Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

Before I knew it, the castle walls were before me, comforting symbols of strength. The gate guards called a greeting, well used to my routine at this point. Once through the gate, I turned down toward the path that led into the overgrowth.

  Xymund’s mother had been a great one for flowers and plants. She’d spent many hours directing the gardeners in their work, creating elaborate pleasure gardens. That may be why the rumors had started, that Xymund was a bastard, a result of an affair that his mother had. It didn’t help that she’d come from a distant kingdom to marry our father, since my people have a deep distrust of all things foreign. Father had thought the potential alliance was worth facing their intolerance, but from the stories I’d heard, it had not been easy on him or the Queen.

  Of course my father denied the rumors, acknowledged Xymund as his son and heir, and swore that he was the spitting image of his grandfather, but the story never died. Older Xyians were quick to point out that Xymund and his father looked nothing alike, a fact that stuck Xymund like a knife. Even after he was acknowledged as heir, even after ascending the throne, it was a scab that he seemed to pick at constantly.

  Xymund’s mother had passed and my mother, youngest daughter of a Xyian lord, had no interest in the work necessary to see the pleasure gardens maintained. The kitchen gardens were well kept, mind, since they were of practical value. But she saw no point in frivolous pursuits. It was one of the few things I knew about my mother, as she’d died giving birth to me.

  The path wound through the trees and bushes, and through a great rose briar that had grown wild. I could see that some of the rose hips were ready to be picked. I didn’t stop, but made a note to get some later.

  The overgrowth made the path dark and close. Finally, I broke through to the cleared area that held a large canvas tent. It was here that the enemy wounded were housed.

  The first sentry did not even challenge me, just waved me through. He was leaning on his spear, looking like he was trying to nap. I continued on, puffing a little. I was tired. It always seemed to take longer for these visits than I had planned. There was a High Court tonight, but my presence would not be missed. Or noted. I rarely attended them.

  The second sentry stood post outside the tent. I was pleased to see Heath standing there, and quickened my pace.

  He was not pleased to see me. One hand holding his spear, the other planted firmly on his hip. His round face was marred by a frown, surrounded by curls much the color of mine.

  “Lara.” He grimaced. “You are not supposed to be here.” He jerked his head in the direction of the tent. “And I don’t think they really appreciate what you are doing.”

  I stopped next to him, holding my burdens, and looked up at him. At first I maintained a serious countenance then slowly allowed a smile to spread over my face. As I stood there before my childhood friend, his frown faded as a smile crept over his face in answer to mine. I lowered my eyes and tried not to laugh. I stepped up to him, and he put a hand behind my neck, and pulled my forehead to rest against his. We’d done it since we were kids, a greeting just between the two of us. Of course, he now had to lower his head and stoop a bit to make it work, tall as he was.

  Anna said I was just right—not too tall, not too short. But some days I wished for an extra inch or two.

  I stepped back and grinned.

  Heath glanced to the heavens in a great show of patience, as if looking for guidance, then returned his attention to me. “If anyone asks, you ordered me to step aside.”

  I deepened my smile. “My thanks, Heath.”

  “I could never say no to you, little bird.” He sighed as he lifted the tent flap. “I already had the men heat the water kettles for you.” He got that look on his face again. “My shift ends in three hours. Arneath comes on duty after me and you need to be out by then.”

  I wrinkled my nose and Heath grimaced right back at me. There was something about Arneath that made my skin itch. He’d been made head of the Palace Guard recently by Xymund, over the heads of more qualified men. I avoided him whenever I could.

  “I’ll be out in time.”

  Heath rolled his eyes. “I’ve heard that before. Have a care, little bird.” With that, he lifted the tent flap.

  I stepped into the tent.

  The first thing to hit me was the smell. Herbs, blood, and death. The men were crammed in close, with more pallets than cots. There were no apprentices here, no helpers to air the place out or fresh linens or help with bathing. I made do with what I had, which was precious little.

