Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

  I stared at my plate. “I should have said something, Marcus. You were just so proud for having found it, I just couldn’t—”

  He shook his head and grimaced. “Not the first time my pride got in the way, won’t be the last.”

  “Marcus—” I pushed the food around on my plate. “Marcus, do you support Keir in this peace? Does the army?”

  “We’re a people who’ve known nothing but battle and raiding. Conquering and holding land. The blending of our ways with yours is a new idea. And one Hisself is bent on.” Marcus’s eye was lost in the distance, and his fingers drummed on the pitcher. “All knew of his plans for this place, and followed in that understanding, but there’s miles between knowing and doing.” He wrinkled his nose as he focused on me. “Hisself holds the reins, but there’s always someone that frets at the traces. Iften would gladly see Hisself fall off this horse.”

  Marcus sat on one of the stumps, slumping. “Then there’s you,” he said.


  “Aye. A warprize must be taken to the Heart of the Plains. That’s a month of travel at the start of the snows. You, who’s never lived beyond stone walls for all her days.” Marcus shook his head. “Hisself is a good man to follow, to trust with your life, but the risks on this path are far greater than the ones he’s taken in battle. As I’ve followed him in war, who am I to refuse to follow him in this?”

  “But you don’t think it will work.” I breathed, my heart sinking.

  He stood quickly, scowling at me. “You should see to Atira. Eat now. Rafe and Prest will be here soon, and the food does no good to the plate.”

  Try as I might, I could get no more from him.

  WITH GILS’S HELP, THE MORNING FLEW SWIFTLY, what with washing, bandaging, and the like. I was amazed how quickly Gils learned. He would recite things back that I had told him, word for word, but even with his memory, hands-on learning was necessary. It’s one thing to be able to recite how to clean a wound. It’s another to have a living patient who wiggles and complains as you do it. Halfway through the process, I heard noises coming from outside the tent, as of men working. I looked over but Rafe and Prest showed no signs of concern, so I ignored it.

  My patients were progressing well, and there were only two left, including Atira. She was also coming along nicely, although she was uncomfortable when I adjusted the tension on her leg. The ache seemed to ease once she was settled again, with her weapons arranged in proper order. Privately, I conceded that having one’s patients naked under the blankets was a time-saver, but not one that I’d be able to introduce to my Xyian patients.

  That thought brought me up short. I’d lost myself in the comforting routine of caring for people, forgetting that I’d never have Xyian patients again. A wave of homesickness came over me, and I had to bite my lip to prevent tears. I felt lost and alone and—

  I wrenched my thoughts back to the moment, and concentrated on the tasks at hand.

  I desperately wanted to ask Atira questions, about the Heart of the Plains and her life there, and what she thought of the Warlord’s plans, but she had her planning board out, and was moving stones around. Besides, there were listening ears all about us. I was afraid that Marcus was right, that Keir’s plans to unite our peoples and learn each other’s ways were doomed from the start. What would happen to Keir if he failed? What would happen to me? I flushed, feeling sheepish. Later, I’d ask, when Gils was gone and everyone was drowsy. I’d ask for Atira’s token.

  Once all were settled, I pulled out The Epic of Xyson. I’d managed to hide it from Marcus and smuggle it down to the healing tent with no one the wiser. “I have a surprise for you all.” I smiled as I opened the book. “I thought I would read this to you. It’s a story of one of my ancestors—”

  There was a crash. Startled, I looked up. Gils had dropped the pitcher. Everyone was staring at me. Atira, propped up on her elbows, was pale and wide-eyed. “Warprize, you keep your songs on paper?”

  I nodded and turned the book so they could see the writing.

  Gils looked at it carefully. The other patient came over, straining to see. Even Rafe and Prest left their positions by the door for a closer look.

  “I have heard of this, but the sky as my witness, I thought it a fable told to children.” Rafe frowned. “How can the marks hold your songs?”

