Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan


  The crowd settled, and once again Iften moved to the center of the field. This time, he had no bowl in his hand, but stood with naked sword in one hand, shield in the other. “Warlord!” His cry echoed over the field. Keir and Simus both stiffened. “I cry challenge on you.”

  All was quiet and movement ceased.

  “The time of challenge is in the spring, Iften.” Simus rose and moved to the edge of the platform. He limped slightly, and I suspected he’d pushed the leg too far. His strong voice carried easily over the crowd. “Your challenge is improper.”

  Iften stayed where he was. “I cry challenge on you, Keir of the Cat, named Warlord of the Northwestern Range for this Season of War. I cry challenge for all the elements to see and witness.”

  Keir spoke. “There is no challenge on campaign, Iften. You’ve sworn oaths to follow me until you are released from my service.”

  “That woman beside you is no true warprize and of a people who use assassination and treachery as their weapons. Are these the ways you wish us to learn?” Iften beat his sword against his shield, and I jumped, startled by the sound. “I swear I will kill you and the woman and lead this army to take what is ours by right. Come and fight me, Keir! Fight and die!”

  CHAPTER 10

  IN AN INSTANT RAFE AND PREST STOOD BESIDE ME, weapons drawn. Marcus shifted as well, standing at Keir’s side. I sat frozen, not understanding how everything could change in an instant.

  Simus spoke softly, turned slightly to look at Keir. “Do you think he’s behind—”

  Keir responded in the same tone. “I don’t know.” He stayed seated, raising a voice that held a clear disdain for the man before him. “I’ve made no secret of my intent, Iften. I will bind these lands together, weave new patterns from our ways and theirs.” His voice carried with no difficulty. The watching warriors had their eyes on him, and few stirred. There was only the soft breeze and the fires of the torches that moved and crackled. Keir continued. “We will be stronger for it. Take back your flawed challenge. You swore an oath for all the elements to see that you would follow me. I hold you to your oath.”

  “Their ways are foul and tainted. I cry challenge now, before you destroy us all.”

  Marcus snorted. “His wits have been scattered by the winds.” Keir grunted but didn’t turn his head.

  “Where is the singer?” Iften shouted out. “Where is Joden?”

  Joden emerged from the press of bodies off to the side, his broad face unhappy. “I’m here, Iften.”

  Iften raised his sword and shield, almost as if he were offering them. “What says our singer to my challenge?”

  Joden took two steps out and stood with his arms crossed over his chest. “I have not heard your protests in senel, Iften. I have not heard you raise these truths with Keir’s token in your hand. I hear only your challenge, out of season, and against your oaths. I’m not yet a Singer.” Joden continued, his voice resonant and firm. “But were I the Singer of singers and standing at the Heart of the Plains, still I would call you Oath-breaker.”

  The crowd responded to those words with a buzz. To my eyes it seemed that Iften shrank a little when he heard Joden’s words. Still, he remained standing at the center of the field.

  Keir stood. The crowd grew silent. “A new pattern is hard to dance, and we are all in need of practice. There have been mistakes made, and I acknowledge that. This is also a mistake, Iften. Withdraw your challenge. These matters can be discussed in senel, and if your concerns cannot be satisfied, I will release your oath in the spring.” Keir shifted his stance slightly, taking a more threatening posture. “Or repeat your challenge without my token and die.”

  Iften seemed to freeze, as if he couldn’t make a decision.

  “Hell of a way to ruin a dance,” Simus grumbled, just loud enough to be heard by those closest to us. Laughter started and continued, as his words were passed on. The tension released, like water pouring out of a bowl.

  Iften stood for another moment, but he had lost and he knew it. “I withdraw the challenge.” With a sullen look, he sheathed his sword and slung his shield on his back. A young man raced out and handed him the wooden bowl, and he started the ritual to begin the dance. Keir and Simus returned to their stumps. Rafe and Prest faded back to their original positions.

  Marcus held a mug of kavage in front of me. “Drink this, Warprize. You are as white as snow.”

  I took the mug and sipped. Keir turned, and looked at me with concern. “Are you well, Warprize?”

  “He threatened to kill you.”

