Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

  I moved to Simus’s side, clutched at his arm to get his attention. “Simus, you must go with him.” Simus looked down at me, puzzled. “Simus, he must not kill Xymund.” I shook his arm to make my point. “Xymund is a sworn king. There must be agreement from the lords, proof that he breached his oath.”

  Simus nodded. “Keir knows that, little healer. He will . . .”

  “Look at him, Simus.”

  Simus did. His eyes narrowed as he took in Keir’s stance. “Maybe you are right.” He smiled down at me. “Leave it to me.” Simus moved next to Keir and began to speak. Keir shot me a glance, then turned to argue with Simus.

  After a few minutes of debate, a compromise was struck. Simus and Joden would create the confusion in the camp. Under that cover Keir would leave with Prest, Rafe, and Heath to make for the castle kitchens to secure the hostages. Simus and Iften would lead a unit to secure the castle and join with Keir to confront Xymund. Joden would remain behind, taking command of the Watch. I would remain safe within the tent, heavily guarded and under my oath not to leave. Epor and Isdra were summoned quickly, to take up a position inside the tent.

  With a nod, Keir started all in motion. Voices cried out as if in horror, Keir’s voice rising above the others. Warriors started to rush out of the tent and mill about at the entrance, with cries of outrage. The guards outside could be heard to ask questions and to wail in response to the news. Simus strode out, crying for vengeance and calling for mounts.

  Prest, Rafe, and Heath stood by the entrance. Heath had been fitted with helm and sword. They waited for Keir, who stood beside me, strapping on his swords. He nodded to them to precede him and turned to me.

  I placed my hand on his heart. The mail shirt he had put on felt cold under my fingers. “Be safe.”

  He stared down at me, then gently gathered me into his arms, burying his face in my hair. “I will. I regret this, Lara. He is your blood and kin.” He raised his head, and I saw the anger in his eyes.

  I nodded. “I know.” He nodded as well, released me, and with a swirl of his cape, left the tent. As the flap fell, I saw him speak to Marcus, who was standing just inside.

  I stood there, afraid not so much for Keir’s physical safety as for the price of Xymund’s death. Guilty or not, he was a king, and the local lords who had agreed to the terms of the peace might rise in defiance of his death at the hands of the Warlord. He was also my brother, no matter his mistakes and misjudgments. I did not want to see him harmed. Those thoughts whirled around in my head as I stood there.

  Marcus reentered the tent. He shook his head and guided me back to my seat. “Hisself will be fine, Warprize. Fretting does no good.” Within moments I found myself wrapped in a thick cloak and drinking warmed wine. Marcus watched me anxiously.

  “It’s hard to wait,” I said quietly, looking into the goblet.

  “Aye. I am thinking it takes more courage to be waiting than to be in the thick of things. A lesson I learned when my warrior days ended.” Marcus sat at my feet and picked up another goblet for himself. He refilled his cup and mine as well. “You barely ate a thing.” He pushed some of the tastier dishes my way. “Eat a bite and I will regale you with tales. Better than a Singer, I am.”

  “Really?” I reached for some bread.

  “Aye. Would you like to know how I met Hisself?”

  I nodded as I chewed. Marcus continued, “’Twas out in the practice grounds. I was training the young ones sword fighting, putting them through their paces, when this wee bit of a lad, all blue eyes and soft curls, comes into the circle, dragging a wooden sword behind him.” Marcus took a draught. “ ‘What’s this?’ says I. ‘Wanna fight?’ says the lad.” Marcus grinned. “Hisself too small to wield a sword almost as big as him. ‘You’re too little,’ says I, kneeling down in front of him. Those defiant blue eyes staring back at me. ‘Wor-wor,’ he says. ‘I’m gonna be wor-wor.’ ” Marcus shook his head. “I finally had to pick him up and carry him out of the circle to let the others get back to work.”

  “What did he do?” I mumbled around my food.

  Marcus laughed. “Well, I had one unhappy little man on my hands. I sat him next to me on a bench and started talking about the fighting, about the mistakes that they were making, what they did right, what they could have done better. He sat there by me, enthralled, ’til a thea came looking for him.” Marcus looked at me, his eye twinkling. “Hisself took to escaping from the theas every chance he got to come and watch. Drove’em mad.” He chuckled as he poured more wine. “When he finally got a sword in his hands, it was as if he had listened and learned from everything he had heard me say. Have no fear for the Warlord’s safety, Warprize. He will be well.”