  “Listen.” Returning the book to my lap, I read out loud, “Hear now the tale of Xyson, Warrior King, and his defeat of the barbarians of the southern lands. Xyson, tall and strong as the mountain, had led his people well for ten years before the barbarians fell upon the villages and raided his people.” I paused, suddenly unsure. It occurred to me that the barbarians the book talked about were Keir’s own people.

  Prest snorted. “How old?” he asked, nodding at the book.

  “The story is almost four hundred years old. Xyson is my father’s father’s father back some nine generations.”

  Prest looked impressed. Atira lay back against her blankets. “A song so old. You do us honor, Warprize.”

  “Don’t be so quick to say that.” I smiled at her and the others settling around us. “You haven’t heard it yet.”

  I read for about a half hour. My audience hung on every word, even though the tale talked about numbers of troops, supplies, and the appointing of a Warden for the kingdom. Dull as the story was, it forced me to learn new words as I translated. Rafe and Prest took their positions back at the entrance, but when I saw them straining to hear, I raised my voice slightly. There was silence when I finally stopped and closed the book. Atira cleared her throat. “I’m not sure what your custom is, Warprize. Normally we would give thanks to the singer.”

  “Thanks is good.” I stood and stretched. “I’m glad to share it with you. But now I am hungry. Is the nooning close?”

  Gils jumped up. “I’s be checking.” He darted out the door and ran into someone coming in. “Sorry, Warlord!”

  “Watch where you’re going, boy,” came the gruff response. Rafe and Prest stood as Keir entered the tent. His face was clear of the anger he had shown this morning. “How goes it with—” He stopped abruptly when he saw the book in my hands.

  It was time to confess. “I bought this with your coin yesterday.” I smoothed one hand over its cover nervously. “It’s an old story called The Epic of Xyson. I thought it would distract—”

  “You’re reading to my people?” The surprise in his voice was clear.

  I nodded. “I also bought a primer. A teaching tool. So that I could teach Gils to read my book on herbs.” I chanced a glance at his face.

  Keir looked very satisfied. “You would teach him?” He moved over to gaze down at Atira. “Could she learn as well?”

  “Yes.” I nodded. “If she is willing.”

  Atira’s eyes got even bigger. “Warlord, at your command, I’ll try.”

  Keir narrowed his eyes, nodding. “That is all I ask, Warrior. This is no easy horse to master, but it would please me for you to learn.”

  She nodded her acceptance of the charge.

  Keir arched an eyebrow. “I’ve announced a pattern dance for tomorrow night.”

  Atira brightened, but her face fell quickly. “I’ll miss the dancing, but it’s my pattern they’ll be weaving.” There was pride mixed with the disappointment.

  Keir smiled. “If Simus can be carried to the senel, why not you?”

  I frowned, considering. Keir watched me, focused on my face. “Explain to her, Warrior. Tell her why it is important to you.”

  “Warprize, it’s an honor to be asked to design the pattern.” Atira pleaded with voice and eyes. “To not see my first pattern woven, it’s like a dagger thrust here.” She put her hand over her heart.

  “The leather has dried and hardened. If we are careful, and if you swear that you will not move, and let yourself be carried . . .”

  “All that, all that, I swear, Warprize.”

  Atira was so serious, so earnest, that I had to smile.

  “Well then
, if all is well here, I have something to show you.” Keir tugged on my sleeve and pulled me toward the entrance. Prest and Rafe were also standing there, grinning like fools.

  I gave them a narrow look. “What’s going on?”

  “Nothing.” The reply was in unison. My skepticism must have been obvious, because they all laughed.

  The day had turned overcast, and held the promise of rain. Keir took me by the shoulders and turned me to walk around the corner of the tent. Prest and Rafe were slightly ahead of us.

  There was a second, smaller tent there, that had been put up recently. I looked at Keir, who smiled. Prest and Rafe stood next to the tent flap. “Look!” said Rafe as he pulled the flap aside. Keir gave me a light push and I entered the tent. They followed.

  I stood there, stunned.

  There were all the supplies that I had requested, crates of them, everything that I had asked for, and . . .