  Simus snorted, accepting kavage from Marcus. “Iften always speaks before he thinks.”

  “Still.” Keir watched the dancers as if he had no other concerns. “He did speak. There may be others that agree with him.”

  Simus rumbled in agreement. “And where did he get that courage, I wonder?”

  Keir shrugged, and both focused on the dance.

  I watched as well, although I couldn’t remember the colors that danced or their patterns. I waited for my heart to stop racing in my chest. Everyone acted as if nothing had happened, as if having someone challenge a warlord to fight to the death were something that happened every day. I sat, trying to understand it all as the last dance ended and Iften performed some ceremony to bring things to a close. Keir was next to me before I could even stand. With a simple gesture, Rafe and Prest were called to my side.

  “Take her to my tent, and guard her well.” Keir spoke in low tones. “Stay with her until I return. I’m going to walk the camp. Simus?”

  Simus stood, and I noticed his hesitation. “He can’t. He’s been on that leg far too long.” I stood, pulling up the cloak. “I’d better look at it.”

  Simus wrinkled his nose but nodded. “She’s right.”

  “Take them to Simus’s tent. When she’s finished, escort her to mine. Marcus can send Gils to her.” Keir glared at them. “Don’t leave her for an instant.”

  “Will you call a senel?” Simus asked, as we moved off the platform.

  “We’ll talk after I’ve tasted the mood of the warriors.” He strode off into the growing darkness.

  SIMUS’S TENT GLOWED WITH WARMTH WHEN WE arrived. He eased down onto his bed with Marcus’s assistance. Once his trous and the bandages were off, I could see that the wound was healing well. “You’ve just pushed it too hard, Simus.”

  “Perhaps, little healer.” He sank back. “But how could I miss a dance?” His smile grew wide, and his eyes gleamed. “And such a dance!”

  Joden entered the tent in time to hear his words. “Aye, Iften is a fool.”

  Simus laughed. “Iften is a good warrior, but he fears change. Keir makes sweeping changes. You’re surprised that they clash?”

  “Shall I fetch Gils?” Marcus asked me quietly.

  I dug through the supplies by the bed. “No, I have what I need here.”

  Joden sat on a stool out of the way. “A surprise that he would call challenge.”

  “That’s a truth voiced.” Simus stared up at the ceiling of the tent. “Where did he find the nerve?”

  “I don’t understand what he thought he was doing.” I worked as I spoke. “He threatened Keir with death. According to our laws, that would make him an outlaw.”

  Simus grimaced slightly at my touch. “We only give positions of power to those who’ve earned them. Challenge is a part of determining who will lead.”

  I blinked at him. “Xymund rules by right of blood, as confirmed by the gods.”

  “It’s not because of his skill as a warrior,” Marcus commented.

  “That’s why he has men such as Warren,” I snapped, stung more by the criticism of my people than in defense of my half brother. I looked at Simus. “So Xymund, as King, would have to face challenges to stay on the throne.”

  Joden chuckled. “It’s not that easy, Warprize. One must qualify to give challenge. Iften has the right to challenge Keir, but no one may challenge on campaign.”

  The silence that descended
was a thoughtful one. I concentrated on re-bandaging the wound, and dosing Simus with fever’s foe. I offered lotus as well, to help him sleep, but he declined. As soon as I finished, Marcus hustled me out.

  Once outside, I resisted. “I want to check Atira’s leg.”

  “None of that.” Marcus barred my path. “Hisself said ‘to the tent,’ and off to the tent we go.”

  Rafe coughed to draw my attention and spoke once he had my eye. “It’s the Warlord’s command.”

  I would’ve argued, but my arm was throbbing. We returned to Keir’s tent, only to engage in a heated discussion of just how Rafe and Prest were going to guard me. They interpreted their instructions literally, and intended to sit and watch me sleep. After some heated discussion, Rafe and Prest took up positions outside, and Marcus and I went in alone.

  I folded up the cloak and laid it on one of the benches, careful not to use my arm too much. “Marcus, do challenges happen often?”

  “Of course, Warprize. Before the armies are gathered, the challenges are fought to determine ranks. But that is for the early spring. No one issues challenge on campaign.”

