Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan


  I laughed. “Keir, I am all sticky.”

  He growled, eyes gleaming in the light. “I am going to get you stickier.”

  “IT’S ENOUGH TO CRY CHALLENGE ON HIM,” SIMUS growled.

  My Warlord had invited Simus and Joden to eat the evening meal with us. Marcus muttered as he delivered the various dishes to the table, but there was a twinkle in his eye that caused me to flush whenever he looked at me.

  “No, it’s not.” Keir helped himself to some of the spicy meat.

  “He meant no peace!” Simus thumped his fist on the table, and the dishes rattled. “Telling his people that she is to be a ‘thing.’ ”

  “Daughters of Xy are born to be given in alliance marriages, Simus.” I saved one of the bowls from falling. “I came willingly, to forge a peace.”

  “To bind partners together for gain? Who is the barbarian, Warprize?” Joden looked at me intently.

  “He lies to her, and to his people, and sends men to kill her.” Simus clenched his mug. “Challenge and gut him.” He was deadly serious.

  “We have no proof—” I started, but Keir leapt in.

  “He gave you poison.”

  “In the same way you grant mercy to your wounded.”

  “No.” Keir shook his head. “He knew the truth, Lara. It’s not the same.”

  “What of Iften, then?” I helped myself to the bread. “That lance was full-tipped.”

  “Eh?” From the looks on their faces, it was clear that Keir had not told them about the marketplace. Keir told them now, in short, crisp words, and they both grew quiet, thinking of the implications. Simus sighed heavily. “Well, that changes some well-laid plans.”

  “What plans?” I asked.

  “From the beginning, we’d hoped for conquest. The plan was to secure the city and then split the army, with Keir remaining here. I’d return to the Plains, and bring more men in the spring.” Simus picked up his mug. “Now, Keir must return to the Heart of the Plains.”

  “Leaving Simus with no one to watch his back.” Keir scowled. “I’ll not leave him here with Iften.”

  “I could stay.” Joden’s voice was soft.

  Simus shook his head violently. Keir raised an eyebrow. “What of your plans to advance to Singer during the snows? Stay here, and it will be another year before you can—”

  “He’s going.” Simus was firm. “I’ll not see that dream delayed, Joden.”

  Joden looked down. “The Elders may not—”

  “You’ve been punished.” Simus’s dark eyes twinkled as he changed the subject. “Speaking of that, have you started to work on the song?”

  Joden nodded.

  “Tell us the chorus at least, Joden.” Simus gestured with a hand, almost spilling my kavage. “Are we to wait until you perform it to hear it?”

  “No.” Joden chewed on a chicken leg. “Yes.”

  “No fair.” Simus turned to Keir. “You’re the Warlord. Order him to give us a hint.”

  Keir snorted. “Order a singer?”

  Simus leaned toward me, a wicked gleam in those dark eyes. “You’re the Warprize. You could . . .” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

  “If she does,” Joden spoke calmly, “the verses will talk about a certain wounded warrior who got fat and lazy as he healed.”

  Simus looked down at his third plateful. “I need food to mend. Isn’t that right, little healer?”

  I looked at him, keeping my face serious. “Simus, the entire army could heal on what you eat.”

  Keir and Joden roared. Simus tried not to laugh as he objected to my statement.

  “What’s the ruckus?” Marcus entered with more kavage. Keir and Joden explained over Simus’s protests of innocence. “Ah, there’s truth in what the Warprize says.” Marcus poured for all of us. “Your gut will soon overhang your belt.”

  “Lara.” I looked Marcus straight in the eye. “My name is Lara.”

  Keir, Simus, and Joden all busied themselves with their food. Marcus ignored me.

  “Marcus.” I sat up very straight, determined to win this point. “I wish to be called ‘Lara.’ ”

  His one eye flashed at me; Marcus was not a happy man. He put the pot of kavage on the table, bowed, and turned to go.

  “Marcus, stop.” He stopped where he was, but didn’t turn to face me. “Marcus, I order—”

  Joden choked on his kavage. Simus sucked in a breath between his teeth, and Keir had his hand over his eyes. Apparently, I was about to do something very, very foolish.

  Marcus turned on his heel, his one eyebrow arched. “Yes?”