  As I ate, Marcus kept me diverted with tales of the little boy. But as time passed, and the shadows lengthened, my worries grew. I started to pace in the confines of the tent. Marcus stayed near me, pretending to clean and straighten the area, walking amidst overturned stumps, picking up scattered plates. He even offered to send for Gils so that I could give him a lesson, but I waved him off.

  Finally, there was a noise outside. Epor went out, and there was a muted discussion. Finally, Epor lifted the flap. “A messenger has arrived, who speaks only Xyian. I told them to bring him here, since Joden is making rounds.”

  Marcus nodded. “That is well. I’m thinking the Warprize can’t wait a moment longer.” Epor dropped the flap, and Marcus chivied me to my usual seat and helped me arrange my cloak. “I’m thinking some wine would not go amiss. Put some color in your cheeks.” Marcus swiftly moved to gather up a jug and cup, and was serving me as the messenger walked in, cloaked and hooded. Epor followed, taking his position opposite Isdra.

  The messenger threw back his hood. I swallowed, suddenly nervous, to find my half brother standing before me.

  Xymund looked terrible. His eyes were sunken into his head, and his face was haggard and gray. This was not the older half brother I’d grown up with, or the proud young man I’d seen crowned King. It seemed a stranger stared at me, and for a moment I sat stock-still before I recovered my wits.

  “Please sit, brother. You look exhausted.” I spoke in Xyian, hoping to put Xymund at his ease. I was determined that this end without bloodshed or harm to anyone. Marcus had taken up his station behind me. I felt comforted by his presence.

  Xymund barely took note of him. “You look well, Lara. Slavery agrees with you.” His voice was thick and harsh, as if he had been drinking.

  I flushed, but did not drop my eyes. “I am not a slave. I am mate and consort to Keir, Warlord. Your Overlord.” I sat taller and put my shoulders back, realizing that this man would never again have authority over me. “My position is one of honor, for I am the Warprize.”

  He sneered. “Another word for whore.”

  Marcus stiffened next to me.

  I looked at the man before me, taking in his exhaustion. Yet, in his eyes I could see a deep hatred of myself and of Keir. My Warlord, who even now was trying to rescue my beloved Anna and Othur and maintain the peace that Xymund was throwing away by his actions. It angered me that Xymund had manipulated us. My loyalties may have been divided before, but they were suddenly clear. I frowned at him, feeling no sympathy for a plight he’d brought upon himself. “I am willing to listen, my brother. But I will not tolerate insults.”

  He snarled. “Your Warlord is at the castle. He has invaded the place with his men, and they are hunting for me. Warren has turned against me. They are making wild claims that I tried to have you killed.”

  I took a breath. “Heath . . .”

  Xymund glared at me. “Heath is a liar.”

  I just looked at him. “You have known Heath and his parents since we were children. He does not lie.”

  Xymund’s eyes were wild. His hands clenched and unclenched, forming tight fists. He seemed lost somehow, as if looking into a world I could not see. “You were always the favorite.” He looked up, as if to curse the gods. “I thought you were my loyal little sister, w
ho would do her duty and suffer the consequences.” He took a step closer. “I go to clean out your room as a dutiful and loving brother should. And what do I find in the toe of your boot?” His hand moved. Marcus tensed behind me. But Xymund simply threw something small toward the dais, where it landed on the first step, by my feet.

  Marcus went forward, knelt down, and handed it to me.

  It was Simus’s brooch. The black pouncing cat gleamed in the light. It was warm to the touch, and my fingers folded around it.

  Xymund continued. “You traitor. You wanted the throne for yourself, and betrayed me to my enemies.” He almost spat the words at me.

  My heart raced in my breast, but I fought to stay calm. “Xymund, I did not betray you. I slipped this off a wounded man because I was afraid that you would kill him outright rather than let him be exchanged.”

  Xymund was red, a vein in his neck throbbing. “Father adored you. Even when you refused to be an obedient Daughter of Xy. I knew I could surpass you, outshine you as the heir, as a warrior, but you became a healer, and Father was so proud.”