  “Iften did.”

  “Iften is a fool.” Marcus chuckled softly. “Hisself took care of him without raising a sword.”

  “Could someone challenge Simus? While he is hurt?”

  “That’s not done, Warprize. Another would take his place while he healed. Iften in fact, since he stands third in rank.” Marcus fussed with the brazier. “Although few heal from such a wound.” He frowned into the coals, then turned, regarding me. “It’s off to bed with you. Hisself won’t be in until late, if I know him.”

  I lay awake for quite some time, wondering about a world where a warrior held his rank and title by merit instead of class or birth. My dreams were filled with the images of Xymund fighting Warren for the crown when I slipped into sleep.

  I AWOKE TO A WARM EMBRACE, A FROWNING COUNTENANCE, and Keir’s voice in my ear.

  “You are not to leave this bed today.”

  The day deteriorated from there.

  Marcus was cranky from lack of sleep. Keir was wound tighter than he had been the night before, if that were possible. I was upset because my arm ached, Marcus was cranky, and Keir was impossible.

  He ordered me to stay in bed.

  I refused.

  He ordered me to stay in the tent.

  I refused.

  He ordered me to accept an escort of my guards, Rafe and ten more men, to the tents, have my assistants check my arm, and return to his tent.

  I refused. I asked to go into the city with him to see Warren.

  He refused.

  During our discussion, we bathed, dressed, and ate. And discussed the matter at the top of our lungs.

  Finally, Marcus emerged from his area and roared, “Enough!” We both stopped talking, and turned to glare at him.

  Marcus glared right back. “You,” he said, pointing at Keir. “Go to the city with some men and find out what Warren has learned.” He turned and pointed at me. “You. Go to the tents with your guards.” He glared at both of us. “Damned fools.” He stomped off. “And don’t come back ’til after my nap!” he yelled from the back.

  Keir grabbed up his cloak and sword, and stomped out. I glared at the tent wall as I finished my kavage, then grabbed up my cloak and stomped out. Epor and Isdra were waiting outside, and they eyed me with trepidation as I walked past them. They fell into step behind me, and were smart enough to stay quiet as we walked.

  I strode to Simus’s tent, wanting to check his wound, but Joden was emerging as I walked up. “He’s sleeping, Warprize. He and Keir were up late, talking.”

  “I’ll let him sleep.”

  “I’ll walk with you, if I may. I wish to talk to Atira.” Joden fell in step next to me. Epor and Isdra followed.

  “For your song?”

  Joden nodded. “I wish to see what happened through her eyes.”

  “Will you sing of what happened last night? Iften’s challenge?”

  Joden snorted. “No, Warprize. The songs I create now must be great songs of great events, songs that will aid me in earning the title of Singer. I will not sing of fools.”

  Gils awaited us at the healing tent, smiling next to a pile of bandages and a pot of fever’s foe. Atira was the only patient, propped up on her cot; they both looked up eagerly when we walked in. Epor and Isdra arranged themselves by the tent flap, sitting on stumps. Isdra flipped her long braid back and pulled out some leather work. Epor had some oil that he seemed to be rubbing into the wooden handle of his war club.

  “You must tell me what happened!” Atira threw up her hands in disgust. “They brought me back here last night, and I only heard this morning. Is it true? Did Iften challenge?”

  Joden snorted. Gils guided me to a cot close to Atira and started to help me pull off my tunic. Joden pulled up a stool next to Atira’s cot. “He did challenge. Would you hear my words?”

  Atira’s eyes widened. “Please, Joden.”

  Joden started speaking in his warm voice as Gils unwrapped my arm. He spoke plainly, with no embellishments, but his tone of voice left no doubt as to his opinion. Gils worked as Joden spoke, although he seemed flustered by the fact that I kept the tunic on and kept myself covered as best I could. Keir’s people may be casual with their bodies, but I was more comfortable with my own ways. I looked around, but everything had been cleaned up and set right. You couldn’t tell that there’d been an attack in this tent at all, other than the new exit at the rear of the tent where Simus had cut his way in. It had been finished off and was now tied shut.

