Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

  Keir slipped into the room as I came out, and I heard him splash about as I tried to draw the comb through my hair. It hurt, but not as much as the idea of all that work burned, or all those herbs and mixtures destroyed. It made no sense, to ruin the stillroom. Why do it? Why think that Anna would poison me? The idea was laughable. Nor would Xymund hire mercenaries to destroy the peace. My head hurt with thinking about it, and I yanked my hair into a handful and started working at the tangles with a vengeance.

  The bed sagged, and the comb was tugged out of my hand. Keir moved behind me, wrapped me in his arms, and held me tight. I lowered my head, embarrassed at how good it felt to be held. It was strange to be held so, embraced so intimately. Yet how quickly his touch had become familiar and welcome. We stayed that way for a long moment, then with one hand, Keir swept the hair from the back of my neck, and nuzzled my nape. His warm breath stirred the smaller hairs, and I shifted slightly, uncomfortable with the touch and yet stirred by it. Keir moved his hands to my shoulders and stroked down my arms until he reached my hands.

  He cradled my right hand in both of his and started caressing it, tracing each finger slowly, and moving his fingertips over my palm. I could feel his sword calluses against my skin. His lips were at my ear as he spoke. “I was taught that we are of the elements. Flesh, breath, soul, and blood.” His voice was a mere whisper as he kneaded the ball of my thumb. “Sometimes, the elements within us become unbalanced, and it takes the touch of another to bring us back, to center us.” His hands continued to work on mine, rubbing the nails and working my knuckles. I felt a warm tingle building in the center of my palm.

  I sighed, leaning back against his chest, and Keir switched to my left hand, moving slowly and carefully. “The soul is made of fire, and sits within the left hand.” He repeated his actions, I absorbed it all in silence. “The breath is made of air, and sits within the right hand.” He continued until that hand tingled as well. I felt my heart slow and my breathing fall into harmony with his. The warmth of his body seeped into me through the fabric of my tunic.

  “The peace will work, Lara.” His hands took mine and wove our fingers together to form a fist. “Together, our peoples will be stronger. A united whole, under one ruler.”

  “Under your rule,” I whispered.

  Keir pulled me back slowly to lie against the pillows, then moved to the end of the bed. He took my left foot in his hands and started rubbing gently. “The blood is made of water, and sits within the left foot.” His words seemed like a ritual of some kind, and his touch was pure pleasure. I lay quiet, in a daze of warmth and bliss.

  “Xymund has sworn fealty to me as Warlord.” Keir’s touch was still gentle, but his voice had an edge to it. “He will obey.” He flexed my foot in his hands, pulling at my toes and working his fingers into the muscles.

  It took me a bit to gather my thoughts. “Yet you deliberately provoked him this evening.”

  “Yes.” Keir released my foot and moved to the other one. “I did. His actions will speak louder than his oaths.” He worked this foot as he had the other. “The flesh is made of earth and sits within the right foot.”

  I focused on him and smiled, feeling safe and lethargic. Keir’s eyes glittered, and he released my foot and crawled up the bed to lie by my side. He hovered there, looking down, his eyes glittering. I looked up, expecting, waiting . . .

  He sighed softly, and eased back to the foot of the bed. It seemed somehow that I had failed him in some way, but I wasn’t certain what made me think that. I stared at his back as he sat there. I had to say something to break the silence. “And Durst?”

  Keir’s head came up with a jerk. He sighed and shook his head, turning slightly to look at me. “A mistake. I knew it even as I pulled my sword free.” He got off the bed. Marcus had stoked the braziers before he had left, and they radiated warm heat into the room. Keir moved over and threw a handful of leaves into the closest one. It flared up, but the flames died quickly. The room gently filled with a soft, spicy scent that hung in the warm air. Amazing how much warmer a tent was than a stone castle.

  Keir settled on one of the benches, pulling bottles and cloths from a small chest below. His sword was there, and he took it up, looking at it ruefully. He started wiping it with one of the cloths. I curled on my side to watch him as he wiped the sword with careful attention. There was a long silence between us before he spoke. “I ask my warriors to change their ways, and yet in the heat of anger I strike according to our tradition.”

