Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan


  Keir wanted to bind the lands together, but I didn’t see how. Xymund surely had not known of Keir’s plans. I wondered if he knew now? What he and the Council must think of that idea. Of course, no one had thought of a Daughter of Xy as a tribute, and yet here I was.

  But what exactly was I? Keir seemed interested in me physically, but talked of honoring our traditions. Certainly, I seemed to have no real slave duties, other than to sleep in the same tent. Which was just as well. While I brewed an excellent elixir, Anna had despaired of ever teaching me to cook a meal. Marcus had mentioned that I had to be taken to the Heart of the Plains, but had not explained further. My imagination ran riot with ideas and images, none of them good.

  I sat and stirred the flux potion, staring at the tent wall.

  The sound of thunder drew me out of my trance, and I moved the pot off the fire to go outside. Epor and Isdra stood as a large group of horsemen rode up, Keir in the lead. They milled around as Keir swung down from his horse, and stalked over to me. He wore armor, helm, and his black cape, and looked damned impressive, gleaming in the sun as he walked toward me. I lost myself in his blue eyes as he came to stand very close to me.

  “I couldn’t leave without . . .” He paused. “This morning, I . . .” He looked away, then looked back at me.

  I nodded. “I feel the same. It spoiled the day, didn’t it?”

  The skin at the corner of his eyes crinkled. “Yes. It did.” He leaned in and gently kissed me. Just a touching of lips. “I’m looking for Joden.”

  Joden emerged from the healing tent. “Warlord?”

  “We’re going to the castle, to learn firsthand what is known of the attack. I want you with us.”

  Joden headed for the spare horse that Simus was leading. I frowned to see Simus mounted. “Is your leg well enough for this?” I asked Simus, as Keir mounted his horse.

  Simus shrugged. “It will have to be, little healer.” He flashed a smile. “Someone has to make sure that Keir doesn’t rage through the city, slaughtering everyone in his path.”

  Keir glared at Simus, as the rest of the group chuckled. I smiled, even though I could sense that to some degree Simus was serious. Keir pulled his horse around, and they headed out, the horses’ hooves churning up the dirt. I took two steps around the tent, standing where I could see Water’s Fall in the distance, and the road that led to the main gates. Epor shifted with me, watching my back.

  The city walls and the castle gleamed in the sun. The scattered greenery on the mountain held the first faint traces of yellow. Soon the first snows would come, the waterfalls would freeze, and for the first time in my life, I wouldn’t be here to see it. The thought was both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

  The wind caught my hair, whipping it into my eyes. With a last look, I returned to my work.

  “I HAVE GIVEN UP EXPECTING YOU TO REMEMBER the nooning.” I looked up as Marcus entered the tent with food and drink.

  “I’m sorry, Marcus. I lost track of time.”

  “Sorry, sorry, that doesn’t fill a body.” He shed his cloak and fussed, clearing space for his load. “And what is that awful smell?”

  “A potion for the—” I frowned, not knowing the right words. “For an illness of the bowels.”

  He wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Eat. If you can.”

  I dug in and smiled at him. His face remained stern, but his eye twinkled. “You are in a better mood, eh?”

  “So are you.”

  He mock glared at me. “I managed a nice nap, thank you kindly.”

  “Has Keir returned?”

  Marcus shook his head. “Hisself is probably making them miserable up there, poking and prodding for answers. Don’t be worried for him.” He moved off toward the tent entrance. “See that you bring the dishes back with you this evening.”

  I kept working, cooling the potion and storing it away. The liniment took more mixing than anything, and I made up multiple bottles, including one for myself. I rubbed it on my throat, feeling the warmth as it worked into the tender flesh.

  I contented myself with smaller tasks until Gils returned. Atira was more than ready for a bath, and we made quite a mess between getting her clean and soaking the leather. Gils and I were tired when all was done, and I sent him to fetch some kavage for us from the cook tent. Horsemen came thundering by as he returned.

  “The Warlord’s be back,” Gils reported as he served. “Looking awful mad.”