  When I had first come into their midst, no one would let me touch them, much less speak to me. Their language was fluid and fast, and I’d a hard time trying to pick up the meaning. It had taken persistence and sheer stubbornness on my part, but eventually a few allowed me to tend them. While they were all so different, ranging from fair complexions to deep tan, to almost yellow, one thing held true. They all bled red, and they all responded to my medicines. Thanks to the Goddess, a few spoke the trade tongue rather well and were willing to translate.

  I let my eyes adjust, greeted the two guards stationed inside, and moved further into the tent. There was a silence when I stepped in, the tension palpable. Once they saw it was me, their relief was subtle, but clear. It was the signal that they would be permitted to bathe, and wash clothes and bedding as best they could. Unlike my Xyian patients, these men preferred being clean. There was even some sort of prayer that they murmured as they poured the water.

  “Lara.”

  I turned and saw Rafe making his way to me, a smaller man, thin, with fair skin and deep black hair and brown eyes. His face seemed always lit with a smile. One of the youngest, he had been the first to let me treat him, and to help me learn the language. There were still gaps in my understanding, words that I missed, or used incorrectly. But I was understood most of the time. These men did not seem to believe that I could treat them. I certainly had not been able to help them deal with the strange headaches they suffered from. But I had proved myself as to other hurts.

  “Rafe, I hope that you are feeling better.” I spoke slowly, trying to get the correct sounds out of my mouth. I looked carefully at the wound that ran down the side of his face. It appeared to be healing well.

  Rafe quirked his mouth. “You still sound like a child at lessons.”

  He followed as I moved to the center of the tent, where there was a small table. I sat down my supplies, rummaged in my basket, and produced a jar, which I handed to him. “Rub this on the gash, Rafe. It will reduce the scar.”

  He took the jar, but frowned. “Why so? It is an honorable scar.”

  “It will still be honorable if it heals flat and tight.” These men had very strange ideas about injuries. Rafe scowled, but kept the jar.

  The men about us were already stirring, but Rafe shifted his weight, making no move to go bathe. A shadow passed over his face.

  “Is something wrong?” I asked.

  He hesitated and replied softly, “There is a new man here,” and jerked his head toward the back of the tent. I could see some men clustered around one of the cots. “If you would please . . .”

  I took my basket and headed in that direction. Best to see what I had to deal with now, before I started to see to the others.

  As I approached, some of the men drifted away. But two large men remained standing by the cot. With my eyes fixed firmly on my patient, I lowered the basket to the ground, knelt, and got a good look.

  He was an enormous black man, spilling over the sides and ends of the cot. Black as night, black as wrought iron. The rumors were true. I caught my breath, and for one fleeting moment wondered if he would belch fire. But common sense came to the fore, as I took in his condition. Wrapped in a cloak and blankets, his eyes were open but unseeing. Sweat dripped from his forehead and close-cropped black hair, hair like I’d never seen before. Whatever his color, it seemed he suffered as any other.

  The rough bandage was down close to the groin and my mouth went dry. Please, Goddess,
not another gut wound. I reached out my hand and one of the men grabbed my wrist.

  “What are you doing?” His voice was hard and clipped, but I could understand him. Dark, black eyes bored into me as his grip tightened. His broad, round face was grim, and while not as dark as the man on the cot, he was darker than most. I couldn’t help a brief thought—would I get to see a blue one?—before the man wrenched my arm again.

  “I am a healer.” I focused on his eyes.

  He snarled. “You are a bragnect.”

  I did not know the word, but suspected that it was one that was not taught to children. Careful not to return the anger, I did not pull away. “I can help him.” I kept my gaze steady on his face. “I will help him.”

  He paused, studying me.

  A sound came from the darkness. “Please, Joden. She is a healer.” Rafe came up behind us, his voice soft and serious. “We fought her off at first, but she can help.”

  Joden glanced at him. “This? This is a warrior-priest?”