  Utter silence from the three men at the table.

  “Marcus, it would mean a lot to me if you would call me ‘Lara’ occasionally.”

  “I’ll think on it.” Marcus turned again and left.

  Simus sighed. “You’re a brave one, little healer.”

  “He wouldn’t hurt me,” I protested.

  “Gruel. Cold gruel and watery kavage for a month.” Keir shuddered. “I’ve learned the hard way not to cross Marcus.”

  “Aye to that,” Joden said, and Simus agreed.

  It was late when Simus and Joden left. I stripped and got under the furs, and waited for Keir to return from checking the Watch. The braziers gave off their heat, and a familiar glow lit the tent.

  Keir returned, and I looked up at him with a smile.

  He frowned and gave me a look. “We will sleep now, Warprize. You will be sore enough in the morning.”

  I smiled, reached out my hand, and pulled him into the bed.

  MARCUS’S VOICE CUT THROUGH THE MORNING fog. “Your lazy butts best be moving. There’s a morning senel. Less than a mark to make ready.” I could hear him moving about, readying the privy area. “There’s more water warming. You can break your fast at the senel. I’ve a pitcher of kavage waiting. Shake yourselves now.” I heard him move off, but wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep. Keir and I had “discussed” matters for quite some time.

  A hand stroked my warm cheek. I lifted my head and blinked sleepily into his eyes. Keir rolled me over and kissed me. “When you look like that, all drowsy and sweet, it’s all I can do not to . . .”

  “None of that, now.” Marcus came back into the room, with more warm water. He went into the privy area.

  Keir sighed deeply, then kissed me again. He pulled his head back, just as I started to return the kiss with a rising passion. “None of that, now,” he whispered. I smiled at him. He sighed again, and levered himself up and off the bed. “I’d best go first.” He looked down at my face as an idea crossed my mind. He glared. “Alone.”

  I threw him a disgusted look.

  Marcus left, and Keir went to clean up. I lay there for a moment, basking in the remaining warmth. Then I arched my back, preparing to stretch . . . and stopped.

  Oooo. That hurt.

  I must have made a noise, because Keir was next to me in an instant, a towel wrapped around his waist. Water droplets clung to his arms and chest.

  “Are you all right?”

  I blinked and just admired him. He looked down at me, slowly smiled, and repeated his question. “I’m fine.” I smiled at him. Marcus came into the room, and I flushed slightly, adjusting the blanket a bit higher. “My arm’s a little sore, that’s all.”

  Keir frowned, then understanding came into his eyes. “Perhaps you should stay in bed today.”

  I tilted my head and smiled wider. “Only if you stay with me.” His eyes flared, and I seemed to see some movement underneath the towel. My smile expanded.

  He mock growled and stalked off toward the privy. “Marcus ! Send a runner for Gils. I want him to look at her arm.” With that, his high and mightiness entered the privy and dropped the flap behind him.

  Marcus looked over at me, concerned. “Is it the arm that’s hurting?”

  I busied myself with the placement of the furs. “No.”

  Marcus smiled. “Ah.” He left, whistling tunelessly as he did so.

  A
FTER I BATHED, MARCUS STOOD OVER ME AS GILS changed the bandage and administered fever’s foe. The wound was very sore, but looked well. Marcus grunted when Gils was done and whisked him out of the tent. He’d not be allowed to serve this time.

  I could hear the men gathering in the main area and tried to concentrate on putting my hair up and out of my way. Keir came up behind me and captured my hands. “Leave it down. Please?” He ran his fingers through the half-formed bun and shook it out. I sighed as he pulled me up and over to the flap.

  Marcus played herald for us, bearing Keir’s token, and the men rose as we made our way to our seats. Trays of food were brought out and pitchers of kavage were quickly passed around. I dug in, hungry. Keir sparked conversation, asking about the status of men, gear, and supplies.

  I listened as I ate, noting that Keir seemed very satisfied with the responses. Simus was also asking questions and listening, but while both men seemed to concentrate on the talk, and the food, I knew their attention was also on Iften, sitting off to the far side, nursing some kavage. Iften made no move to join the conversation, but also drew no attention to himself.

