Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

AS I HAD SO OFTEN IN THE PAST, I LOST MYSELF IN my work. Soon, I had various pots simmering and bubbling on the tables. A double batch of fever’s foe was cooling in some jars on the far table. I had a jug of my rose-hip tea steeping in the corner. There were papers set out on every available surface as I tried to reconstruct my recipes for the various salves and lotions that I had made over the years. I had no marvelous memory to rely on, and I found it hard going. It would be easier when I started mixing, since my nose would remember the smells as I worked. At least, that was my hope.

  I also hoped that the warmth that lingered on my cheeks was from the effort, and not from the discussion. Dearest Goddess, initiators? Would I be called on to bear five children? And what if Keir couldn’t father five children on me? Would I be required to “use” someone else?

  There was a noise at the entrance, and I looked up to see Marcus wrapped in a cloak, carrying a large basket. He fixed me with that one eye. “As Hisself thought. Past the nooning, and you with no food in or near you.” He tsk’ed at the look on my face. “Aye, lost in your work, as I expected. Well then that one of us has the common sense the elements gave all creatures.” He looked around. “Already? No space for food or drink?” I laughed and we pulled out some crates to sit on. He pulled out some dishes and a flask from his basket. I dug in, suddenly starved. Marcus was wandering around and sniffing my concoctions.

  “Is Warren still here?” I asked around a mouthful of food.

  “Aye.” Marcus sniffed the fever’s foe. “They’re swilling kavage and telling old war tales.” He rolled his eye. “From the sound, one would think that they were fighting all the battles over again.”

  “Marcus?”

  “Aye?” he replied, still poking around.

  I cleared my throat. “What happened to you?”

  He turned swiftly and stared at me. I thought I might have offended him, but he snorted. “Healers.” He laughed quietly. “I figured you’d ask eventually.” He pulled up a crate and sat down. “All right then, ’tis simple enough. Ever hear of fiery pitch?” He gestured for me to keep eating, so I just shook my head.

  “Thought not.” He sighed. “Nasty stuff. It’s flung against an enemy. It’s a substance that burns when fired and sticks to whatever it touches.” He studied his feet. “I was in such a battle, and was stupid enough to have my head up when a shot landed nearby. I caught just the edge of it, but ’twas enough.” He sighed. “It coated me and burned and burned. I’d thought better to die, but a young warrior, barely dry behind the ears, would not listen to my plea for mercy.” He looked up, serious. “Hisself would not do it. He would not let me go. Through the pain and fear of the days that followed, he would not let me go.”

  Marcus stood. “When it was done, and I was healed, well . . . my days of battle were over. I would not last on the field for long with a blind side.” His hands flexed at his sides, and he rubbed his face and head with them. “The sorrow of that loss hurt worse than the burns.” His hands lowered and his one eye looked off in the distance. “Hisself cursed me for a fool, and made me his bearer.” Marcus shrugged. “I have served him ever since.”

  “So he did the same thing Joden did.” I thought for a moment. “Was he punished?”

  Marcus had to laugh at that. “No, Warprize, not in the sense that you mean. I was a simple warrior, no second-in-command. Keir’s refusal was not treated well, and caused many a comment, but you’ve seen him fight. There’s none that would challenge. Many took his token and criticized him for the violation of tradition, but he answered to their truths every time.”

  He stood and wrapped the cloak about him, covering himself completely. “Nay, Joden’s action was different. His failure to give mercy resulted in Simus being captured, and there’s the point, Warprize. While Keir supports him and Simus has thanked him, there will be larger problems with the Council of Elders. Aye, and maybe with the Singers, too.

  “How did the healers . . .”

  Marcus grimaced. “I have no idea who did what, or how, and no wish to remember the details. It was long ago, Warprize.” He glared at me and pointed at the plate of food. “Eat. I must return to the tent and see if Hisself requires anything.” He smirked and raised an eyebrow. “Simus is telling his tall tales, and those city-dwellers are believing every word. I needs get back and poke holes in the bucket he carries his conceit in.”

  I chuckled as he left the tent.

  I worked as I ate, jotting down notes as I recalled the recipes. When they were done, I set the pots to cooling. I had time to distill a cough remedy that I remembered, if I could find the ingredients in the crates. I looked to see if I had remembered to get honey. Added, it would sweeten the brew.

