Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

I could feel the tension of the room decrease. Warren smiled, and the nobles seemed to relax, moving toward their horses. Anna was fussing, and Othur and Marcus seemed to be sizing each other up. The fears of my people had eased.

  Only my fears had intensified.


  KEIR MOVED SWIFTLY, ISSUING ORDERS THAT GOT everyone moving. Even as Epor and Isdra secured Xymund’s body, Keir had Warren sending messages into the city, to rouse the lords and members of the Council from their beds and order them to the castle. The confusion of bodies in the tent was organized chaos, with everyone following orders. Some took instruction to guard the camp, others to go to the city with us. Horses were brought to the tent entrance. To my frustration, I only had a moment with Keir before we left. He drew me close, and before I could ask any questions, he kissed me gently, then swept me into his arms. Outside, Lord Warren was mounted, and Keir placed me on the saddle before him. “You’ll keep her safe?”

  Warren controlled the horse as it shifted under our weight. “With my life.”

  Keir nodded once and moved to his own horse, calling for everyone to follow to the castle. Warren summoned his men, who surrounded us as a bodyguard. As we moved off behind Keir’s group, not even the sight of poor Anna trying to stay on her horse could ease my anxieties.

  I shifted slightly in the saddle. “What happened at the castle?”

  Warren spoke in my ear. “When I confronted him with my suspicions, Xymund went into a rage. I thought it was because there seemed to be a plot against you. But he raved, Lara. Like a man possessed.” Warren sighed. “He wasn’t rational. He screamed that you had betrayed him, yet we knew that he had sold you for the peace. My expression must have given me away, for he immediately ordered me imprisoned.”

  “Xymund didn’t sell me.” I explained what I had learned.

  Warren grunted in surprise. “A consort? That bodes well.”

  I pulled my cloak tighter around me. “He shouldn’t have killed him.”

  I felt Warren shake his head. “No, Lara. Keir was right to act. Xymund was mad. I’d known that he was a coward, and an indecisive leader. But his actions made it clear that something wasn’t right.”

  “The lords and the Council may not—”

  “The Warlord is an honorable man.” Warren’s voice was firm. “All will be well, Daughter of Xy.”

  I didn’t answer him. Instead, I focused on the group of horsemen ahead of us. I caught a glimpse of a cloaked figure riding near Keir. I also saw Simus and Joden next to Keir, and some kind of discussion was going on, one that didn’t please Joden or Simus. All I could do was watch as we approached the castle, my hands sweating and my heart in my throat.

  In the courtyard, we dismounted, in a confusion of people and horses. Keir appeared with Othur. “Warren, take her to the antechamber.” He turned and moved off before I could even open my mouth.

  Warren hustled me into the castle, where we bumped into Heath, looking worse for wear with a cut on his forehead. “Heath!”

  Heath turned, smiling to see me, and moved past the guards to catch me up in a hug. “Thank all the gods. I’d thought for sure that the Warlord wouldn’t be in time.” Heath grimaced. “Xymund caught sight of me as we rescued the hostages and started screaming. He slipped past us in the confusion. The King’s insane, Lara, I swear to you, he’s—”

  “He’s dead.” Warren spoke from behind us.

  “Dead?” Heath sucked in a breath. “By whose hand?”

  Warren took my shoulders firmly. “Join your parents, Heath. They’re headed to the throne room.” Without ceremony, he moved me on, down the hall and into the antechamber.

  With an odd feeling of having done all of this before, I waited before the fire in the antechamber, anxious for news, wondering what Keir was going to do. Warren waited with me, having placed his men at each door. Finally, Keir swept in, alone. “The people are assembled, and we are ready. Warren, take your place in the throne room.” Warren bowed, and left with his men. Keir moved closer to me, reaching out and taking me in his arms. He buried his head in my hair, and crushed me to his chest.

  “What are you going to do?” I asked softly.

  “What’s best. What’s necessary.” He nuzzled me behind my ear, and I shivered at the touch. He drew a deep breath, and then Keir pulled back, brushing my hair back with one hand. I stiffened when a horn sounded in the throne room. Keir stepped back without looking at me, took another deep breath, and headed for the double doors, throwing them open.