  I didn’t have an answer to that.

  He set aside the cloth, and started to work the edge with a stone, making a soft “shushing” sound. One of the bottles was open, and I got a faint whiff of clove oil. I yawned, watching him in the faint light.

  “Go to sleep, Warprize. I will sit for a while, and think on my errors and how to learn from them.”

  I had melted down into the bedding, and hadn’t the strength to get under the blankets. Even with blurry eyes, I saw the lines on Keir’s face. “He didn’t die.”

  Keir’s hand stopped moving. “He lived?”

  “Othur said he was still alive before we went to the kitchens.” I closed my eyes, and started floating off.

  The “shushing” sound started back up, “So. Tomorrow will tell the tale. I’ll send for word, or go myself. Sleep now.”

  I tried to resist, but the darkness won out.

  I SWING MY LEG UP AND OUT, THE HORSE SHIES and moves away. I lose my balance and drop back to the ground abruptly.

  The lance passes by my head.

  “Death to the—” The lead man never finishes his cry. Keir smashes through his defenses and plunges into the man’s chest in one quick stabbing motion. With his fierce quickness, he moves to strike at another.

  I press against the wall, trying to stay small and out of the way. The only sounds are those of clashing blades, heavy breathing, and boots looking for purchase on the surface of the street.

  “Wake up. Open your eyes.”

  The four remaining attackers shift their focus without a word. Prest has one opponent. Two now press Keir. Rafe faces one as well.

  Prest bashes his opponent with his shield and rams him hard enough to get him off-balance and a sword between his ribs. I assume that Prest will aid Keir. But he stays where he is, scanning the street, weapon at the ready.

  Keir is in no need of aid. He knows his opponents’ moves and blocks them with ease. His attackers breathe heavily, and move slowly. When one makes the mistake of stepping back when his fellow shifts forward, Keir does not hesitate. But it is a move his opponents are waiting for, and in an instant Keir is down on the street, bleeding from his chest.

  “Wake up, Warprize.”

  I cry out and kneel at his side. My hands reach out, but they cannot stop the blood as it gushes forth.

  “I’m fine. All’s well. Wake up.”

  Keir turns his head, but his eyes are wide and unseeing. I scream, cry out, but there is no help, no aid, all is sorrow, all is death . . .


  I AWOKE SCREAMING, SITTING UP IN THE BED AND covered in sweat. My heart thundered in my chest.

  Keir’s arms gathered me close. As my vision cleared, I could make out the tent, with Marcus standing not far from the edge of the bed, holding a small lamp. The flame flickered, weak and feeble, and the shadows danced with it. I turned, fumbling at Keir’s chest, checking the wound. I had to stop the bleeding, Goddess please, I had to stop the . . .

  Keir kept his arms around me, but gave me the room I needed as my hands fumbled over his chest, the skin supple, the scars old and healed. Frantically, I checked, then raised my eyes to his. “There was blood, so much blood. I couldn’t stop it.”

  “A night horror. Just a night horror.” His strong arms enfolded me, and I allowed myself to be pulled into his embrace. I felt Keir gesture for Marcus to return to his bed, and then tensed as the light receded. “Marcus,” Keir called softly. “Leave the lamp.”

  The light rem
ained, even as Marcus left. We stayed that way, as my breathing and heart slowed. Finally, I pushed back a little, pulling my hair off my sweaty forehead with shaky hands, and croaked out a weak laugh. “I’m sorry. I am acting the fool.”

  Keir pulled me down under the furs, refusing to release his hold. “It’s not a foolish thing. Night horrors are very real.”

  I rested my head on his shoulder, feeling heavy and tired. “When I was very small, Anna would hold me when I had one. She would hug me, kiss my forehead, and stay with me ’til I slept.”

  Keir chuckled softly. “Go back to sleep.” He brushed his lips against my forehead.

  Comforted, I closed my eyes.

  AT SOME POINT I FOUND MYSELF AWAKE, LYING IN the dark. There was enough light to see Keir lying next to me, on his back, close enough to touch. I closed my eyes and listened to his regular breaths and reveled in the sheer comfort that it brought. The nightmare had been so real, so terrible. I wanted to believe that my fears in the dream had been for the peace between our people, but concern for the man had been there as well.

