Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

  He drew my hair off to the side, and kissed my neck.

  I jerked as lightning coursed through my body. Tingles ran from my neck right to the soles of my feet. I turned my head quickly, but all I saw was a brief glimpse of the tent flap falling into place behind him. I sat for a minute, waiting for the tingling sensation to pass. My hand kept combing my hair, but it took a long time for the sensation of his lips to leave my skin.

  BY THE TIME KEIR EMERGED, MARCUS WAS LOADING the table with too much food, and Gils had crept quietly into the tent to change my bandage.

  For something that felt like an enormous hole in my arm, the wound was small. It looked good, with no signs of angered flesh or swelling. Gils changed the bandage with meticulous and agonizing slowness. I complimented him on his work, and then meekly accepted a dose of fever’s foe. He’d brought some of the liniment, and he applied it carefully to my neck, all the while casting glances at the privy entrance as if Keir was going to leap out at any moment, battle-raged and swords in hand.

  Finally, Gils sat back on his heels, looking satisfied. “I’s checked Atira, Warprize, and she’s well. And Simus let me look at his leg.”

  “How is it?” I asked.

  We were both startled when Simus replied. “It’s well, little healer.” Simus entered the tent, grinning at me. “If it can take me running to the healing tent and crawling on the ground, then I think I can walk on it well enough.”

  “Simus . . .” I chided.

  His teeth gleamed in a smile. “It’s not like I’m going to join in the dancing today.” His face turned serious. “How’s the arm?”

  “I’m fine.” I smiled at him. “Gils is seeing to me.”

  Gils stood, gathering his supplies. “I’s see you at the dance, Warprize. I’s chores to do before then.”

  Simus sat on the bed, next to me. “Marcus! I need kavage!”

  I looked at them both. “I thought the dance was canceled.”

  Gils stood. “Oh no, Warprize, the Warlord announced it late last night.” A slight noise from the privy and he was out and gone.

  Marcus brought kavage for both of us, and grimaced at Simus. “I suppose you’ve not eaten yet?”

  Simus laughed.

  Marcus scowled. “I’ve bare enough for these two, much less fill your belly.”

  Keir emerged, dried and dressed. “Simus, join us.”

  Simus smiled broadly.

  Marcus huffed and left. Keir, Simus, and I pulled up stumps and dug into the food. For many minutes, there was only the sound of chewing and dishes being passed. The bowl of gurt was offered to me a number of times, but I politely declined. Simus leaned back first. “Never could figure out how Marcus manages such good food in camp.”

  “Years of practice,” Marcus said as he returned with more kavage and served us all. “There’s not much time before the dance starts.”

  Keir nodded. “Any word from Warren or Xymund?”

  Simus shook his head. “No.”

  Keir scowled, but said nothing as we rose to leave. He merely wrapped his cloak around me, and made as if to sweep me up in his arms. “I can walk.” I fought him off as I also tangled with the smothering cloth as best I could, trying to pull it up so that I wouldn’t trip.

  Simus stifled a laugh. I looked up to see that his eyes were dancing with mirth. “You look like a child playing with her thea’s cloak.” I laughed, curious as to the meaning of the word, but Simus held out his arm for me. “Warprize.”

  Keir growled, and swept me up into his arms, stomping out of the tent. I looked behind to see Simus rolling his eyes and following behind with Marcus.

  THE SKY WAS CLEAR WHEN WE EMERGED AND headed for the gathering area. The entire camp seemed to be headed in that direction, everyone armed. It didn’t look as if they were going to a dance. I wrapped my arms around Keir’s neck. “Will everyone be at the dance?”

  “No.” Keir slowed his walk to allow Simus to catch up with us. “The watches will rotate.” His voice lowered. “I believe you would call that a ‘compromise.’ ”

  The flat area in front of the wooden platform had been cleared and the area was ringed with a circle of unlit torches. We made our way onto the platform, and sat close to the front. There was no formality. We took our seats even as bodies milled in the space in front of the platform. Simus remained standing, looking off into the crowd. He laughed, then pointed. “Here they come.”