  Suddenly, there were noises outside, of men and horses. The flap opened, and Isdra stepped in. “Warprize, there are wounded.”

  “Wounded?” I jumped up, removed my last pot from the brazier, tied back my hair, and hurried out.

  The healing tent was filled with milling men as the wounded were brought in. The captain of the scouts saw me and hurried over.

  “Warprize. There are six wounded men. The worst is a gut wound, we have placed him at the back of the tent. The rest are fairly minor, although there are a number of deep slashes and cuts.” He took a deep breath. “I’ve sent a message to the Warlord.”

  I nodded, thinking quickly. The gut wound was my first concern. With Gils at my side, I gathered up water and cloths. I got him started helping the more mobile patients. Atira was awake, but only moved so far as to prop herself up on pillows. I headed toward the back, fearing what I would find.

  Two men stood over the man writhing on the cot. The one looked familiar under his helmet, but my eyes were drawn to the wounded man. His bloody hands clutched at the hilt of a dagger that had been driven into his groin. Blood seeped between his fingers. I swallowed hard. Ah, Goddess, it was a bad one.

  I knelt by the cot, putting the water and cloths beside me. “I am a healer, let me help you.” I reached over, trying to move his hands from the weapon and get a better look. “Gently, gently.” I pried back the man’s hands and checked with my own.

  There was no wound. There was blood, but no injury. The dagger was flat against his belly, up under the armor. Puzzled, I looked up and into eyes I recognized. “Arneath?”

  I staggered back. Those eyes held no pain, rather they held a fury I had never seen before. Before I could react, he was off the cot, lunging at me. He had one hand around my throat, the other clutched the dagger. He bore me to the ground, and we fell back. My breath huffed out, his weight falling full on my stomach. The hand at my throat squeezed, cutting off my breath.

  Arneath’s companions reacted as well. I caught a brief glimpse as they drew their weapons, yelled, and charged the wounded. There were screams and sounds of fighting all around us.

  Arneath swung his hand up, dagger flashing. It plunged down just as swiftly. I managed to get my hands up to grab his wrist. But Arneath had his full strength behind it, and the dagger continued toward my heart slowly but surely. Arneath squeezed my throat again, cutting off air and sound. His eyes gleamed with a mad brightness. “Die, traitorous bitch.”

  With what strength I had, I fought to deflect the blade. The weapon plunged down, the pain flared up, and the darkness embraced me.

  “OPEN YOUR EYES, LITTLE HEALER.” THE WHISPER was soft, but insistent. Simus’s voice seeped through the blackness and the pain, soft and quiet, with an underlying urgency to the sound.

  “Little healer, open your eyes. Wake for me.”

  I moved my head toward the sound, but stopped when pain flared up. The air that I pulled in was tainted with the scent of blood and death.

  “Thank the skies.” Simus’s voice took on a new urgency, even as he whispered. “Don’t move, little one. Just open your eyes and speak. Keir needs you.”

  Keir needed me? I dragged my lids up.

  Keir was standing over me, swords in hand. He was splattered with blood, poised as if for battle,
on guard against an opponent.

  “At last.” Simus’s voice was coming from the side, still soft and low. I turned my head slowly, to see his black face on the ground, pushed under the back wall of the tent. His features were tight, but he flashed a smile at me. “Warprize, Keir is raging. Try to call him back.”

  I couldn’t really see, couldn’t tell what had happened. I licked my lips and panted against the pain. “Keir?” My voice was little more than a whisper itself, my throat in agony.

  Keir’s eyes flickered down, then back up, as if watching for the enemy. His swords were coated with blood.

  “Keep trying, little one,” Simus whispered. “He doesn’t know us and won’t let us in the tent. Battle rage, eh? You understand?”

  I’d heard of it. Hadn’t someone in the Epic suffered the affliction? I blinked a bit, confused.

  Simus spoke again, urgently. “Stay with me, little one. Stay awake.”

  “Keir.” I tried to clear my throat and my voice strengthened slightly. “Let them help. They’re friends.” His eyes settled on mine, wary, suspicious, then flicked back to the tent walls. I shifted a bit, trying to get a better look, but that proved a mistake. A cry escaped me as the pain ran over me in a wave. I couldn’t move my shoulder.