  Keir murmured and shifted his weight slightly. I opened my eyes, studying his face, trying to gauge his age. He was no youngster, but it was hard to tell. Older than Xymund. Not so old as Warren. I yawned, letting my eyes drift closed. Caring for broken and ill bodies doesn’t teach the joy of shared warmth under covers. So far, that seemed the only use for a warprize.


  I jolted up, clutching the blankets, to find Keir half out of bed, sword in hand. There were sounds of many men outside and grunts, as if they were carrying a heavy load, “MARCUS!” The voice bellowed again. “WHERE IS THAT FOOL OF A WARLORD?” The very walls of the tent seemed to tremble.

  Keir collapsed back on the bed, still clutching his sword, his face twisted in a grimace. “Simus must have talked to Joden.”

  “SILENCE!” I jumped again as Marcus called out, his voice loud enough to rival Simus’s. “I’d no sleep last night and none this morn, thanks to your bellowing!”

  I flushed, and looked at Keir. “I’m sorry about last night.”

  He turned his head and gave me that impish smile. “I’m not. Since it means that you were in my arms most of the night.”

  More heat flooded my face.

  “Get me in this tent, and bring me his damned-by-the-snows token,” Simus bellowed again. “I’ve a few choice truths to tell.”

  Keir stood, and shouted back. “You’ve not bothered to use my token in years, why start now?” Keir grabbed up a tunic and belted on his sword.

  “Easy! Be careful, I’m a wounded man, not a dead deer!”

  A man backed in through the flap, carrying Simus on a cot. Simus was sprawled on his stomach, holding on to the sides. There were four men carrying him, but they only seemed to be getting in each other’s way. “Here,” Simus directed. “Put me down here.” The cot was dropped, and before Simus could complain, the men were gone. Simus growled, since he was half in, half out, with the flap lying on the small of his back. He fixed his glare on Keir. “What, your brain was in your sword last night?”

  Marcus appeared from the other entrance and thumped a pitcher of kavage on the table, along with mugs. “I suppose you’ll be wanting food, now that you’ve frightened the herds with your cries?”

  “I’ll need it to keep up my strength so that I can beat sense into this one’s head.” Simus adopted an air of injured dignity. I clutched at the blankets, and ran my hand through my hair, trying not to give in to hysterical laughter.

  Marcus snarled and clucked like an old chicken as he turned to go. “Body can’t get any rest, what with the screaming and the crying out all night.” He stomped out of the tent.

  Keir poured kavage, handing a mug to Simus. “I had good reason—”

  “To gut one of them? In their own throne room?” Simus rolled his eyes. “Let me guess, you insulted their poor excuse of a king as well?” When I frowned, Simus glared at me. “I’m voicing truths here, Warprize, and you’ll pardon me if I don’t fear your blade.”

  “How’s your leg, Simus?” Keir asked pointedly, as he handed me a full mug.

  Simus ignored him. “And your reasons, oh great Warlord of the Plains? For throwing rocks at rutting ehats?”

  I frowned. What was an “ehat”?

  “The man gave insult to the warprize,” Keir responded. “He called her a whore.” He used the Xyian word.

  “Eh?” Marcus was bringing in food. “What’s that?”

  I took a long drink of kavage as Keir explained. How did they not have a word for that? What did that mean about these people? That any were free to lie with all? That seemed so barbaric.

  “They sell it?” Marcus looked slightly ill, then moved away, muttering something about water for bathing.

  Simus said nothing, merely drinking from his kavage. Keir sighed, and sat down on the corner of the bed nearest Simus. “I knew I’d made a mistake even as he slid off my blade.”

  Simus remained quiet.

  “How can I ask my warriors to change their ways when I couldn’t change mine in that instant?” Keir ran a hand through his hair.

  “Change is easy to talk of, hard to do.” Simus’s voice dropped, his eyes serious. “You tell them the truth, of course.”

  Marcus came in with two buckets, and disappeared into the privy area.

  “You tell them that you regret his death, but that all must take heed from this incident.”

  “He’s not dead,” I spoke up. “The last we heard, he still lived.”

