Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

  Dearest Goddess, he was angry. The tent contained Epor and Isdra, the captain of the patrol, his men, Simus, Prest, and Rafe. Many of them had bandages as well. General Warren and his men were also on their knees, heads bowed. I thought I saw Iften’s blond head, way in the back. Everyone was on their knees, with the only exception being Simus, who was sitting on a stump near Keir.

  Keir continued, pacing all the while. “This much I know. My patrol came across six men of the City Watch, who claimed to have been hurt in some type of attack.” His voice was cold and hard as he glared at the hapless captain of the patrol. “They rendered assistance by escorting them to the warprize.” His tone was of one who had been offended.

  “Which was what your warprize had requested.” I kept my voice calm and moderate.

  Keir swivelled his head to look at me. He gave me a hard look and turned away.

  “Once they were in the tent, they attacked as soon as the warprize was vulnerable.” He resumed his pacing.

  “Once in the tent, I tended the most severely injured. That is my job as Master Healer.”

  Keir turned back and glared at me. “There was no injury. It was a trap, an assassin’s trick aimed at your death.” He swung back to the men. “The so-called wounded attacked you and everyone else in the tent.”

  Goddess. “Was anyone else hurt?” I whispered to Gils, as I scanned the crowd.

  He lowered his head to my ear. “No, Warprize. We’d just enough warning to get out of the way and let the patrol and your guards handle them.” He paused, and a look of awe came over his face. “Atira killed her assailant and didn’t disturb her leg at all.” He was clearly impressed by her actions. “And when the Warlord burst into the tent . . .” He shuddered and continued quietly. “We’re never gonna figure out which head goes with which body.”

  Keir was still ranting. “When I learn who was behind it, I will . . .”

  I leaned against Gils, feeling very tired. “Arneath.” It took almost all my energy to speak his name.

  General Warren’s head came up and he stared at me.

  I nodded. “It was Arneath, a member of the Palace Guard.” I closed my eyes. “I think one of them was Degnan. I didn’t recognize the others.”

  “Degnan? Son of Durst?” Keir sounded outraged. I heard a low growl, and opened my eyes again. Keir was towering over General Warren, his sword in his hand. Warren was smart enough to jerk his head back down and keep it bent. “This was a trick, your presence, the Watch . . .” Keir’s voice was low and keen and deadly.

  Warren didn’t move. “No. The day my King swore fealty to you, you became my liege. I am a soldier and a man of honor. I would never allow a hand to be raised against a Daughter of Xy.” He lifted his head and looked Keir squarely in the eye. Keir stood there, and I held my breath, thinking to see the man strike as he had in the throne room. Instead, Keir sheathed his sword.

  Warren spoke. “Let me return to the castle and make inquiry. I’ll return with the information, and if my people planned this, you may have my life. Do not let the actions of a few destroy the peace.”

  “I believe him.” I added my voice, hoarse as it was.

  Keir did not respond, but resumed his pacing. I could see that every muscle was tense. His jaw was tight, and the muscles at the back of his jaw seemed to pulse with anger. I felt uncomfortable, disheveled and lying in the bed, when everyone was in the room. My arm ached, throbbed. I shifted it slightly, and stifled a cry when the pain flared sharper.

  Keir was at my side in an instant. “You must rest.” He fixed Gils with a glare. Gils moved with all due haste to get me back down on the bed. Keir turned.

  “Warren. Take the dead and return to the castle. Inform me of what you find.” He gestured with his hand, switching to his own tongue. “Leave us. All of you.”

  Men rose and left quickly. Simus had two men to help him walk out. Eln quirked his mouth. “I take it we are being dismissed.” He rose from the bed. “I will check your patients before I go. With your ‘apprentice.’”

  “Healer.” Keir held out a bag of coins. “For your trouble.” He tossed it to Eln.

  Eln stood tall and regal, and watched the bag as it arched toward him and fell to the floor with a plinking sound. He looked straight into Keir’s eyes, his eyebrows arched in quiet anger. “Long before she was your warprize, she was my friend and student.” He looked down at me and warmth returned to his face. “Be well, Lara. If it is permitted, I’ll check on you again.” He left with that slow stride of his, with Gils in tow.

