was glad to turn back onto one of the wide main streets and get on my way.

  As I went, I could sense a difference. There seemed to be a feeling of suppressed panic in the air. Men stood at corners, talking softly in clusters. The bargaining had a frantic sense to it. I wondered if there had been some news of the Cat. I took another detour of sorts, moving down an alley to come out in the spice markets. I paused before entering the flow of traffic, looking for colorful flags on poles, and spotted Kalisa’s cart, tucked in the entrance of another alley.

  Bent half double with age, her back humped up, her fingers crooked and swollen, Kalisa was one of the few shorter than I was. Normally, she also had the brightest smile and the best cheese in the city. But there was no smile for me today.

  “Lara.” Whatever else, her eyes and mind were still sharp. “Don’t you have an escort? It’s not safe, child.” She tipped her head and looked me over.

  “Kalisa, I’ve never had any trouble—”

  “Aye, were times what they were, I’d agree. Not now.” She scowled at me, even as her hands pulled out a small wheel of hard cheese. “Rumor has it that our King has hired mercenaries to guard his carcass, heathen foreigners who wander the streets terrorizing women.”

  I set my jug and basket down between my feet. “The same rumor that says that the Firelanders are blue, red, and black, and belch fire from their mouths?”

  She handed me a slice of her sharpest cheese, and a thin cracker, which I took eagerly. The taste flooded my mouth, making me aware of my hunger. It had been long since breakfast, and it tasted wonderful. Kalisa tilted her head to be able to look into my eyes. “Have you not heard?” Her face as serious as I had ever seen.

  “Heard what?”

  “The army has pulled back within the city walls. King’s command. Did you not hear the horns?” She cut another slice. “Heard tell that the Lord Marshall is having fits.”

  The cracker and cheese was suddenly dry in my mouth. “Pulled back? But . . .”

  Her white head shook as she handed me another piece of cheese. “Child, you need to look up from your work once in a while, eh?”

  “The last I heard, things were going well.” I swallowed hard. “At the very gates?”

  “Everyone’s frantic. Stripped my cart almost bare, they did. And the Watch is doubled tonight. You best be getting home.” Kalisa nudged me. “Aye and look there.”

  I looked to where her gnarled finger, held low behind the cart, pointed into the crowd. I looked up to see Lord D
urst riding by, with his son and heir, Degnan. They wore their usual haughty, sullen expressions. No fear that they would recognize me in the press, but then my odd ways were an open secret. Xymund usually said something when one of the nobility came for a visit. What were they doing here?

  Kalisa had no doubts. “Cowards fled their lands for this safety. Left all behind, so I hear.”

  I scowled at her. “Such talk could get you beaten, old woman.”

  She snorted. “Everyone’s saying that Xymund’s not the warrior your father was, and rightly so if rumor is true, that he’s a bast—” I frowned at her and she broke off her words. “Never mind. I’ve enough cheese to fill my cart tomorrow, but after that I’ve none to sell.” She shook her head at my questioning look. “Anser and Mya have fled with the herds, and I’ve no milk to work. Talk is that with those heathens outside, the harvest is thin and food will be scarce. They say that some merchants are already raising their prices.”

  I crammed the rest of the cheese into my mouth and dug for my pouch.

  Kalisa waved me off. “Never you mind, child. My thanks for that jar of joint cream you gave me. It works well.” She held up her hands and flexed them.

  I smiled, pleased to see that she had more movement in her fingers. “I will bring you another jar, Kalisa. I promise.”

  “I’d rather you stayed safe in that castle. Off with you now. That grandson of mine will be along to get me home soon enough.” She started to pack up her cart as I continued on, lost in my thoughts.

  Lord Marshall Warren had seemed very confident of his ability to hold the warlord’s men at bay. I had no mind for tactics and troop movements, but Father had thought Warren an excellent general and had every faith in him. Something must have gone wrong. That explained the mood of the city, with the enemy at the very gates. I picked up my pace.

 
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