  “He was proud of you as well,” I said quietly.

  Xymund continued on, spitting in his fury. “Damn them all, they all watched me, waiting for me to fail. Whispering behind my back, that I was a coward, that I panicked. Always my mother’s son, never my father’s heir.” His voice grew shrill. “So I sent Arneath and his men to kill you and any with you. Arneath swore he’d give his life for me, got that fool boy Degnan and hired scum.” Xymund paused, breathing heavily.

  “And so they died.” I was bitter and so sick at heart with disappointment. I’d have wept at the waste, but my anger was stronger. “And in the marketplace? Did you hire them as well?”

  “Market?” Xymund paused. “I wanted you dead in their camp, dead in breach of this so-called peace. Arneath failed me. I will do what he could not.” With one swift move he pulled his sword and advanced on me.

  I froze.

  Marcus, still at my feet, did not. He sprang forward, pulling two daggers as if from thin air. He took Xymund’s charge, catching his blade in the daggers, and stopping him cold.

  Xymund swore. Marcus smiled up at him. For a brief moment, they stood there, Xymund towering over the thin and wiry older man. The tableau broke as they pulled away from each other. Xymund tried to move back, stumbling over the stumps and tables, and Marcus was quick to press his advantage. Holding his sword out before him, Xymund drew a dagger with the other hand, and glared at Marcus with a wild look.

  Epor and Isdra leaped forward, weapons out. They circled the combatants to reach my side, followed by the guards from outside, who paused in the entrance, drawn by the noise.

  “Xymund, put down your weapons.” I moved forward, angry that he would attack Marcus.

  Marcus swore and moved between Xymund and myself. “Lara, you idiot, get back.”

  I stopped where I was, but Epor had other ideas. He pushed me back as he and Isdra interposed between me and the threat.

  Marcus held his hands to his sides and gestured for Xymund to come at him.

  “A cripple?” Xymund laughed. He lunged in, swinging his sword in a fierce arc. Marcus dodged it, blocked the sword, and parried the dagger. Xymund broke away. Marcus danced back. Xymund came in again, thrusting his sword at Marcus’s body. But Marcus had already moved, and seeing that Xymund’s reach was extended, leaned in and cut him on his cheek.

  Xymund jerked back, shocked. Marcus moved to press his advantage, driving him back, away from me.

  “Marcus, be careful,” I called out, afraid for him. I would have moved toward them, but Epor and Isdra prevented me. “Xymund, in the name of the Goddess, please—”

  “I’ll kill you, bitch.” Xymund howled, like a dog gone mad.

  Marcus laughed and smirked at the sweaty and bleeding Xymund. He stopped pressing him and backed away. Marcus struck his chest with his fist, clearly defying Xymund, daring him to attack. What was he thinking? Xymund was bigger and stronger. Why didn’t Epor help him?

  Xymund glared at Marcus, panting and dripping blood. “I will kill your servant, and kill you where you stand, you miserable whore.”

  Marcus’s face went flat, the one eye narrowing. He’d recognized the word “whore.” The atmosphere in the tent changed. Marcus was no longer playing, his stance and attitude changing subtly. Xymund seemed to feel it as well. He tightened his grip on his weapons and crouched lower. Suddenly I understood that it was Xymund in deadly danger, not Marcus.

  From outside came the sounds of horses, lots of them galloping to a halt outside the tent. Some of the guards by the door stepped out to confront the newcomers.

  Still, I pleaded, “Xymund, stop this. Whatever you feel about me, remember the peace. Your oath demands . . .”

  Xymund snarled and attacked Marcus viciously. His face was distorted, eyes bulging and mouth twisted. He rushed in, sword slashing at Marcus’s face. Marcus parried with a kind of contempt, catching the blades with his daggers, he moved in close and spat in Xymund’s face.

  Screaming in rage, Xymund reared back and instinctively lifted a forearm to clean his eyes. Marcus saw his chance and took it, striking the sword from Xymund’s hand. One dagger dug into Xymund’s neck, the tip of the other rested just above his groin.

  Xymund froze.

  Marcus chuckled. “Warprize, tell this fool to kneel.”