  Epor and Isdra had remained on their knees, and their presence drew Keir’s attention. “Leave.”

  Epor raised his head. “Warlord, we failed you.” Isdra nodded her agreement.

  Keir scooped up the bag of coins and stood looking at it for a moment, the small muscle in his jaw throbbing.

  Marcus cleared his throat. “Body guarding is far different from warrior’s work. Who knew wounded would rise to the attack?”

  Keir glared at Marcus, who returned the look, unimpressed.

  “Warlord, we feel the shame of this, Epor and I.” Isdra spoke. “We ask the chance to wipe this disgrace away.”

  I felt the need to speak. “It wasn’t their fault.”

  Keir’s glare scorched my skin. “It was. They were to protect you.” He tossed the small bag of coins onto one of the chests. I opened my mouth to respond, but a quick gesture from Marcus kept me silent. After long moments, Keir spoke. “Return to your duties. But never let this happen again.”

  “Never again,” Epor confirmed.

  “Our lives for hers,” Isdra pledged.

  At a gesture from Keir they were up and out of the tent. Marcus silently lowered the tent wall. Keir moved to the braziers and started to add coal. “Keir,” I said quietly. He did not turn.

  Marcus came up beside me and fussed with the furs. “Some broth? Some wine, or kavage?”

  I nodded. “Yes, Marcus, please. Broth and kavage.”

  He shot a glance at Keir’s back, then left on his errand. Keir was standing, staring into the sullen coals. “Keir, please. I need your help.” He turned, looking at me with haunted eyes. I started to struggle to sit up. He was there in an instant, helping me. “Privy,” I said, smiling at him. He swept me up, and carried me to the room. No smile. No response. After the business was done, he carried me back, placed me gently on the bed, and pulled the covers up tight. He sat there, staring at me, stroking my hair. I put my hand to his face. “Keir, what . . .”

  Marcus walked in, carrying a tray. Keir got up and resumed pacing. Marcus helped me sit up. “Soup I had simmering,” he murmured. “Drink it all.” His one eye glared at me as he set the bowl in my hands. I sipped obediently, enjoying the warmth. It tasted good. Rich, salty, with a bit of spice I didn’t recognize. The salt clung to my lips and stung slightly. I took a few more sips, relishing the flavor before I identified the aftertaste. “Marcus, you drugged this!”

  “Aye.” Marcus stood, unrepentant. “Gils and the tall one gave it to me. Will do you good. Finish the bowl.” Marcus picked up the wine jug and poured some into a cup.

  “And this for you.” He thrust the cup at Keir.

  “No.” Keir turned away.

  Marcus frowned, but turned back to me and eyed the bowl in my hands. I gave up, knowing that Eln had been right, but unwilling to take my own medicine. Besides, my neck and arm ached. I finished the bowl and handed it to Marcus.

  “Leave us,” Keir growled.

  Marcus picked up the dishes, caught my eye, and nodded in Keir’s direction. I nodded back, pleased that he trusted me to take care of Keir. The tension in his face eased with understanding, and he left the room.

  Keir was still moving about, still wound up. I settled into the furs and pillows, already feeling the effects of the lotus. Keir knelt by the bed. “Are you well?”

  I smiled. “Fine. Marcus is right, sleep will help.” I yawned and shifted around, trying to get comfortable.

  He l
ooked at me intensely. “You could have been killed. If I hadn’t heard the noise and headed over, he would have killed you.” Something in his face closed off. “If you had died, the peace would have broken.”

  Alarmed, I tried to force my eyes open. “The peace is more important than any one person.”

  Keir took a few of the pillows, and moved them to support my arm. “Don’t fight it. Close your eyes.”

  I looked up through half-lidded eyes, unable to resist the pull of the drug. He seemed so tired, so worn. He kissed me softly. “Sleep.”

  “If you will.”

  He shook his head. “No.” But he eased onto the bed, setting his sword close at hand and gathering me in with the other arm. “Sleep.”

  Exhaustion pulled at me, but I resisted a moment more. “Keir. Don’t do anything . . .” I couldn’t think of the word.