  The Herald, standing there in full uniform, pounded the floor with his staff three times. “Lords and Ladies, all hail Keir, Warlord of the Plains and Overlord of Xy, and Xylara, Warprize, Daughter of Xy.”

  Keir paused and held out his hand to me in an oddly formal gesture. I placed my hand over his, and we entered the throne room side by side. The white marble of the throne room gleamed in the light of the torches that ringed it. The lords of the Court and the craftmasters of the city filled the room, as did an even larger number of the Warlord’s men. Simus and Joden stood by the thrones. Someone had placed a tall brazier near to the throne, and a fire burned there, the flames dancing on the wood.

  Not one to keep a formal pace, Keir strode us across the floor quickly, then settled in the throne with an easy grace.

  As I sat, I noticed the wide-eyed, frightened looks of men and women pulled from their homes and beds. None of which eased as Keir rose to speak. “There has been violence done this night, an attack on the Warprize, Xylara, Daughter of Xy.” Keir continued to speak over the reaction of the crowd. “She was attacked by Xymund, her half brother.” With a gesture of his hand, he summoned Epor and Isdra. They emerged from the antechamber, bearing the shrouded body, only to dump it before Keir. Epor knelt, and cut the shroud away, displaying the body.

  The edges of the crowd drew back, voices raised in outrage and horror. I swallowed hard a few times, fighting back nausea. Keir let the assembly vent for a moment, then held his hand up for silence. “You have been gathered to hear our tales. Judge not, until all has been told. Each shall speak, and swear binding oaths as to the truth of their words.” Keir’s gaze moved over the group, and I somehow knew he was reading hearts as well as faces. “It is the custom of my people that oaths are sworn under the open sky. But an oath to the flame is just as binding.” He gestured to the brazier where the flames leaped, then returned to the throne. “I’ll be the first to speak.” With that, he wasted no time, summarizing the events of the last few days, starting with the assault in the healing tent. The silence deepened as he was brutally honest about the death of Xymund at his hand.

  When Keir finished, Warren stepped forward and told his version. Othur spoke as well, holding a trembling Anna by his side. Heath spoke of Xymund’s commands, and the actions he had taken. Simus stepped forward and told of what he had witnessed.

  When Marcus stepped forward, my heart almost broke. The small, scarred man, so bold and outspoken in Keir’s tent, was clearly uncomfortable. But he stood there, his one eye focused on Keir, and spoke with Simus interpreting. There was a tinge of hysterical mirth in the crowd when Marcus gave his honest opinion of Xymund’s fighting abilities. At the end, he gave his oath, as the others had done before him.

  Finally, Keir turned to me. “Xylara.”

  My mind blanked as I stared at him. I took a deep breath, and started where he had, at Arneath’s attack. As I spoke, I scanned the faces in front of me, seeing an odd mixture of sympathy, trust, and suspicion. My voice stayed calm as I kept my facts in order, trying to remove the emotion from my voice and words. That broke down when I reached the part of Xymund’s arrival, and his words to me in the end. I had to look down at that point, focus on my hands, and struggled to complete the tale. Keir’s hand moved into my vision and covered mine, giving me strength. I didn’t look up, managing to stumble though the last of it, including the oath. There was silence at the end.

  Keir withdrew his hand and stood. “Are there any who challeng
e the truth of these words?”

  No one spoke.

  “Are there any who challenge my authority to deal with Xymund as I saw fit?”

  No one raised their voice.

  “This matter is finished.”

  While the faces in the crowd were still a mixture of doubts, fears, and mistrust, I relaxed slightly, resting against the back of the throne, feeling the tension in my shoulders ease. With no voices raised, I was sure that all would be well.

  Keir turned his head, gesturing to Epor and Isdra. “Remove this.” Keir focused on the Archbishop Drizen. “Please see to it that the body is given the rites of his faith, with no further ceremony.”