  “Warprize?” Simus’s worried tone cut through the gray that swamped my vision.

  Keir snarled, one sword pointed toward Simus, the other at the entrance. There were others outside, I could hear their voices. The tent walls vibrated when they moved.

  I swallowed back my fear and panic. “Simus, get everyone quiet and away from the tent.”

  Simus’s face disappeared and there were murmurs outside. Keir tensed, his swords held at the ready, blood running down the tang. I flicked my eyes away from that, and tried to slow my breathing. The quiet seemed to help, for it seemed that Keir’s stance changed slightly.

  “Keir.” My voice grew stronger. “Warlord.”

  His eyes met mine again, but this time they seemed more puzzled than wary. I smiled at him weakly. “Let Simus come in.” I closed my eyes and took a breath against the pain, afraid that I’d lose consciousness again.

  “Simus?” Keir’s voice was rough, almost a growl.

  “Friends. Be easy, Keir. They will help us. Simus,” I called. “Take off your weapons, and come in.”

  I heard a rustling and movement outside. Simus or someone was slowly cutting the back wall of the tent, making an entrance. Keir spun, placing himself between me and the widening gap.

  Simus crawled through, on hands and knees, dragging his wounded leg behind him. Keir tracked his every move with the tips of his swords. Simus stopped just out of reach and lowered himself to lie on the floor. “My Warlord, the enemy is slain and all is secure. What is your command?”

  Keir stared at him for a bit, then lowered his swords slowly. “Simus?” His voice was rough and puzzled. “What . . . ?”

  Simus did not raise his head. “Battle rage, Warlord.”

  Keir was already looking around, turning this way and that. His eyes fell on me. “Skies.” Through a haze, I saw him drop his swords and kneel by my side. Simus reached over and pulled the weapons to his side. “Get in here and help her!” Keir roared.

  I would have laughed, but it hurt too damn much.

  Gils appeared beside me, muscling his way in. Joden appeared from nowhere and grabbed at Keir’s shoulders, pulling him back. “Let the boy work.”

  “Warprize, can you hear me?” My vision was graying, but I could make out a shock of red hair and anxious eyes. Gils turned away, then suddenly there was a movement under my nose. A deep breath and suddenly everything was bright and sharp. The scent from the crushed leaves in Gils’s hand cleared my confusion.

  “Warprize.” Gils swallowed hard, and continued with a shaky voice. “The dagger went through your upper arm to the hilt. It holds you pinned to the tent floor.” He swallowed a sob. “There’s be a lot of blood.”

  Well, that certainly explained a few things. I trembled for a moment, but not from the cold. Images returned, memories of what had happened. “What of the others?” I forced the words out past the pain. “Atira?”

  Keir grunted. Gils spoke quickly. “You’re the worst.”

  Simus nodded. “Tell us what to do.”

  “Roll me over so that the dagger comes clear. Clean it well, then pull it from my arm.” I took another deep breath. The scent of the leaves was still there. “Gils, you will need to clean and dress the wound. Use boiled skunk cabbage, there is some in the tent.” Another tremble went though my body. It seemed that I was teaching a class from some distance away. “Get me warm and watch for signs of fever.” The haze was back, the leaves could not stave it off any longer. I could just make out Gils’s nod and worried look. “You’ll do fine,” I whispered. “Simus.”

  “Warprize.” Simus was still with Keir.

  “Once it’s clean, I want you to pull out the dagger.” Keir started to object, but I didn’t let him continue. “Warlord.” I managed to lift my other hand. Keir knelt and took it. “Let them do what they must.” I caught his eyes with mine. “I will be fine.”

  Simus knelt by my side. Gils knelt next to him, poised with supplies. They shifted me slightly, and I gasped at the sensation. I tried to focus on Keir’s eyes through the haze. They were so blue, so frightened.

  Frightened?

  Puzzled, I opened my mouth to ask why at the same moment that Simus pulled the dagger out. The pain cut through the haze nicely, revealing the blackness beyond.