  Looking out, I could see that someone was being carried on a cot, much like Simus had been carried to the senel. It was Atira, lying flat on the cot as some of her friends carried her through the crowd. The stones had been removed, but her leg was still in a cast.

  “Bring her up here,” Keir called out, and the cot started to head toward the platform.

  “Warprize!” Atira called out when they drew nearer. “Are you well?”

  “Very well. How’s your leg?” I asked, curious to see how the leather was holding up.

  “It itches.” She complained as they brought her cot up and placed it next to me, so that she had a good view of the grounds. “That gray one came and looked at it, and seemed pleased. Gils has been watching it too.” She smiled at me as she propped herself up. “I’m glad to see that you are well. Scared me to the snows, let me tell you, you being attacked.” She looked around. Keir was kneeling at the edge of the platform, talking to a few of the warriors. She dropped her voice and continued. “I managed to throw a knife and take one out, but got knocked to the ground before I could do more. It was the Warlord’s raging that saved our hides.”

  “Were you there when he . . .” I let my voice trail off, unsure how to ask the question.

  “When he was standing over you?” She rolled her eyes. “Aye, half under my cot and fearing to breathe. I’ve heard tell of battle rage, but never saw it before. Knew enough to lie still and quiet. Good thing you talked him out, Warprize. Not something they can always do.” She flashed me a grin. “But never mind that, there’s a pattern dance to watch!”

  Keir had risen to stand at the very edge. “Would you see a pattern?”

  “AYE!” Every voice seemed to shout, and cheering began.

  Keir held up a small wooden bowl. “Iften, call the dancers forth.”

  Marcus was behind us, wrapped deep in a cloak. He muttered something that I didn’t hear but that Iften picked up as he approached. There was anger on his face as Iften took the bowl from Keir’s hands. But he moved off into the center of the field without a word. Iften held the bowl before him with both hands. “Hear me!”

  The crowd grew quiet.

  “Heyla!” Iften called out.

  “Heyla!” the crowd responded.

  “Who would dance a pattern for us?”

  From all around the circle, nine running figures emerged from the crowd, dashing up to Iften and placing some sort of token in the bowl that he held. As they dropped in their tokens, they continued on, disappearing back into the crowd. The last one jumped up just before he reached the bowl and dropped the token in with a flare, prompting laughter from the crowd. After a pause, Iften raised the bowl over his head. “Let the sky hear our voices.”

  I was startled when a sound like a crack of thunder was heard, until I saw the drummers in the crowd, with large drums at their feet. Each had struck their drums once, and the vibration filled my ears.

  “Let the earth feel our feet.” Iften made a quarter turn to face another part of the crowd. Again the drums sounded. “Let the wind sense our strength.” He paused as the drums sounded in response. “Let the flames see our patterns.” He shouted, as he made another turn. This time, in addition to the drums, the torches were lit. The crowd roared out with the drums at the last call, crying a tremendous “heyla!”

  Iften reached in and pulled a token from the bowl. “Red, dance your pattern,” he called, then moved off the field.

  Again, runners emerged from the crowd. It was a group of ten men and women. They were dressed in tunics and trous, with red headbands, and red s
treamers flowing behind them as they ran. They ran to the center of the field, and stood in a circle. There was a pause, then the drums began to beat a fast, steady measure.

  The dancers took one step forward, linked their arms, and began to dance. It didn’t take me long to see what they were doing. I’d been taught Court dances when I was a child, and seen the romps and rills that the servants danced when they celebrated the harvest. But I had never seen anything like this before. They wove a pattern with their bodies, stepping in then out of the circle, then around each other to form the circle again. Just when I was sure they were coming to an end, from nowhere they produced wooden sticks, like axe handles, and started to beat out a counter rhythm to the drums. On each other’s sticks.

  I watched, amazed, waiting for someone to hit a hand or arm instead of the sticks. But the dancers never seemed to miss a beat as they wove and pounded on each other. The crowd was yelling now, some calling out encouragement and others yelling insults. The group formed two interlocking circles and wove their patterns together. As each passed the place where the circles joined, they had to beat out the rhythms on the other sticks. I laughed with joy to see them move with no errors, in a perfect pattern. “How do they do that?”

