Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan


  My breath caught in my throat. The camp of the Warlord, the camp of the dreaded Firelanders. A people who were a total mystery to me, for I had no idea of what my life would be like among them, or what awaited me at the Heart of the Plains. The camp of a man who was risking everything on the chance of building something better. Stronger. Brighter. For both our peoples.

  Returning to the camp and Keir was a risk. A wild unknown, for no one could tell if his plans would survive to the dawn, much less work. And there was no way to predict what would happen to any of us if he failed.

  There was another aspect to all of this, grand plans and kingdoms aside. I flushed to think of it. For certain, a Daughter of Xy contemplating her duties and obligations was not supposed to think of the touch of a man’s hand in the night, or how a simple brush of lips on her neck could raise such a heat in her breast. No, a loyal Daughter of Xy should think only of her duties and obligations, as I had when I knelt in the throne room to surrender myself to slavery.

  And yet, what I had thought a claiming, had been a seduction.

  What I had thought were chains, were tokens.

  What I had thought was pride of possession in a certain pair of blue eyes was . . . the promise of a lifetime?

  Hope rose in my breast like a sunrise. There was but one way to find out. That was the only certainty I had. If I took either of the other paths, up to the castle, or out to my lands, I’d never know the answers. Or I could take the biggest risk of all, and open my heart and myself to Keir. Of all the possibilities, of all the paths, it was that one that set my blood afire. A future full of risk and dangers, potential and promise. For him. For me. For us.

  I laughed and urged the horse on, and once again it sprang forward with a willingness. Down the rise we went, the horse’s hooves churning the soil. We galloped through the gate, without so much as a hail of the guard. I caught a brief glimpse of their expressions as we came back through, and laughed again, certain that they were thinking that I was no rider. I didn’t stop until I pulled the horse up outside my stilltent.

  Joden was still standing there, and I could see the joy in his eyes as I slid from the saddle. Epor and Isdra ran to me, joy and relief on their faces.

  “Thank the skies,” Epor spoke as I handed the reins to Joden.

  “One more question.” I stood straight and looked Joden right in the eye. He grew serious, and nodded for me to continue. “Am I required to bear five children?”

  He blinked, confused, but then his face cleared. A smile crept back over his broad face. “No.”

  “Where is he?” I demanded.

  Now Joden’s whole face lit up, and he pointed past the tents to the practice grounds. I smiled, and turned to go.

  “Warprize!” Epor stepped in front of me, his hand out, pleading. “Warprize, please let us to go with you.”

  Isdra added her voice. “Warprize, it’s worth our lives to let you—”

  I stopped and turned. “And if I say no?”

  Isdra swallowed hard. “We’d obey, Warprize.” Epor, his face gray, nodded his obedience as well. Joden just smiled at me.

  “Come then,” I said as I turned and started to run. Joden laughed behind me, but in a thrice they were beside me, pacing me easily. As I neared Keir’s tent, I thought for a minute. I could go back and bathe, find that white shift, and be waiting for him barefoot with my hair falling free . . .

  No.

  He had waited too long.

  I had waited too long.

  Not one minute more.

  The practice ground was a large dirt circle, with the sod removed. Keir was squared off against two men as we came up. There was quite a crowd, including Simus, who was seated on a stool, making insulting comments, and urging them on. I had no idea what lessons were being taught, I only had eyes for one man.

  One tall, blue-eyed, sweaty man.

  No one noticed as I moved to the edge. I stopped to catch my breath and watched him flow around the other men, using their movements against them. He was in bright chain mail with the black under-padding. He had on a coif, and was using two wooden swords. The men fighting him were using shields and wooden swords. The dust was thick as they shuffled about, trying to flank Keir, but only tripping over themselves. Keir’s face was a snarl of concentration, completely focused on his opponents. I could watch for hours. I would watch for hours. But right now I had other things on my mind.

  “Keir,” I called.

  His head swivelled around, homing in on my face at the exact moment one of his opponents was in mid-swing with his wooden sword. It “thwacked” Keir right in the ass. I winced at the sound. The attacker jumped back, horrified, as the watchers laughed, Simus loudest of all. Keir ignored them. He looked worried as he walked over to me, tilting his head to the side a little, lowering his weapons. My heart swelled, and I bounced on the balls of my feet.