  CHAPTER 9

  I DIDN’T WANT TO WAKE UP; THE DARKNESS where I floated was warm and comfortable. But my ears ached from the sound of an angry voice that pulled at me. I cracked my eyes open, only to squeeze them shut as the bright light burned them. The voice continued, ranting in its fury. I eased my eyelids up again, squinting to let them adjust.

  I was in Keir’s bed. The tent seemed to glow it was so bright.

  “Ah. There’s my girl.” A whisper caught my attention.

  “Eln?” I turned my head slowly, my neck achy and stiff. Eln was sitting on the bed next to me, holding a small bowl. I stared at him, puzzled.

  “It’s me, child.” He kept his voice low. “How do you feel?”

  “Feel?” I didn’t understand, but even more confusing was the angry voice that had not stopped or cooled. I turned my head slowly back to discover that the tent wall had been rolled up. Keir was pacing back and forth where the wall normally hung between bedroom and meeting area. Still dressed in black leathers, the silver wrist bands catching the light and glittering as he moved like a large cat. A large, angry cat. I could just see the tops of heads beyond him, filling the meeting area. Something wasn’t right. I sat up.

  Rather, I tried to sit up. The arm I asked to support me objected mightily, and I gasped at the pain. In that instant it all came back, details of the attack flooding into my head.

  Keir was by the bed in an instant. He half climbed into the center, and placed a hand on my chest to keep me flat. “You’re awake. Warprize, are you all right?” He was speaking my tongue.

  I eased back onto the pillows. “I think my arm is going to fall off.” My voice was a croak.

  Keir sucked in a breath.

  “It’s not going to fall off,” Eln responded firmly. He frowned at me and gave a sharp jerk of his head, telling me in a not-so-subtle manner to watch my tongue. “I’m sure it hurts, but the wound is clean and well bandaged. There is bruising on your neck, but no real damage. You will recover fully.” Gils hovered behind Eln, his face tight with worry. Eln continued, “Your student did well, Lara.”

  Keir snarled. “One of the few who did well.” He returned to his feet. “Tend to her,” he snapped as he resumed his pacing. None of the others had stirred.

  I lay back on the bed as Eln leaned forward and placed his hand on my forehead. Gils stood next to him, nervously watching us.

  “Eln, how—”

  “Kidnapped from my home by mounte
d warriors and slung over a saddle like a sack of meal.” Eln snorted as he checked my heartbeat. “It took a while before someone who spoke our language explained what had happened.”

  “How long have I been out?” I asked, still sounding rough. Gils flicked a look from my face to Eln’s and back.

  Eln grunted. “I don’t know. You were unconscious when I arrived, and I have been here for a quarter of an hour.”

  I repeated my question to Gils in his language.

  “Warprize, you were unconscious for about an hour. I’s did the best I could, but I told the Warlord to send for a real healer from the city, and I knew your teacher’s name.” His face was pale under his red hair. “I’s told him that I’s your apprentice.”

  Eln raised his eyebrows when he heard a familiar word. “Your ‘apprentice’ did a fine job of cleaning and binding the wound. I have checked it, and it would seem that stitches are not required.” Eln inclined his head toward the lad. “You might tell him that for me.”

  I did, and Gils collapsed next to the bed, his body seeming to fold under the weight of his fears. “I’s so scared, Warprize. That I’s be hurting you, that the Warlord be hurting me . . .” Keir’s angry voice was raised again. Gils swallowed hard. “I’s think most of the blood we saw be your attackers, not yours.”

  Eln produced a cup. “I want you to drink this, then sleep.”

  I smelled the contents. “Lotus? No, Eln. I want my wits about me.”

  “More fever’s foe then, and water.” Eln didn’t fuss at my refusal.

  I looked into the main tent, at the heads that remained lowered, as Keir moved back and forth. “What is going on?” I asked.

  Eln looked over his shoulder. “From the tone, I believe the Warlord is going to start ordering executions.”

  I struggled up, heedless of my arm. Gils moved to support me, kneeling behind me on the bed.

  Keir’s voice was razor sharp. “I am looking for answers as to how the warprize came to be attacked inside my own camp, while she was under the protection of my warriors.” His head swung angrily toward the kneeling warriors, and I could hear the snarl of an infuriated cat in his voice.

 
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