  “He did?” Simus asked, then let his eyes slide over to Keir. “Losing your touch?”

  A cry of outrage filled the tent. I grabbed at the blanket, as Keir stood, sword in hand. Simus had two daggers that appeared from nowhere. I looked at the privy entrance, to see Marcus standing there, waving my underthings in his fist and shaking them in the air. “Where did the likes of these come from?”

  I jumped up and grabbed for them, but that scarred little man dodged me. “Those are mine!” I made another attempt, darting around the bed. Simus roared out his laughter and Keir got out of the way.

  Marcus danced away again. “The Warprize accepts nothing, except at the hand of the Warlord!” His face was bright red, the scarring a dull white against it.

  “Give me those!” I went after him again and this time managed to wrestle the cloth from his hand. Flushed and breathless, I shoved them behind my back and faced down Marcus, toe-to-toe. “You have no business—”

  “Nothing, except at the hand of the Warlord!” Marcus roared out, spittle flying from his mouth.

  “You bragnect! I bought them with his coin!”

  Marcus blinked. Apparently it was an effective curse in their language, since it seemed to leave him speechless. His recovery was quick. “Could have asked Hisself or I.”

  I rolled my eyes, just imagining that conversation.

  “No more than she could tell us about the dress, apparently.”

  My turn to lose my tongue. Keir’s tone was mild, but his look sharp. Simus was watchful, his two daggers gone, and the kavage back in his hand. “Tell us, Warprize. Tell us what you did not tell us yesterday.”

  Marcus scowled, eye darting between the two of us. “Dress? What was wrong with the dress?”

  “We don’t have cloth like yours, with the colors so strong, so bright.” I ran my free hand through my hair, pulling it back.

  Marcus snorted. “City folk all dress like drab, dull geese, waddling about, squawking at—”

  Keir had seated himself at the table and was filling his plate. “They acted as if I had branded you, marked you somehow.” He tilted his head. “Did I?”

  Marcus snorted, turning to Keir. I took the opportunity to tuck my underthings under one of the pillows on the bed. “It’s a fine dress, the color of flame. It honored her. How is that a problem?”

  “For us, it is an honor.” He pinned me with his eyes. “For you?”

  I sighed. “In
Water’s Fall, only a whore wears red.”

  Marcus’s eyebrow shot up, and he glanced at Keir before he looked at me. “A whore? That insult?” I nodded. Marcus turned to face Keir, placing both hands on his hips. “Do you hear this? We do not have such a word, thanks to the skies.” He threw his hands up in the air. “This will never work. Bringing together their ways and ours, it cannot hope to—”

  Keir slapped the table with his open palm, rattling the dishes. Marcus and I both jumped. “It will work.” Keir stood there, grim and determined. “I will weave a new pattern between these ways.” He glanced at Simus. “I will use my mistake as an example for my people.” His eyes flashed at Marcus, who stood, radiating disapproval. “We will learn of our differences, ask questions when needed.” His glare centered on me now. “Offer information freely, with no fear.” I flushed and looked away. “Am I understood?”

  Simus and Marcus both bowed their heads. “Yes, Warlord.”

  I did the same, biting my lip.

  Keir settled at the table and reached for bread. “Simus, have your men return you to your tent. Marcus, the kavage needs warming.” Marcus retreated. Keir didn’t look at me. “If you wish to bathe before eating, you may.”

  I fled to the privy.

  KEIR AND SIMUS WERE GONE WHEN I EMERGED. Marcus wasn’t there either, but I could hear him rattling dishes beyond the tent walls. I rummaged in the saddlebags, and put a touch of vanilla oil on the back of my neck. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath of the warm fragrance. Just for a moment, I was back in Anna’s kitchen as a child, hearing her laughter and the jingle of her keys, surrounded by those I loved. The tightness in my shoulders eased. I took a few deep breaths before sitting at the table.

  Marcus entered, placing a heaping plate down before me. “Warlord’s gone to send a messenger to the castle.” He poured kavage in my mug, hesitating before setting it down. “I meant no offense, Warprize.” I looked at him, puzzled. “The dress. I meant no insult.”

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