  Marcus went out for a moment to speak with the guards, then returned. When he had caught Keir’s eye, he spoke. “A messenger from the castle.”

  Keir nodded. “I was hoping to hear from Warren. Bring the messenger in.”

  The flap parted, and a figure walked in. With the light behind him, I could not make out his face until he drew nearer. It was Heath. My face split into a delighted smile. “Heath.” I stood and went over to him, wrapping him in an enthusiastic hug. He returned it with gusto, then pulled back. As always, his hand came up to cup my neck and he pulled his forehead to mine.

  “Lara. Are you well?” His whisper was fierce and hard, a contrast to his smiling face.

  I nodded, still resting my forehead on his. “Well, very, very well.” I lifted my head and smiled at him. “Come, sit with me. Eat.”

  He shook his head, speaking in a low voice. “No. I’ve a message to deliver and I don’t know how it will be received. Go. Return to your seat.”

  I frowned. “Something’s wrong.” It was there in his eyes.

  Heath released me and gave me a slight push. I returned to my seat, casting a glance at Keir, who had a concerned look on his face.

  Heath advanced another step, and then sank to one knee, bowing before Keir.

  “Welcome.” Keir indicated that Heath could rise, but Heath did not do so. Keir continued, “Do you bring word from Lord Warren?”

  “Warlord, I was sent by Xymund, the King.”

  Keir gestured for him to continue.

  “Warlord, the message I was given was of treachery. Of an attack upon Xymund by Lord Warren as he rode through the city.” Keir sat up straight as Heath took a deep breath. “They are not true words, but I will repeat them if you so desire.”

  Keir and Simus tensed. The men about me stopped their idle talk and stilled, conscious of a new tension.

  Heath continued. “Warlord, my true mission was to kill . . .” His voice faltered. “. . . the King told me that upon entrance to the tent he was sure that Lara would approach me and greet me as she is like to do. Upon her approach, I was to strike and kill her.”

  Keir was feral still, his voice deep and soft and full of menace. “How so? I see no weapon.”

  “Like so, Warlord.” Heath extended his arm and twisted his wrist. A blade the length of a child’s hand sprang forth from under his sleeve. It gleamed, sharp and deadly in the light.

  The reaction was immediate. The men around me jumped up, some forming a barrier in front of me, the others pulling their weapons and pointing them at Heath. I stood, fearful for his life, but Keir stopped all movement with a gesture of his hand.

  “Yet the Warprize is safe, and you are on your knees before me.”

  Heath nodded and swallowed. With quick movements, he removed the hidden blade from his arm as he spoke, “Xymund swore fealty to you, Warlord, and my oath to Xymund then flows through to you. I would not have this stain on my soul. Lara is as a sister to me, and I could not . . .” His voice cracked under the strain. He threw the mechanism at Keir’s feet and sat back on his heels, slumped in sorrow. “Xymund holds my parents as guarantee that I would perform this action. He will kill them if my mission fails.”

  “Anna and Othur.” I looked at Keir, my heart in my throat.

  “I fear that he has been touched by the Goddess,” Heath continued. “I have no other explanation.”

  “What does that mean?” Keir looked at me.

  “Insane. Mad.” My hand rose to my lips. “Heath, he can’t be—”

  “Lara, he changed the day he swore fealty to the Warlord. After you left, he raved for hours.” Heath wiped sweat off his forehead with the heel of his hand. “I swear the defeat did something to him.”

  “Sit. Sit,” Simus spoke, gesturing for everyone to return to their seats. Keir nodded, and everyone sat down. I took a step toward Heath, but a quick glance at Keir showed that it would not be a good idea. Undecided, I hesitated. Keir’s jaw was tight, his eyes hard on Heath. I moved to stand behind my Warlord, resting my hand on his shoulder. At my touch, some of the tension left him.

  Simus broke the silence. “So the serpent shows his fangs.”

  Keir nodded. “If his wits have been taken by the winds, how stands the castle? The city walls?”

  “Xymund had me escorted to the rise that overlooks your camp. Two watchers remain there, waiting. They will return to Xymund with word of what occurs within your camp.” Heath raised his head to meet Keir’s eyes. “I believe that once my father and Warren are freed—”

  “Warren is held?” Simus leaned forward to ask.