  “Warprize?”

  Once he got close, I grabbed his shoulders, pulled myself up, and kissed him. Hard. Keir was caught by surprise, and brought his arms up to embrace me, careful of the weapons in his hands. I laughed against his mouth, then gently bit his lower lip. “I want you.” I leaned back to see his face. Stunned, he blinked at me. “Now, my Warlord.” I released him, turned, and started walking for our tent. Epor and Isdra moved with me, but kept their distance.

  “Warprize?” Keir called after me.

  I looked over my shoulder at him, grinned, and started walking faster.

  Simus was shouting his laughter, and I heard Keir curse as he started to follow. The warriors were calling, making encouraging noises, and some catcalls. I laughed and kept walking. I could hear chain mail jingling behind me, catching up. I threw a glance back, only to see that he was gaining on me.

  I started to run.

  I managed to reach the tent first, barely, darting through the flaps. Epor and Isdra stayed outside. I stood by the bed, turned, and waited for him. He was a breath behind, breathing hard, dressed in that chain mail and leather outfit. As he advanced on me, it came to me that I didn’t really know what to do next.

  I needn’t have worried. He swept me up and kissed me hard, using his hands to mold me to him. We tumbled onto the bed, Keir falling backward with me landing on top. The breath left him in a rush, and I pulled back, concerned that I’d hurt him. His expression was so surprised, I started laughing. He looked up into my face, searching for the reason for my actions.

  “Mine,” I said, staring into those blue eyes. I leaned down, letting my hair fall around his face. “My Warlord.” He opened his mouth to speak, and I darted down, kissing him, daring to take control. Only the lack of air forced me to pull back, and we both breathed hard for a moment. My hair made a curtain, sheltering his face. He licked his lips, eyes staring up into mine with a sense of wonder and a hint of disbelief.

  “Say it.” I bent down, licking his cheek. He tasted of salt and dust. He tasted fantastic. He swallowed hard and cleared his throat. I raised my head and smiled down at him.

  “Yours?”

  My heart swelled in my chest ’til I thought it would burst. “Mine. My Warlord. My Keir.” I leaned back down, and this time the kiss was a caress, a mutual exploration.

  ’Til my hair got caught in the chain mail links.

  Cursing, I let go of his hands to try to get my hair loose. Keir started to snicker at my efforts. He brought his arms around me and started laughing as I struggled with my hair. “My Warprize.” He smiled at me as I worked my hair free. “My Warprize.”

  I carefully caught up my rescued hair and held it away from the evil mail links. I leaned down and whispered in his ear, “Take me, my Warlord.”

  That wiped the smile right off his face. “Marcus!” he yelled as he rolled, moving me carefully over and onto the bed. Keir reached up to remove the coif from his head.

  “Warlord?” Marcus popped in from the back room, surprise evident in his voice.

  Keir had tossed the coif to the floor and was working on his belt. “Come help
me get this off.” Marcus raised his eyebrow, then turned to look at me, lying on my side on the bed.

  I smiled at him.

  A smile started to creep over Marcus’s face. “At once, my Warlord.” He helped Keir remove the heavy chain suit and the padding underneath. Finally, Keir stood there in his black leather pants and his black boots. Keir’s eyes drilled into mine. I met his gaze head-on, unafraid.

  Marcus was picking up the various articles of armor and clothing that had been flung around. Keir never looked at him. “Thank you, Marcus. Leave us now.”

  Marcus bowed himself out, a slight smirk on his face. Keir moved toward the privy enclosure. “Let me clean up . . .”

  “No.” I sat up, my knees on the edge of the bed. “Come here.” He moved forward, standing in front of me. I just looked for a minute, staring into blue eyes. Hesitantly, I put my hands at his waistband. He sucked in a breath at my touch, and I froze, uncertain. His hand covered mine and moved it up his stomach to splay over his chest. I surged up a little, wrapped my arms around his neck, and kissed him with all the passion I had. He returned it with fervor, and gently lowered me onto the bed.