  Xymund’s eyes swung wildly about the room as I repeated the words. “I will not kneel to a servant and a whore.” His eyes landed on mine. “I am your King, enthroned and consecrated. You cannot call for my death.”

  The entire outside wall of the tent fell, revealing Keir, Simus, and his men. Lord Warren was there as well, along with some of the lords. They were all standing and staring at Xymund with hate in their eyes. Keir’s voice came, cold and sharp. “I can.”

  Marcus’s grin got sharper and the blade of the dagger moved to press a bit deeper into Xymund’s neck. Xymund slowly lowered himself to his knees. Marcus allowed the lower dagger to trail up Xymund’s jerkin ’til the point rested at his heart.

  “Marcus,” Keir growled. “Don’t kill him.”

  Marcus snorted. “Give me a good reason, Warlord. This pig is not worthy to die on your blade and, with all due respect, the warprize couldn’t kill for her nooning if she were starving and there were fowl aplenty.” Not for one minute did Marcus relax the blades pressed against Xymund’s throat and chest.

  “Marcus.” My voice cracked. “Marcus, his own people must try him, must find him guilty, must know what he has done . . . Marcus, they must know—otherwise everything Keir wants to achieve will be lost. Please . . .”

  Marcus sneered and leaned in on Xymund. “The only thing that saves you now are the words of the Warprize . . . she who is honored before all.” Xymund may not have understood the words, but he certainly got their meaning. His eyes blazed hot as Marcus stepped back. Epor and Isdra moved forward, ready to secure the prisoner.

  As the tent filled, I turned and smiled at Keir. The stiffness in his back eased, as his eyes passed over me, assuring himself that I was safe. I moved forward, intent only on reaching him.

  Unknowingly, I moved closer to Xymund, and into Marcus’s blind spot.

  With a howl, Xymund jumped to his feet, swept up his dagger, and lunged at me. He grabbed my shoulder and I saw his rage, felt his breath hot on my face as his dagger moved toward my stomach.

  Keir was there. In one move he threw me backward to the floor and stepped between us, securing Xymund’s wrist in one hand. The blade was poised between them.

  Xymund fought, struggling against the grip, bringing his other hand up. His face was wild and frightening, the blood oozing from his cheek, splattering Keir’s chest as he struggled. Keir stood firm. “End this. Now.”

  Xymund raged, trying with all his might to free his wrist. “No, no! Death to the whore and traitor.”

  Keir said nothing, merely hooded his eyes. He slowly forced the point of the dagger down
and toward Xymund’s stomach. Keir’s voice grated as he spoke. “For the last time, end this now and save your life.”

  Xymund shrieked and threw himself at Keir.

  Keir shoved the point of the dagger into his stomach.

  Xymund’s eyes bulged. He still held the hilt. Keir released him and stepped back, turning to sweep me up and away. Epor, Isdra, and Marcus moved toward Xymund. Over their shoulders, I saw Xymund start to buckle, then my view was blocked by Keir as he embraced me.

  I resisted, trying to see around him. “Let me go, let me see . . .” Keir was running his hands over me, checking for injury and restraining me at the same time. “Keir, let me try to . . .”

  “No.” Keir caught me up again, pressing my head to his chest. He rocked me slightly.

  I heard a cough come from behind Keir. Simus spoke quietly. “He is dead. What are your instructions, Warlord?”

  Keir said nothing. He pulled back and looked at me. I looked into his eyes and tried to smile. He smiled back, but with an overcast of sadness in his eyes. “Remove the body. We will take it to the city and inform the nobles and the people of what has happened.” He rubbed his thumb over my lips. “Lara, I . . .” He paused, as if in pain. “Remember that you have my heart.”

  “Lara!” A shriek filled the air as Anna descended on us, weeping and crying. She hugged me to her bosom. Keir stood and backed away, letting Anna and Othur close. We hugged and embraced in joyful reunion.

  Lord Warren approached Keir. “Warlord, who shall now rule in Xymund’s stead?”

  There was sudden hush, as the Xyians all looked to Keir.

  Keir inclined his head. “That’s an issue that must be discussed. We’ll take up the body and return to the castle. The future of this land, and the Daughter of Xy must be resolved quickly to preserve our peace.”

  My heart stopped.

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