  Simus laughed. Keir shot me an amused glance and responded. “Practice. Lots of practice.”

  The dancers were smiling, but I could see the concentration on their faces. I didn’t know whether to watch their feet, or their hands, and ended up trying to watch it all at once. Finally, just when I was convinced that fatigue would start to set in, the dancers all cried out at once, spun in place to wind their streamers around their bodies, and stood frozen, spaced evenly in a circle, facing inward.

  The crowd erupted with cries of “heyla” and praise. I clapped my hands together, which drew some odd looks from Atira and Simus. “That was amazing!”

  Atira sniffed. “I’ve seen better.”

  Marcus was handing me some kavage. “They were slightly off, Warprize. But not by much.”

  I took the drink eagerly. “When is the next one?”

  But Iften had already moved into the center of the field and was pulling the next token. He waited for the crowd to settle, before calling out, “Yellow.”

  This was a larger group, some twenty people with yellow streamers came running into the field. Keir leaned over to me. “This group is trying for a very large pattern. Not so intricate but harder with so many.” The drums began again, and I tried to pay more attention to the dancers individually. Sure enough, after just a few minutes, there was a groan from the crowd, and the dancers broke apart and ran off the field.

  Simus grunted when he saw my disappointment. “They stop when the pattern is broken, Warprize. The dance can’t continue if an error is made.”

  The next group summoned down to the field was brown. Their pattern was intricate, but started very slowly. As the drums speeded up, so did their steps, and the blows to their sticks. I watched in anticipation, trying to see the dancers the way Keir did, but all I saw was a wonderful explosion of movement, rhythm, and color. Just as it seemed to reach its peak, the drums began to slow, and the dancers slowed at the same time, until they stood in their original positions. As the last drumbeat faded, the crowd erupted into cheers. The dancers ran off, and the crowd started stirring.

  Keir stood and stretched. “The watches are changing.” He looked at me. “Warm enough?”

  I nodded, as Marcus held a plate before me. There were small buns there, and I took one in one hand. “What are these?”

  Atira grinned and reached for the plate as Marcus offered her one as well. “Warprize, take a bite.”

  I looked doubtfully at her, but she bit hers with relish, so I did the same. There was an explosion of spice in my mouth and I opened my eyes wide. Atira laughed.

  The spice was strong, but it didn’t burn. There was a sweetness to it that seemed strange at first. “What is this?”

  “Bread tarts.” Atira took another bite and talked around her mouthful. “Rare to get them in camp.”

  Keir and Simus were eating theirs, obviously pleased. Marcus had a proud look on his face, and even quirked his mouth in a grin when I took another bite. We were all enjoying the treat when a warrior came up to the platform. “Warlord, a messenger has come from the city.”

  “From Warren?” Keir asked.

  “From their King, Warlord.”

  “Bring him here.”

  The crowd was starting to settle, and Iften seemed to be looking at Keir for the signal to start. Keir gestured for him to continue, and the opening ritual was repeated. This time the dancers were wearing bells on their hands and feet, and carrying sticks. As they danced, Marcus frowned in disapproval. Apparently the bells were a distraction from the pattern, and Marcus was quick to express his opinion. Keir leaned over at one point and spoke softly. “Marcus danced patterns well before he was injured. But his eye gives him no vision on that side, and he no longer dances.” I nodded, but I liked the chiming of the bells, and was quick to call out “heyla” at the end.


  We turned to see the warrior standing behind us, with Heath at his side, grinning like a fool.

  “Heath!” I jumped to my feet, leaving the cloak behind me. The cooler air hit me, giving me goose bumps, but I paid no mind as I ran over to greet him.

  Heath was stiff, but he relaxed and brought his arms up to give me a quick hug, before pushing me back slightly. He brought his hand up to cup my neck, then let his hand fall as he stepped back. He dropped to one knee. “Warlord.”