  I tried to pull him down, to bring his body closer to mine, but he resisted. He hovered over me with concern in those bright blue eyes. “The first time, Lara, it’s not always good, it can hurt. I can ask an initiator, someone to teach you—”

  I drew in all the air I could. “Only you, Keir. No initiators, no teachers.” I lifted my head, moving my lips over his face and chin. “Please.”

  His eyes dilated in a breath, but still he paused. As he had before, he placed his hand over my heart. “This is not your way, Xylara. Your people’s customs—”

  I covered his mouth with my fingers. “There’s no Xy here, no Plains. There’s only you, only me.” Concerned, I pulled my hand back. “Unless you do not want—”

  He kissed my fingers, then kissed me, removing my hesitation. Gently, he lowered himself to the bed, pulling me close so that we were on our sides, face-to-face. His other hand rubbed my hip, warming the skin beneath the cloth. His kisses were slow and stirring, and I returned them with a growing hunger.

  But a passive role no longer satisfied me. I was curious to know more, and I placed my hands on his chest, exploring the expanse of skin and hair. To my delight, I discovered that a stroke of my hand burned his body just as his did mine, if his shivers were any guide. The sparse and curly hair was silky beneath my fingertips. The change in his breathing, the look on his face hinted of the power that lurked within me in the future. But for now, my touch was tentative, tracing faint scars and muscles.

  Moving deliberately, he brought his hands under my tunic, and pulled it up and over my head. I flushed and closed my eyes when his hands moved to my breast band. He paused, his fingers resting just under the curves of my breasts. “What’s wrong?” he whispered.

  “Nothing.” I breathed shallowly, conscious of his touch. “It’s just that I’m not very . . . ample.”

  Warm blue eyes laughed at me as his hands moved under the cloth, and warmth surged over me as he cupped my breasts. “They’re perfect,” he murmured. I arched up, trying to remember to breathe, as he showed me just how perfect they were.

  The breast band, our clothes, and the world disappeared. There was only us, and the smoldering desire between us. Every touch brought new discoveries and feelings such as I’d never known before. How could a puff of warm breath over dampened skin produce such sensations? Why did I tingle all over when Keir ran his fingers through my hair to fan it out over the pillows? How could the smallest kiss behind my ear provoke such passion?

  I was floating on a sea of pleasure and contentment, melting onto the bed like gold in a fire. Keir raised his head to look at me. “You’re sure, Lara?”

  “So very sure.” I smiled at him.

  “Good.” He leaned in and kissed me, making a new and urgent demand with his mouth. I responded, recognizing something new in his caress. If I’d been molten gold before, now I was a storm raging through the mountains. I gasped, writhing in my efforts to touch more of him, to feel more, to know more—

  I am a healer, wise in the ways of the flesh. How it moves, how it sickens, even how it dies. I knew of the mating process, had heard of the pleasures it affords, thought I knew its effects. None of that prepared me for the reality.

  He moved slowly, carefully, driving me mad with the hunger he built in my soul, only to bring me down again to lie in his arms, trembling and achy. I clutched him to me, and begged for more, and he obliged, his soft laughter floating over us as he began again.

  Then finally, finally I had him in my arms and in my body and we both froze, staring at one another.

  “Lara, are you well?” His breathing was ragged, and I felt his shoulders tremble under my fingers as he held himself above me. “Did I hurt you?”

  “Oh, Keir. My Keir.” I relaxed, warmed by his hesitation, and shifted slightly, only to see the passion flare in his face. He kissed me even as he began to move, and there was joy and pleasure and transcendent light exploding within me and around us and through the very essence of our bonded souls.

  I AWAKENED TO FIND MYSELF TUCKED UNDER A loving arm, my head on Keir’s chest. With my eyes closed, I took a deep breath and listened to his heart beat. I felt a deep sense of peace, a sense of belonging. I opened my eyes slightly. From the gleam of the braziers, I knew I had not been asleep long.