  “Please.” I cleared my throat. “Please have him interred with the royal family, Warlord.”

  Keir frowned. “He would have killed you.”

  “His mind was not his own at the end. Please let him lie next to his mother.”

  Keir gave an abrupt nod. “See to it.”

  The Archbishop inclined his head.

  The crowd was growing restless. Keir gestured to the Herald, who tapped his staff three times in a call for silence. Still, Keir had to raise his voice to be heard. “Would the King’s Council step forward?”

  The Council stepped forward, led by Archbishop Drizen and Lord Marshall Warren.

  Keir nodded to each. “We must now consider who will rule the Kingdom of Xy.”

  My stomach knotted.

  “It is right that Xylara, Daughter of the House of Xy, take the throne.” Keir raised his voice, insuring that he would be heard. “I hereby release my claim of the Warprize and return her to her people.”

  Stunned, the Council gaped like fish. I opened my mouth, but Keir cut us all off. He rose to his feet. “My army will depart in four days. I leave Simus of the Hawk to act as my Overlord. Once we reach the borders of your land, I will send word back, recalling Simus, and releasing Queen Xylara of her oaths of fealty to me. Arrange the coronation with all due speed.” With that, he inclined his head to me and extended his hand. I rose and took his hand automatically. Using his advantage, he pulled me forward, then pressed me onto the seat of the high throne.

  The cheers exploded from the throats of my people. The entire Council began to clap, cheering as well. Keir looked at them, nodded to me, then strode toward the antechamber. I rose to follow, but the Council surged forward, to clasp my hand, hug me, and express their joy.

  Overwhelmed, I fell back on the throne, stunned. Warren fought his way to my side, urging people back, and cleared the space in front of me. Amidst the cheers of my people, I rose, and followed Keir into the antechamber.

  He was standing by the fireplace when I walked in, facing the door. His face was grim, his eyes on the fire.

  I stopped just inside the room. “What are you doing?”

  “This kingdom must be ruled, and you are the blood heir, the logical choice for the throne.” He never looked up, didn’t turn to face me.

  “You have claimed me as Warprize.”

  “I renounce that claim.”

  I moved closer, watching the light of the flames dance on his face. The muscle of his jaw was twitching as his jaw clenched. “Renounce the claim?” There was no response. “Renounce me? After we—”

  Keir just stood there, watching the flames. “This is your home. These people will keep you safe, safe from attackers, safe from injury, safe from harm.” He looked up at me, his eyes bright. I couldn’t tell if it was reflected firelight or something else. “Being a Warprize is not safe.” He returned to staring at the flames.

  “Especially when I’ve surrendered everything to the Warlord, only to have it flung back in my face!” Goddess, that wasn’t true, but I was so hurt the words were out of my mouth before I could think. He’d given me hope and joy so bright it hurt, and now he was dousing the flame. I crossed my arms over my chest, suddenly chilled in a way that had nothing to do with the heat of the fire.

  Keir didn’t respond to my words.

  I drew myself up, and stretched out a trembling hand. “Keir, don’t do this.” I took a step toward him. He jerked back, avoiding my touch. As I stood there, stricken, he seemed to relent. He drew me into his embrace, wrapping his arms around me as if I were a precious treasure. I leaned into his hug, feeling the leather under my cheek and the warmth of his body. He drew a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly.

  As carefully as he had enfolded me, he released me slowly, taking a long step back. Tears in my eyes, I looked up at him, smiling. But his face was just as grim, and to my horror he turned away and went through the door into the hall. I followed, only to find Simus, Joden, Warren, and Other standing there. Anna was there as well, with a tray of tea and sweets. Marcus stood off to one side, already wrapped in his cloak.

  Keir cleared his throat. “Simus, you will remain here, as my representative. Joden, you will return with me to camp.” He spun on his heel to look at me. “Warren, I charge you with Queen Xylara’s security. For her own safety, I forbid her access to my camp. She is to remain safe within the city walls until I depart.”