  Gils sat back, examining the exposed wounds. They looked good, but I stared at them and scowled. It would scar, I was sure of it. Two puckered parallel lines on my upper arm. Gils rewrapped and tied off the bandage, as Joden concluded his tale.

  Atira exclaimed, and I focused back on their conversation. “It’s only field discipline that saved his life.”

  Joden nodded. “Aye, he’d be dead otherwise.”

  “Field discipline?” I asked, struggling back into my tunic.

  “All’s well?” Joden asked, looking at my arm.

  “On campaign, we are under a different rule than on the plains,” Atira explained. “The Warlord was generous. Maybe overly so.”

  “The elements will judge.” Joden eyed Atira, and she subsided, but I had the distinct impression that she had her own opinion in the matter. Which reminded me of something I’d meant to ask.

  “Marcus said something to me last night. Something about offending the skies.” I bent to check the leather on Atira’s leg, so it took a moment for me to realize that there had been no response. I looked up into puzzled faces.

  “He’d offend the skies, Warprize, to show his disfigurement,” Joden responded. Gils and Atira nodded.

  “But—” I suddenly understood why Marcus stayed in the tent almost all the time. “Those are honorable scars—”

  I stopped when Atira shook her head. “No. There is a difference between an honorable scar and being no longer whole.”

  “So everyone who is crippled or severely injured goes cloaked?”

  Joden’s face was grim. “No. They ask for mercy.”

  There was no answer to that. I checked Atira’s leg. The swelling had gone down, and the leather was loose. With all of them watching closely I checked the placement of the leg, but it was still set and straight. I sat back on my heels, and considered. “New leather, I think. It needs to be tighter, to allow the stones to work.”

  Gils shifted his weight nervously. “I’s want to help, Warprize, but I’s due at weapons practice.”

  “Go.” I stood up and arranged Atira’s bedding. “We’ll do it after the nooning, when you can return.”

  “So Joden and I can talk now?” Atira asked.

  “When one talks to a Singer, it’s usual to be private,” Joden explained. “So that the Singer can focus on your words alone, and no one can influence your words.”
>
  “That’s fine.” I smiled. “I’ve work to do in the other tent.”

  Epor and Isdra rose and followed as Gils walked out with me. “Warprize, I’s be upset when I looked for things to tend you with. The stilltent isn’t as neat as you left it.” The red of his cheeks matched his red hair.

  I glared at him. “How bad is it?”

  He gulped. “I’s be happy to stay and help.”

  “And miss practice and get us both in trouble? I think not.” I waved him off.

  “You’ll be careful of the arm?”

  I rolled my eyes, and he laughed as he sprinted off toward the practice grounds.

  STANDING IN THE CENTER OF THE STILLTENT, IT was easy to assess the damages. It wasn’t that bad, really, just some mess from where Gils had rifled through stuff, looking for supplies. While I got things back where I liked them, I organized my head for what I wanted to accomplish. A few jugs of liniment might be helpful. I liked having a few bottles of that available, and it would aid the bruising on my own neck. I also had the ingredients for a potion that worked well with the flux. Have one case of flux, and there’d be ten cases of flux. I lit the braziers, and started to ready ingredients. Epor and Isdra were kind enough to help me with any lifting, and soon the tent was filled with the smells of brewing elixirs and steeping ointments.

  I wrote with pleasure, enjoying the scratch of the pen on the page. The work was soothing. Once again, I spread out my papers and books so I could make notes on everything I did, so that I could recall what worked and what didn’t. It was all so familiar, so much like home that I lost myself in it. Until the tent wall slapped in the breeze and brought me back. One thing I made sure to do was brew a tea from willow bark. Not as strong as the fever’s foe, still it helped with my aching arm. I sipped some as I worked.

  The tea helped a little, but the truth was that a pall had been cast over the day. It all seemed so strange and disturbing. These people were so different, saw the world through different eyes, had such dissimilar standards. Yet, they bled, hurt, and healed the same way we did. Yet they were so harsh. Offend the skies? Was that any reason for a warrior, injured in service, to kill himself? Yet an honorable scar brought admiration and praise.

 
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