  Keir’s hand was on his chest. I reached over and covered it with mine. His hand was so warm. I pulled it closer. The nails were cut straight across and trimmed close. I turned it over. There were calluses on the palm and fingers, from years of wielding a sword. I ran my fingers over his palm lightly, teasingly. The fingers were long and strong. I smiled and kissed the palm. And then traced the kiss with my tongue.

  His fingers flexed quickly, then relaxed. I pulled back a little and blew over the damp spot. I was rewarded with a soft, low moan and followed up with a kiss to his wrist.

  Keir chuckled and stroked my head with his other hand. “Was there some potion in your tent that turned the shy kitten into the wildcat?” he murmured.

  I moved my head so I could look into his sleepy eyes, soft blue under half-closed lids. “I finally worked up the nerve to ask Joden if you had ever sold a warprize before. That’s when he explained the difference. Explained what a warprize is and means. That’s when he told me I was free. That, that you were . . .” I stopped. Those half-lidded eyes had opened wide, and blazed diamond bright.

  “That I what?” I could feel the tension in his muscles and see the tightness of his jaw.

  “That you were asking me to be your mate, your consort.” I dropped my eyes and pulled back. Perhaps Joden had been wrong, perhaps I . . .

  Keir didn’t let me move. He simply held me against him, resisting my attempt to slip away. I looked up. His eyes had narrowed to slits, his face grim and hard. But his voice was soft and quiet when he spoke. “Lara, what did Xymund tell you before the ceremony?”

  I lowered my head to his chest again. His hand soothed my head, separating the strands of hair and letting his fingers run through it. I took a trembling breath and told him what Xymund had said. I explained the meaning of the word “slave,” then repeated what Joden had told me was the meaning of warprize. I stopped, out of breath.

  Keir continued to stroke my hair. His voice was still soft when he spoke. “You weren’t afraid that night because you were untouched. You thought I was going to rape you.”

  I looked up to see hard eyes that held despair as well. I brought my hand to his cheek and left it there as I held his gaze. “I thought you were going to make use of what belonged to you, yes. But you took nothing that was not freely given.” His eyes never left mine. “So my fear became that you would take my heart and give me nothing in exchange.” I ran my thumb over his lips. “Or worse yet, that you would take my heart and then discard me, like a worn-out boot.” His arm tightened around me for a moment. “When I hear
d Joden’s words, I knew that you had not been taking. That you had been giving. Giving me time. Giving me your heart.”

  He admired me, stroking my cheek. “You have such courage.”

  I blushed and lowered my gaze. Keir lifted my chin with his fingers. “And why does that embarrass you so?”

  I turned my head. Keir stroked his fingers over my cheek and down under my ear, caressing my neck. “I love that blush. My wildcat, so very strong and yet so very vulnerable.” He kissed my neck, then moved to my collarbone, and started taking little tastes. “When I started the talks, I took your dear brother aside privately and explained everything to him. I wanted him to know that you would be courted with honor and desire.” I shivered at the way he said that word. He stopped and looked into my eyes. “Lara, I assumed that bastard had told you . . .” His voice choked. I soothed him with soft touches and kisses. “I was waiting for you to indicate that you were willing. I didn’t understand—” He cut himself off, then spoke quietly. “You have my heart, Lara.” His voice in my ear filled me with a wondrous sense of the rightness of this man. He placed his forehead against mine.

  “My Warlord,” I whispered. He took my lips then, kissing me deeply.

  We broke apart, and he chuckled. “We best get clean, before we find ourselves stuck to the furs.” He got up, and attended to details, padding naked like a large cat around the tent. While I admired him, I wasn’t comfortable that way. I pulled the furs up and tucked them under my arms to conceal myself. He returned, bringing me a cloth, and a tray with a sweating pitcher and some pears. “A gift from Marcus.” We drank the cold spring water and fed each other slices of pear, content in the silence between us.

  Some juice ran down my chin and onto my neck and chest. I wrinkled my nose and smiled at Keir. “I’m going to need a bath in the morning.”

  Keir darted in, and licked the juice trail with his tongue. I looked at him, startled. He looked back, his eyes dancing. Carefully removing the tray, he placed it on the floor by the bed. Then he pounced, rolling me over onto my back and covering me with his length.

 
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