  Stillroom equipment. I moved forward, eyes open in wonder. There were flasks, and bowls, and mortar and pestle, and small braziers, and jars and bottles. They covered the three tables in the tent. I turned and stared at Keir. He was smiling, looking back at me. Prest and Rafe were laughing.

  “When did you do this?”

  Keir grinned. “Last night and this morning. When you told me of a ‘stillroom’ and what it contained, I sent Sal to your friend Remn. They gathered what I wanted and what was needed. Now, you have a ‘stilltent,’ yes?” His smile faded as he looked around. “I had not thought . . . these items are fragile. We will need a way to carry it when we move.” He moved around the small tent as he thought. “I will talk to Sal and see what she thinks.”

  I stood there, a tangle of emotions. Joy at the gift. Fear at the idea of leaving. I laid a shaking hand on Keir’s arm. “Thank you.”

  He smiled down at me. “I would help, but Warren is coming for the nooning with some of his men. He has sent a messenger to confirm that he will come, and to tell me that Durst still clings to life with the aid of Eln the Healer.”

  I caught my breath. “Eln is very skilled. I apprenticed to him.”

  Keir cocked his head. “Skilled with porcupine quills?”

  I smiled. “Yes, that too.”

  Keir lifted his chin, a gleam of humor in his eyes. “We will review battles and tell lies about our bravery. Do you wish to attend?”

  I looked around the tent. “There’s so much to do here. Do you mind?”

  “No.” His lips twitched. “Although you are missing Simus at his best, full of food and drink and tales of his prowess.” Keir shook his head. “Prest and Rafe have asked to be there. I will send someone to relieve them.”

  I shrugged and smiled. “I’ll be fine.”

  Keir frowned. “No. They will be relieved. I’ll have food brought to you as well.” He reached up, cradled my head in his hand, and kissed me. His lips lingered on my mouth. “I will be thinking about you.” He lowered his voice. “And about this morning.” He leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “And about tonight.” He stood and smiled at my blush. “Maybe there will be night horrors again tonight?” He chuckled as he left the tent.

  I threw myself into the work, rather than try to think about anything else. Prest and Rafe helped me arrange the tables, with the crates below. It took a while to sort through everything and to get the heavy crates maneuvered into position.

  At last, we were down to one unopened crate. Prest had found something to pry off the top. He and Rafe were wrestling with it when their relief arrived, hailing from outside the tent. With one last heave, Prest pried the lid off. They both scrambled to their feet, eager to go.

  Rafe pulled the new guards inside. “Warprize, this is Epor and Isdra. They will guard while we are gone.” Prest and Rafe turned and left with my thanks floating behind them.

  I smiled at the older man and woman, the same that were with us in the castle. I remembered him for his bright gold hair and beard that shown like the sun. He had a warm, easy smile, and was big, like the paintings of the sun god in the temple. The crinkles at the corners of his eyes and the slight silver at his temples told me that he was older than most Firelanders that I had met. He was different, too, in that he had a long club strapped to his back, the top jutting up like the hilts of Keir’s swords.

  Epor smiled back and nodded. “I am Epor, Warprize. This is Isdra. Let us know if you need help. We’ll be outside if you need us, if Isdra can stop gaping.”

  The woman, who was almost his height but thinner, had a long braid of silver hair that hung down her back. Her skin had a yellow tint to it, and her eyes were oddly slanted. She wore a shield on her back, and a sword and dagger at her side. She’d been busy looking around at all the things in the tent. She seemed a bit more reserved to me, but at Epor’s words, she whipped her head around, flinging the braid, and glared at Epor with her gray eyes flashing. Epor just laughed, and pulled at her braid as they left the tent. I noticed that they each had some kind of metal wire laced along the outer rim of their left ears. It glittered in the light as Isdra turned her head. I’d have to ask Atira what it meant.

  I watched as Epor and Isdra took up stations outside the flap. It still seemed so strange to me, to see women dressed in armor, with weapons they clearly knew how to use. All of the women that I’d seen were so strong, confident of their abilities and secure in their position. I envied them to a degree, having so freely what I had to fight to achieve.