  Rafe shook his head. “Even better, she is a healer.” He used the word from my language, rather than his own. “When she first came, she seemed mad and we tried to drive her away, but she has persisted.” He turned his face slightly, to display his scar. “See? She has helped many, Joden. I will swear it to the open sky, if you wish.”

  Joden looked from me to the wounded man. He released my wrist with a huff of disdain. “If you harm Simus, I will kill you.”

  I gestured with my hands. “Get him off this cot and onto a pallet.” Joden started to pull the blankets away. “Uncover him, and use wet cloths to wipe his face, arms, and chest. We must get the fever down. Leave the wound and the bandage to me.”

  One of the younger men stepped forward to help. This one had skin that was a lighter color than Joden’s, but his black hair fell in braids.

  “Rafe?” I sat back on my heels. “I mean no offense, but does he heal as others do? Will my medicines aid him, as they do the others?” He looked puzzled, as did the men around him. I cleared my throat. “I’ve never worked on one such as he.”

  “There is no difference . . .” he began. I laid my hand on his forehead, and Rafe’s gaze followed my gesture. “Do you mean his skin?”

  I nodded, and pulled my hand back, giving it a quick glance to see if any of the color had come off on my fingers.

  Rafe snorted. “There’s no difference beyond looks.” He cast a sly eye over at Joden. “Though there’s some that say Simus has more than his fair share of charm.”

  Joden grunted, but I could see a slight smile. I dug in the basket, and found a small bottle of orchid root, which I handed to the other man, the one with the braids. “You are?”

  “Prest.”

  “See if you can get him to take two swallows of this. No more. It will ease him for when we clean the wound.”

  Prest nodded.

  “I will return when I am done with the others.” I stood. “Roll up the tent sides,” I called out. “Let’s air the place as best we can.” We had done this before, to add some light and fresh air to the tent. The guards were not happy, but they let me do this when I felt the need. As the walls were lifted, I could see the guards that ringed the tent on the outside. Xymund was taking no chances.

  As the men started moving, I got up and visited my other patients, checking wounds, using my salves and potions where needed. At first, I’d been pushed away, treated rudely whenever I tried to help. It had taken time, but I was tolerated by most, and welcomed by a few. But now there was a difference. While the men treated me well, I could tell that their attention was on my newest patient. Some who had never spoken to me before even went so far as to try to ask me about the man.

  Whoever he was, I suspected he was important.

  The kettles for the hot water were brought, and the bathing began. I had smuggled some old soap out of the castle that had hardened, forgotten in a storeroom. It had the faint scent of flowers, but was mild and worked well. I never made mention of this part to anyone in the castle. One could imagine the response to the idea of a Daughter of the Blood in a tent with naked men. But for some reason, it hadn’t occurred to anyone that a healer at some point had to deal with the actual body.

  I’d gathered old tunics and trous, so that they had spare clothing. Each man washed out his own, and the guards had been bullied into setting out a drying line. It was when they stripped down for bathing that I’d first seen the tattoos that each man had on his arms. A different pattern on both arms and I could make no sense of them. I’d asked about them but been rudely rebuffed.

  Before I returned to my new patient, I went to the guards by the entrance. The older one jerked his chin toward the back of the tent. “Is he bad, Lady?”

  “Yes. I’m going to clean the wound. It won’t be quiet.”

  He winced. “Aye, I would think not. I’ll warn the others as to what you are about.”

  “Thank you.” I cocked my head. “More water would not go amiss, either.”

  He sighed. “You know the King’s commands . . .” His voice trailed off as I looked at him. “Aye. More water, then.” He called through the tent flap as I turned to go back to my newest patient.

  They had stripped the man and gotten him on a pallet. Prest was standing to one side, carefully folding the man’s clothes in a neat pile. As I knelt, I could see that he looked better. The beads of sweat were gone, and his eyes were closed. His breathing seemed easier, too. Instead of tattoos on his dark skin, there seemed to be scars, but in a pattern as the others.

  “Two swallows,” Prest reported. I nodded, but my eye had already been caught and held by the wound. I waved the men out of my light, and leaned closer to get a better look.