  Heath nodded. “He was imprisoned after the Warlord came to the castle.”

  “What of the city?” Keir asked again, drawing Heath back to the subject.

  “Warlord, if Othur and Warren are freed, I believe that the army and the palace guards will listen to them. Xymund is the ordained King, but evidence of his madness grows by the hour.”

  Keir nodded. With quick words, he translated events for those that didn’t speak Xyian. Once done, his eyes dropped to Heath’s kneeling form and returned to my language. “Rise, Heath. You have risked much, and spared the Warprize. I will not forget this. Where are your parents held?”

  Heath stood. “There are cellars, Warlord, under the kitchens. They are confined there, with the rest of the kitchen staff. Xymund took no risk that word would leak before I arrived here.”

  Keir nodded and switched tongues again. “Prest, Rafe, you have been to the castle and the kitchens. Pick men to go with us to secure the hostages. Keep the group small. Joden, take charge of the camp. We will make it appear that the Warprize is slain and that the camp is in confusion. But under the cover of that confusion, let men prepare to mount and ride for the castle. Xymund has breached the peace through his actions, and I will have his head.”

  I started, squeezing Keir’s shoulder. He did not look at me, turning to look at Simus instead. “Simus, I ask that you undertake the protection of the warprize personally. Designate whatever men you need to hold her safe. Once the commotion has started, place the army on alert.”

  Iften rose at that. “Warlord, it’s my place to take charge of the camp, not Joden.” He almost spat Joden’s name.

  Keir almost snarled. “Iften, if you had both feet planted on the earth, were bathed in flames, calling a wind, holding my token, and blessed by rain from the skies, still I would not trust you with my warprize.”

  Marcus snickered, as did some of the others. Iften turned bright red, but held his tongue.

  Keir looked at Heath, and once again switched tongues. “Heath, you will be a part of the rescue. Prest and Rafe speak your language. Stay close to them.” Keir covered my hand with his. “The Warprize has faith in you. You will be given weapons. But if you should betray us, you are dead. Am I understood ?”

  “You are, Warlord.” Heath
bowed his head.

  Keir stood. “Talk amongst yourselves, but let no man leave the tent ’til we have completed our plans.” The men moved to obey. Keir turned, and in one quick movement, blocked my view of the tent. He towered over me. I stood my ground and returned his look. He raised his hand and placed a finger against my lips. “Don’t,” he breathed. “I need you safe, need to know that you are well out of that treacherous dog’s hands.”

  “Keir, he is my brother and lawful King. You can’t just kill him without . . .” I paused, torn.

  Keir’s jaw tightened. “He has betrayed his people. He has broken his oath to me. He has tried to kill you, his blood and kin. His life is forfeit and it will be at my hand. Would you protect him even so?”

  “Keir, we do not punish the insane for their actions. You can’t—”

  “We hold that truth as well, Lara, unless the addled one is dangerous.”

  “I know.” I closed my eyes, and looked away. “But he is of my blood and of the Blood of Xy.” I looked up into his eyes, trying to figure out how to explain. Xymund might be a poor ruler, and mad as well, but he was my half brother, and my father had loved him.

  Keir’s finger stroked my cheek. “I’m trying to understand, Lara.”

  “I know,” I whispered. “I’m trying to figure it out myself. He threatens Anna and Othur, and this fragile peace between our peoples. Yet—”

  “You would have him unharmed.” Keir grimaced. “I will try, Lara. But I make no promise.”

  “Thank you.” I smiled.

  Keir gave me a knowing look. “You will remain here, Warprize.”

  “But—”

  Keir grabbed my shoulders and gave me a firm shake. “Your oath now, that you will remain in this tent under protection. Or as the sun rises, I swear that I will chain you to a post before I leave.”

  The fear was there, haunting his blue eyes. I nodded. “Waste no time. Save Anna and Othur. Do what you have to do. I will be here when you return.”

  Relief flooded his face, and he kissed me, drawing me into his arms. I went willingly, and clung to him with all the strength I had, afraid for him. Afraid for the peace. He held me for a long moment before turning to the room. “Are we ready?” The men started to gather around him.

 
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