  I turned back to my work and lifted the lid of the last crate.

  I sat down. Hard. And stared.

  It was filled with paper. Ink. Blank journals.

  In one wonderful, horrible moment I knew that I was lost. Keir, Warlord, had taken me, claimed me, made me his warprize. But somewhere, somehow, he had managed to find a way into my heart as well.

  How had this happened? I’d given myself to a barbarian, a ravaging, crazed warlord, expecting little more than abuse and dishonor at his hands. But this man had offered nothing but kindness and respect to me, his property. I knew this gift was by his hand. I’d not spoken to Sal about paper or ink, and she’d not understand its importance.

  Could he care so much that he paid attention to this tiny detail?

  Did he want me to be happy?

  I clutched one of the journals to my chest as my emotions overwhelmed me. Joy and confusion warred with one another. My mouth went dry, and I closed my eyes. What would happen when we returned to his home? Such a warrior as Keir had other . . . conquests. At least five. Of that I was certain. The image of him in another’s arms came to me and I felt sick. I closed my eyes and let the nausea pass through me.

  Keir moved his hand, running his fingers through my hair, spreading it out over the fur. His eyes flared blue light. “Want to know the best part of being a warlord?” I just looked up and nodded. Keir grinned. “I always get what I want.”

  I put my head down. The pain threatened to overwhelm me. Please Goddess, let him want me. Let him want me forever.

  Enough. I sat up and scrubbed at my face with my sleeve. I had work to do.

  I returned to the tent to check on my patients. The man was well; drowsy after eating. Atira was awake, though, and gestured me over when she saw me. I waved Gils off, since I knew he had other duties, and moved to sit by her side.

  “Warprize.” Atira looked deeply concerned. “Warprize, may I have your token?” She looked anxious and worried.

  I reached for one of her stones and handed it to her. “You hold my token, Atira. What truths would you voice?”

  She hesitated, looking at me closely. “I have heard a rumor in the camp about you, and I would ask you if it is true, and voice a truth if it is indeed true.”

  I had to think for a minute. “A rumor? About me?”

  “About your people.” She nodded. “And you.” She rubbed the stone between her fingers. “Is it true that you are untouched? That your people do not mate until they bond?”

  I reared back, physically. Consciously or not, Atira did so as
well, keeping a tight grip on the token and holding it up between us. It took me a minute to gather my wits. “Atira, who told you—”

  “Skies above, it’s true,” she whispered, staring at me in utter horror. “You bind when young and sleep only with your bonded?”

  I managed a nod, my face so hot it hurt.

  “Who teaches you then? Who instructs . . . ?” Her voice trailed off as she looked at my eyes. “No one? You are both left to fumble about?” She collapsed back on the cot in silence.

  I closed my eyes and pressed my fingers to my cheeks to try to cool them.

  “None told me, Warprize. I listened to the stories of your people, and the Warlord’s intent to follow your ways, and made a guess. But I must say this. Stupid. That is so stupid, Warprize.”

  I looked at her, puzzled. “What is that word? Stupid?”

  “Dull-witted. Foolish. Ignorant.” Her angry face glowered at me. “We have initiators. Teachers. Joden is one. He would be an excellent choice. You should request him.” She sounded like a parent recommending a Master to study under.

  I choked up, laughter and tears both in my throat, trying to find the words. “ Atira, we believe that two people should come to the bonding . . . untouched . . . and learn together.”

  She shook her head, and held up the token. “The Warlord said to learn and respect different ways. But that is barbaric and stupid.” She held the stone out to me, frowning as she did so.

  I took the stone. “I thank you for your truth, Atira. As you say, our ways are very different.”

  “All I ask is that you think on my words, Warprize. Keir is experienced, but he is not an initiator. You have no thea to advise you in your choice, but come to me after you have thought on this and we will talk. I will mention this to no one.”

  I fled to the stilltent to throw myself into a frenzy of the familiar.

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