  I turned, to see Keir standing there, a dark expression on his face. I caught my breath, suddenly understanding that I’d made a mistake. Heat flooded my face. Keir pointed at the stool where I had been seated, and I returned to it. Marcus draped the cloak back over me, and made sure that it covered me completely.

  “Your message?” Keir’s voice was cold, as behind us Iften called the next dance.

  “Warlord, King Xymund sends word that Lord Durst still lives. Eln the Healer believes that he will recover.” Heath lifted his head. “Lord Marshall Warren and the King continue to question and investigate the attack on the warprize and will send further word tomorrow.”

  Keir grunted, but I saw a brief flash of relief in his eyes.

  Heath continued, “Warlord, I also beg your forgiveness on behalf of myself and your warprize. We are childhood friends, who played in the kitchens together when we were small.” He swallowed hard. “I had heard that she was hurt, and asked to carry the King’s words in order to see for myself and report back to my mother.”

  Keir narrowed his eyes. “Your mother is Anna the Cook?”

  Heath nodded. “She who rules the kitchens, and will beat me with a spoon if I do not report back on Lar—the warprize’s condition.”

  Simus chuckled. “Never anger a good cook, Keir.”

  Keir still looked grim, but his voice was polite. “Stay then, and talk with the warprize. Would you see a dance?”

  Heath smiled, stood, and moved to sit on the platform, leaning back against the side of Atira’s cot. He looked at her leg, and grimaced. “Broken?” I nodded. He smiled at Atira, and pointed at her leg and then at his. “I remember what that is like. Tell her she has my sympathy.”

  I translated for Atira, and she nodded her thanks, eyeing Heath’s leg and its apparent health.

  Keir and Simus settled back down as the next dance was called. Atira propped herself a little higher when Iften called the color. “These are my dancers!”

  I quickly explained things to Heath as the dancers ran out on the field. Their ribbons were blue, and they formed a square in the center of the field. But instead of sticks, they carried what looked like rocks. We watched as the drums pounded and the dance began. The dancers wove a pattern for some time before they raised their rocks and cracked them together. The sound it made was far different from the sticks, and the crowd cried out in astonishment as sparks flew from the dancers’ hands.<
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  Keir and Simus stood, and Marcus moved to the front of the platform to get a better look. I stayed where I was, not wanting to block Atira’s view. The dancers beat out the pattern with their feet, the drums seemed to build in intensity, and every so often the sparks flew as the rocks were struck. The crowd started to stomp their feet in time with the drums, and seemed to be chanting “heyla” over and over to their beat. The sound was infectious and I clapped to the rhythm. Atira was grinning, and Heath seemed spellbound by the sight.

  At last the dancers came to the end, and the crowd cried out their approval. Atira collapsed back onto her cot, letting out a large, nervous laugh.

  Marcus put a hand on her shoulder. “Well done, pattern weaver.”

  She smiled at him with tears in her eyes. “Thank you.”

  “It was your pattern?” Simus asked, visibly impressed.

  “My first.” Atira grinned. Heath was looking puzzled, so I translated for him. By this time, the dancers had run to the platform and formed a group in front of Keir. The tallest one stepped forward. “Warlord, may we take Atira? We wish to praise our weaver to the skies.”

  Keir gestured to the cot, and the breathless men and women swarmed the platform to lift her high. “Have a care of that leg!” I called.

  One stopped and bowed toward me. “We’ll take her to the healer tent, Warprize, and celebrate there. We’d not risk that she’d not dance again.” With that, they disappeared into the crowd.

  Heath stood and moved next to me. “I should go as well, for Anna is dying for news.”

  I smiled, but refrained from hugging him. “I’m fine, Heath.”

  He smiled back, and cupped my cheek again before turning to make his respects to the Warlord. Keir signaled for someone to escort him, and he too disappeared into the crowd.

  I knew I had a broad grin on my face, but I didn’t care. I loved the dancing, like nothing ever seen in the Kingdom of Xy before. I looked about to see if the next dance was about to be called, but the crowd was still moving around. I noticed that Keir was watching me intently, his expression stern. I ignored him, not wishing anything to steal the pleasure of the next three dances from me.

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