  The wound had been packed with the man’s cloak. It was wadded up, and the blood had crusted to the cloth. I took fresh water and soaked the material, easing it away from the scabs. Clearly, the wound had been tended in the field, but neglected since then. I glanced at Joden. “You did this?”

  Joden grunted. “It was all I had time for, before we were taken.”

  I grimaced in understanding and worked in silence. Once the material came free, I let it drop at my side as I got my first good look at the leg.

  It was bad. The gash started at the groin and got deeper as it went the length of the thigh. The edges were swollen, and white pus had gathered in its depths. There was grass and dirt and small stones embedded in the flesh. I reached out, touching the sides lightly, and felt the heat radiating off the flesh. I bit my lower lip.

  “Will he lose the leg?” Joden was standing above me.

  I looked up, noticing for the first time that Joden didn’t seem to have a hurt on him. But my eyes were drawn back to the gaping wound. I worried my lip, then spoke. “I don’t know.”

  The men around us murmured, but I had no time to fuss with them. “We’ll start with the cleansing.” I turned to my supplies, and dug out the bottles and cloths that I needed. “It is going to hurt. I’ve warned the guards. But I need your help to hold him down.”

  Joden sank to his knees next to me but made no move to help. “I wished for something to sing of, and the elements answered.” His tone was one of sorrow. “It would have been better to have granted him mercy and be done.”

  The men around me recoiled. “You failed to give him mercy?” Rafe asked, hushed, his eyes wide.

  I jerked my head up. Joden’s face was haggard and looked gray in the light. There had been tales of this practice, of the Warlord’s men killing their own on the field, but I had not believed. I rose on my knees, glared at them all, then jabbed Joden in the chest with my finger, drawing his attention. “You will not. To come this far, only to have you ki—” I could not finish that word. “No. I will not have it so.”

  He considered me, and seemed to laugh behind the pain in his eyes. “You think to save him? And the leg?”

  “I think to try.” I glared at him. “I think to hope.”

  He huffed again, looking at my small fin
ger in the center of his broad chest, but nodded slowly. “We will try, healer.” The unfamiliar word caught on his tongue. “We will hope.”

  I sat back on my heels. He gestured to some of the others. “It will take more than me to hold him, though. He is a strong one, make no mistake.” Three other men approached. Each, with Rafe, Prest, and Joden, settled down, and took a hold. I moved closer and grabbed up the bandages.

  The men tensed. Joden frowned at me, then muttered something about chants under his breath.

  Rafe snorted. “She uses no spells, Joden. No chants to the elements.”

  “No?” He sounded slightly disappointed.

  I ignored the comments, and went to work. We were fine for about three breaths. I had even convinced myself that the orchid root would let him sleep through it. But as I spread the wound to scour deeply, he started to thrash under our hands.

  “No! No!” His strong voice rang out, and he bucked up, trying to throw us off. Thanks to the Goddess I had large men to aid me this time. The apprentices would have been flung off in a heartbeat.

  “More help here. Now.” Joden’s quiet command was obeyed and more men moved our way. Joden gave up his position to kneel by the man’s head. He placed his large hands on the broad shoulders. “Simus, you’re hurt. We’re tending it. Lie still.”

  Simus did not see it that way. “Warriors! To me!”

  I was glad that I had warned the guards, for the man had a voice like thunder. I worked as quickly as I could, fearing to cause more injury if I went too fast. It had to be cleaned, and better that I did it right the first time than to have to do it again.

  “Joden!” Simus cried out as he writhed below us.

  “I am here.” Joden put his head down by the other’s ear. “I am here. Hold on, my friend.” He glared at me. “Hurry.”

  I ignored him.

  Prest had both hands and his full body weight pressed on the man’s forearm. “We could burn it.”

  “Shut up,” I snarled.

  Simus howled and arched his back. I sat back on my heels as they wrestled him flat. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the others watching us with looks of horror.

 
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