  Someone had brought Atira a bunch of daggers to sharpen to keep her busy. She and Gils both worked on them as I read to them from the Epic, translating as I went. Atira and Gils were fascinated, by both the story and by the oddity of the written word. The poem was entering the planning part of the expedition, and while I was bored to death with the number of bales and pack mules, my audience was absorbed in the telling. I’d reached the part where Xyson was expelling the evil creatures from Xy when the sound of an approaching horseman interrupted us. Someone had come up to the tent and was speaking to the guards.

  I closed the book. “Enough for one day.”

  Atira nodded. “Maybe tomorrow we can start reading?” She used the Xyian word.

  I nodded, stood, and stretched. Joden stuck his head in. “Warprize, may I talk to you?”

  Gils objected. “The bandage’s be needing changed, Warprize.”

  I sat back down. “I’m at the mercy of my healer, Joden.” He smiled, his face unreadable. I gestured toward one of the stumps as Gils helped me with the tunic.

  But Joden shook his head. “I’ll wait for you in the other tent.”

  I stared after him, wondering, as Gils bandaged my arm.

  “IS THERE ANY NEWS?” I ASKED AS I ENTERED THE stilltent.

  Joden sighed. “Durst does well. Xymund denies any knowledge of Arneath’s actions. He claims that there is a faction of the city that is unhappy about the peace. Warren hasn’t found any hint of a conspiracy. Keir questioned many people, but we could find no trace of . . .” He paused, an unhappy look on his face.

  “No trace of Xymund’s involvement,” I finished calmly.

  Joden nodded, sitting heavily on a stool. “Simus has taken him to the practice grounds to work out his frustrations.” Joden held up a hand to stave me off. “Simus said to tell you that he will only sit on the sidelines and yell insults.” He heaved a sigh. “It will do them both good.”

  I moved to one of the tables and started rearranging the items there. “Joden, as far as I know, everyone wants peace between your people and mine.” I shrugged. “There may have been members of the Guard that were upset by it.” I gave him a wry glance. “There may be members of this army that are upset, since Keir had them on alert the other night, for no good reason.”

  Joden looked at me, puzzled. “That is not so, Warprize. You are treasured.”

  Treasured. I tightened the cork on a bottle, then made a decision. Whatever the answer, whatever my status, I needed to know.

  “Joden.” I kept my eyes on the bottle, turning it in my hands. “Has Keir ever sold a warprize?”

  I heard a slight choking sound behind me, but I lacked the courage to turn around. “I mean, I think I could learn to share him with the other warprizes.” I gulped against the lump in my throat. “But to never see him again, I don’t think I could do that. I mean, I know that I am his slave, but I . . .” I shut my mouth before I babbled any more. The silence from behind me seemed to confirm all my fears. My shoulders slumped, the weight of my pain pulling them down. Goddess.

  “Lara?”

  I caught my breath, hearing my name spoken like that. As if I were a person, not a slave, or a thing, or a warlord’s prize. Joden was using my name as if I was a person he valued. Someone who mattered. I hadn’t realized how important that was to me until I’d heard it again, spoken in a caring voice. Tears flooded into my eyes as I turned to see Joden pat the crate next to him. I stumbled over and sat, wiping my eyes. I couldn’t quite bring myself to meet his gaze.

  “Let
us just be Lara and Joden for this moment, alone, in this tent.” His voice was sympathetic. “You used a word . . . ‘slave’ . . . What does that mean?” I flushed, embarrassed. Joden put his hand on my shoulder. “Please, favor me. Tell me what it means.”

  “It means a person who is owned as one would own a horse or a knife. A slave is absolutely subject to the will of his or her master.”

  Joden leaned toward me, and I knew that he listened intently to my words. “A slave has no rights?” he asked. “No status?”

  I nodded, keeping my eyes down.

  He sat back, and took a deep breath. “No voice in his or her life?”

  I nodded again, trying to control my tears.

  “Lara, you believe yourself to be Keir’s slave, yes? Who told you this?”