  “Rash?” Keir asked softly.

  “Stupid.” I yawned, and heard his chuckle as I floated off.

  I AWOKE TO THE DARK TENT AND THE SOUND OF rhythmic steps. It took a moment to orient myself. Everything seemed slightly fuzzy, which was one of the effects of lotus. It was tempting to drift back into the warmth and the darkness, but the sound of the pacing drew me out of the covers.

  Keir was pacing back and forth. I yawned and watched him move in those black leathers. I frowned when I realized that he hadn’t gotten any sleep. “Keir? What are you doing?”

  “Keeping watch. You are under my protection. You have been hurt. It will never happen again.”

  My eyes widened at that, and the fuzziness receded slightly. I managed to get up on my good arm and stare at him. “Keir, there is an entire army out there. They can . . .”

  “It wasn’t good enough, was it.” He paused and looked at me. “It will be tonight. I put the entire army on alert, with double watches.”

  I groaned, closed my eyes, and let my head sink back on the pillows. No one was getting any sleep tonight.

  Keir came to my side. “Are you well? Should I call Gils?” I studied him, and the lines of worry on his face.

  “Keir,” I spoke very firmly. “Take them off the alert.”

  His frown deepened. “You must be—”

  Enough. I interrupted. “I’m safe. I’m here with you.” I curled myself down into the bed. Keir hesitated, then moved to the flap and went out. I lay in a kind of stupor, imagining an entire army of warriors muttering about having to protect the Warlord’s prize. With double watches, yet. I yawned, closed my eyes, and drifted.

  At some point Keir came in and stood by me. I reached out from under the covers, taking his hand. It was cold, and I could feel the tension in his muscles. I yawned and tugged. He looked at me oddly, but allowed himself to be pulled under the covers. I moved over, letting him have the warm spot. Through the haze, I could feel his body was easing a bit. I moved closer, putting my head on his chest. The black leather warmed slowly under my cheek.

  We lay there for a moment, warming each other. I yawned again, and my jaw cracked. He chuckled and stroked my hair. “You should go back to sleep.”

  I raised my head and tried to focus, but it was a losing battle.

  Keir’s chest rumbled with another laugh. “I think you will be sleeping late tomorrow, Warprize.”

  Tomorrow. I dropped my head back down. “What is a pattern dance?”


  I raised my all too heavy head. “What is a pattern dance?”

  “A group dance. Many men and women dancing in a pattern that they weave with their bodies.” I felt Keir shrug. “It’s hard to explain. You have to see it to understand.”

  “See it tomorrow.” For some reason I felt happy about the prospect.

  Keir’s hand stilled. “I canceled the dance.”

  I tried to lift my head again, but only succeeded in rolling off Keir’s chest to lie by his side. I managed to focus on his eyes. “They’ll hate me.”

  He turned onto his side to face me. “They won’t blame you.”

  I lost the focus, and his face blurred. The next yawn made my eyes water, and my jaw cracked again. I said something, but it came out all fuzzy. Like my vision.

  Keir sighed, and shifted, moving out from under the covers. He tucked me in, letting none of the cooler air touch me. “I’ll take care of it. Sleep.”

  I drifted off, wondering what I had said.

  THE EVIL TASTE IN MY MOUTH WOKE ME FIRST. ANOTHER of the effects of lotus. The irony of suffering the same effects that my own patients complained about was not lost on me. I would have to remember that the next time I dosed someone with it. It wouldn’t stop me from giving it to them, but I’d try to be more sympathetic.

  The bed was empty, and I could tell that it was fairly late in the day. My stomach was reminding me that I had missed at least two meals. I stretched under the blanket, being careful not to include the arm. The worst of it was my neck, stiff and sore. The arm hurt as well, and I really didn’t want to move.

  The tent flap from the main room opened, and Keir stuck his head in. “You’re awake.”

  I nodded as I moved to sit on the edge of the bed, feeling heavy and dull. I still had my trous on, but my shirt had been removed. My breast band had dried blood on it, and I made a face.

  Keir pressed his lips together as he studied my throat. I grimaced, imagining that the bruising was at its worst now. “I’ll get Marcus for hot food, and kavage. We’ll send for Gils.”