  I looked up at that. His face held only care and concern. “Xymund. Before the ceremony.”

  Joden nodded again, frowning a little. “I would like to think the error unintentional, but I have doubts.” He shook his head. “And I think we are partly to blame, maybe because you seemed to learn our language so fast and so well.” He looked over my head, as if thinking, and came to some decision. “Lara, please listen to me carefully. And if I use a word you do not understand, ask me to explain it. Do not assume you know the meaning. Yes?” I nodded, and he leaned back a little, his hands on his knees.

  “Among our people, warlords are warriors with experience in battle, enough so that they inspire men to follow them. A warlord does not get his army from his father, nor pass it to his child. It is earned by his own deeds. A warlord uses his or her skill to challenge for the right to gather men into armies, and use their armies to raid and pillage for the gain of all. So it is and so it has always been.”

  I made as if to speak, but Joden held up a hand. “Now, our traditions tell us that there is yet another treasure that a warlord can obtain in battle. That is a warprize. A warprize must be discovered during the course of a battle, or on or near a battlefield. A warprize must render aid to the warlord or his men.” Joden lifted a finger. “Most important, a warprize must be attractive to a warlord, must spark feelings of desire.” He grinned slyly. “It is said that the attraction between warlord and warprize is as the heat of the sun that shines in the height of summer.”

  I sat, my eyes wide, and listened.

  “Now, once a warlord recognizes a potential warprize, he stops the fighting and enters into talks with the leaders of the land. He must negotiate for the warprize, making the best deal that he can.” Joden leaned back a little and chuckled. “Keir did well there.” He sobered and looked at me. “Having done that, a warprize must submit willingly to the warlord, before witnesses of both their peoples. Then a warprize is displayed to the warlord’s army. Upon their return to our lands, the confirmation ceremony is held before the Council of Elders.”

  Joden reached for a flask of kavage that Marcus had brought and two cups, and poured for both of us. “But even these ceremonies do not create a true warprize.”

  Joden took a sip from his mug. “Lara, a true warprize is a rare thing. We value them, for our people have found that the warprize brings a new way of thinking, of doing things. It makes us better, stronger, when we are exposed to new ways and new ideas. You cannot fake a true warprize, nor pick one, nor force one. They happen maybe once in five generations, and we see it as a benediction from the elements themselves, even for the upheaval that they bring.”

  I sat there, trying to make sense of his words.

  “Our people started as tribes, tribes based on our totem animals. Keir is of the Cat; Simus is of the Hawk, as am I. There was a time when the tribes fought among themselves. It was the first warprize, long ago, that created that change, that united the tribes.” Joden rubbed his hand on his knees. “Why did you submit to Keir, if you thought you would be a slave?”

  I had to swallow before I could answer, my mouth was so dry. “To save my people.”

  Joden smiled slightly. “Lara, there are no other warprizes. When you submitted to Keir, you were submitting to give him a chance to court you, a chance to show you what you could and do mean to him.” He frowned again. “And this was explained to your King, probably privately, during the talks.”

  He tilted his head, looking at me as if I was a child at my lessons. “Do you understand? You are not a ‘slave.’ You are a mate, a consort. You are second only to Keir in this camp. If you demand your freedom and leave this camp, no one, including Keir,” he emphasized, “would lift a finger to stop you. By our laws and by our ways, you cannot be held here. Your presence in our camp is a gift to your people and our people, and we acknowledge that gift.”

  I blinked. “The bracelets . . .”

  Joden smiled. “Keir had the bracelets crafted in hope. They are not a symbol of your . . .” He stumbled on the word. “ . . . slavery. They are symbols of your potential bond.”

  I still didn’t believe. “The token. Keir said that the token was not for me to use.”

  Joden quirked his mouth. “How does it look if the woman you are courting feels she needs its protections?”

  I just stared at him.

  He met my eyes calmly. “You are not property. If you choose to leave, no one will stop you.”

  I stood.

  He stayed seated and watched me walk out of the tent.

  Isdra looked up. “Need help with a pot, Warprize?”

  I looked at her oddly, hearing “Warprize” as a title, not a label or a thing.

  My silence attracted Epor’s attention. He took up his war club and stood. “Warprize?”

  Joden’s horse was outside, cropping at the sparse grass. I moved forward and grabbed the reins. Epor moved as if to follow me. “No. Stay here.”

  Epor stopped dead. Isdra came to stand next to him. “Warprize,” she spoke quickly. “We are commanded to guard you—”

  “I wish to leave camp.” I gave them a narrow glance.

  Epor sucked in a breath. “If that is the case, we cannot stop you. But Warprize, please, let us get horses and escort you back to your people. Let us at least assure your safety.”

  “No.”

  Epor swallowed hard. Isdra went as white as her hair. Joden had followed me out of the tent and stood there looking at me. Isdra appealed to him. “Singer, please tell her that it’s for her own safety. The attempts on her life . . .”

  I waited.

  “She is the warprize, yes? And to be obeyed?” Joden asked.

  Epor and Isdra both nodded. I swung myself up into the saddle.

  Joden’s face did not change its expression as he looked up at me. “You are free, Lara. The only restraints on you are those of your own choosing.”

  I turned the horse, jammed my toes into its belly, and it sprang down the road toward the camp’s main gate.

  Through the camp we plunged, the horse’s mane and my hair streaming in the wind. The horse was willing, and I could feel its muscles move under me as its hooves pounded into the earth. I leaned forward, wanting to laugh and cry at the same time.

  There was no outcry behind us, no one tried to stop me. Some saw me and waved a hand in acknowledgment, but showed no surprise nor consternation. I plunged headlong between the tents, urging the horse on and on, a rising feeling of excitement in my chest. We pounded through the main gate and out into the field beyond. The guards there seemed only mildly interested, if slightly disapproving of my riding style.

  Out the gate and up the rise where the beaten road met the main road that led from the castle gates down into the valley. I pulled the horse to a stop, but it fought me, wanting to run. It danced beneath me, and I wheeled its head about, until at last it was quiet beneath me.

  We stood there, the horse blowing and my heart pounding against my ribs.

  No one was following, no one was reacting, there was no hue and cry, no chase. I was free. Truly, truly free.

  CHAPTER 11

  I LAUGHED, DELIGHTED AT MY FREEDOM, AT THE sun on my face, at the wind in my hair
. The horse danced under me, eager to go. I wheeled it to face the city and the castle.

  I could go home.

  The wind blew my hair into my face, and I used one hand to clear it away. I could go home, back to my old life, as if nothing had happened. Run to the kitchens and Anna’s loving arms and Othur’s grin and pick up the tatters of my life. Rebuild the stillroom, make Xymund see reason, and . . .

  What if Keir was right? What if Xymund had tried to have me killed?

  If I returned to the castle, I’d be under his authority. Anna and Othur may love me dearly, but they couldn’t stand between us.

  Even more, if I returned to the castle, I returned to the known. The commonplace, daily routine of my life. Yet I’d been ripped up by the roots and the pot had been broken, and I wasn’t sure that I’d fit there ever again. Much less grow.

  I hesitated, and wheeled the horse again. It puffed out its breath and stamped at the grass. This time we faced the road that led to the valley. I had skills, and there’d be those that would help me. I could go to the lands that my father left me, and start that school, living out my days teaching and healing. I could even leave for some foreign land. With some supplies and a few coins I could make my way anywhere in this world. Leave Keir and Xymund to weave their pattern and get myself out of this tangle that they called a “peace.”

  The horse shook its head, jingling its tack, and stamped its feet, as if in disapproval.

  If I tried to make my own way, I’d break a promise that my Blood had sworn to the people when Xy had first taken the throne. I might be free of my slavery to the Warlord, but my oaths and my duty still held me to my people. For it seemed to me that for the peace to have any chance, I must be at Keir’s side.

  I wheeled it again and turned to look at the camp. I could hear Joden’s voice. “You are free, Lara. The only restraints on you are those of your own choosing.”

 
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