  “I want a bath.”

  Keir cocked his head. I repeated my request. He frowned. “Marcus can bring warm . . .”

  “No.” I gripped his arm with my good hand and tried to pull myself up. Keir helped me without even thinking about it. “I want a bath now. I stink. I don’t care what the water is like.”

  Keir blinked. I stood there for a moment, getting my balance, and waited to see if I would be dizzy or nauseous. Yet another effect of the drug.

  Keir frowned. “Gils needs to check—”

  “Gils can check it after I have bathed.”

  “Gils said—”

  “Who is the healer here?” I took a step.

  His lips quirked. “Master Healer, if I remember right.”

  I smiled. “The Master wants a bath.”

  He smiled. “Then Master, you shall have one.” He wrapped his arm around my waist as we walked together to the privy. Thank the Goddess for his people’s attitude toward cleanliness. I was grateful that he didn’t question my need to be clean any further.

  Once inside, Keir placed one of the wooden blocks on the washing platform, and I sat to strip off my trous and breast band. They were both soiled, but not harmed. As long as I moved slowly, the pain was no more than a dull ache. Keir put water within my reach, then handed me soap and a cloth. I got a whiff of the soap and held it to my nose. It smelled like vanilla. I looked at him, but he wore an innocent expression on his face.

  Marcus called from the other room, and Keir moved about, taking a bucket of hot coals for the brazier, and more water. I washed out my breast band as the room warmed. I lathered up the soap and started on my face and neck, enjoying the scent of home. The arm wasn’t a problem, as long as I didn’t try to raise it, or use that hand over much. I hummed quietly to myself as I washed. The tepid water felt wonderful on my skin, and I was careful to keep the wound dry as I worked.

  Keir came back in and settled in the corner, where the shadows were deepest. I glanced over quickly, but could only make out his eyes, gleaming in the darkness. I blushed slightly, bit my lip, but kept going. It felt uncomfortable to be watched so, but it was also somehow satisfying, to know that I was the object of his interest. My feelings confused me, so I concentrated on getting clean. When I reached my groin, I sensed a slight movement in the corner, but I moved on quickly to legs and feet and toes.

  Keir did move forward at that point, bringing another bucket of water over to me. It had been closer to the brazier, which meant the water was slightly warmer. I used a bowl to rinse with, for fear of getting the woun
d wet. Once done, I wrapped up in the towels that he gave me. I decided against washing my hair. I was tired and felt a trembling that indicated I needed to eat. Instead, I grabbed a comb and tried to stand.

  Keir swept me up, and carried me into the bedroom, placing me on one of the stumps close to a brazier.

  “I can walk, you know.” I started to comb my hair. “Your turn.”

  Keir made a negative gesture.

  I lifted my head, sniffed the air, and raised an eyebrow.

  He took the hint. He went out and brought in two more buckets of water, and fed the brazier again. Then he returned, stood in the center of the room, and looked at me.

  I rested my eyes on him. He was glorious in that black leather, which fit him like a glove yet let him move like a cat. He lifted a hand to his collar and started to loosen the lacings of his jerkin.

  I couldn’t look away. He pulled the lacings out ever so slowly, pulling them out to their full length, then starting on the next one. When he finished, he lifted the ends of his shirt, and ever so slowly pulled the leather up and over his head.

  I stopped combing.

  The man was certainly healthy. I swallowed hard. The faint light of the brazier shone over his muscles as he carefully placed his leather jerkin on one of the benches. He sat to remove his boots, and the thick socks underneath. He sat for a minute and wiggled his toes. He stood and nonchalantly started to unlace his trous. Slowly.

  I turned my back to him. I’d cared for many a naked man in my time, but the sight of Keir’s body was different somehow. It affected me. Made me want to reach out and touch him—to feel those muscles move under his skin. To experience more of his touch, and maybe a few of his kisses. The idea made me shiver.

  I could feel his amusement on the back of my neck. There were sounds behind me, as he removed the trous. I bit my lip again, finding that the imagining might be even more embarrassing than the actual seeing. My fingers continued to run the comb through my hair, but my mind was elsewhere. The sounds stopped.

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