  Everyone gaped at him. He turned, and strode away, with Joden and Marcus scrambling behind him. Seized with an outraged fury, I grabbed the teapot off Anna’s tray, and hurled it at Keir’s head. It missed, flew into the wall, and shattered into a thousand pieces, spraying tea everywhere.

  Keir flinched, but kept moving.

  Just as shattered as the pot, I spun on my heels and ran, crying, to my old bedroom.

  AN HOUR LATER, THE DOOR OPENED, AND TWO servants brought in one of the crates from my stilltent. I looked up, still weepy-eyed, as they set it down and bowed themselves out of the room. It didn’t take long for me to pry open the rough lid. It contained my herb book, my notebooks, my underthings, the vanilla soap and oils, and the white sheath. No note, no comment, no message. I sat on the floor next to it, and wept.

  The next morn, I watched from the window as the army packed up and prepared to march, letting the tears flow down my cheeks. I sat by the window all day as the shadows lengthened, and the torches flared up in the darkness. How could he do this? Didn’t he want me? I’d heard stories of course, overheard kitchen maids sobbing to Anna about men who’d stolen their virtue and left them crying, alone. Was that it?

  I hurt so much, my head, my heart. My sorrow seemed unending and bottomless. Over and over, the events of the past week flicked through my mind. I leaned my cheek against the rough stone and gave in to my despair.

  Anna brought in food at regular intervals. I am fairly certain that she begged me to eat something.

  Warren came in, with reports and documents that needed my attention. I am sure that some of them were important.

  Remn came in, to talk books and the replacement of the stillroom. I am fairly certain that he talked for some time before he left.

  Othur came in, and discussed duties and obligations. He talked for quite a while, ’til finally I turned and stared at him. He looked into my eyes, sighed, and left.

  Heath came in, and stood there for a bit. He walked up behind me, and laid a hand on my shoulder. When I looked up, he smiled. “Follow your heart, my sister.” He turned and left the room.

  And so I sat, mired in sadness and grief, ’til just after dawn.

  Eln entered. With gentle, understanding hands, he pulled me away from the window, and seated me on the bed. He checked me over quietly, with no comment. I closed my puffy eyes and sat silently, my head aching something fierce. Finally, Eln put one finger under my chin and lifted my head. I opened my eyes to see his concerned face, before a strange look flashed over his features.

  Eln slapped me.

  The blow rocked my head back, and I saw stars. I jumped up, my hand pressed to my face in astonishment, and felt the heat in my cheek. Eln stood there glaring, his face disdainful. “Is this the girl that demanded to become my apprentice? Who healed the enemy in the face of her brother’s wrath? Who sacrificed her life for her people?” His mouth pursed, like he had t
asted bad wine.

  “Eln, I—”

  “No excuses. You want something, you work for it, not sulk in your room weeping like a spoiled child. In all honor, either balance the needs of your people and your desires, or accept your responsibilities.” He drew himself up. “I am ashamed to claim you as student when you act like this.”

  The heat that flooded my face had nothing to do with his blow. I bowed my head. “I’m sorry, Master.”

  “Then do something.” Eln swept toward the door. “Bathing would be a good start.”

  He left me standing there, looking down at my tear-stained tunic and feeling an utter fool. My old master was right. There was more at risk here than my heart, and I was acting like a spoiled child. Embarrassed, I wiped my face, gathered up clean clothes, and opened the door to the hall. Two guards stood outside the door, and a chambermaid was sitting against the far wall. She jumped when I opened the door.

  “Your Majesty.” She curtsied, wobbling a bit as she rose.

  I grimaced. “Not very majestic at the moment.”

  She fixed her eyes on me like a frightened doe.

  “I’m going down to the baths. Would you ask Anna to have some food ready for when I’m done? I’ll come down to the kitchen.”

  “I’d bring up a bath for you, Majesty, if you want.”

  “No, thank you. Just please take my message to Anna.”

  “Oh, yes, Your Majesty. She’ll be so happy.” The girl hiked up her skirts and took off.

  “Wait!” I called after her. She turned, still moving backward. “Please ask Othur to join me there?”

  “Oh, aye, I’ll tell him you want him,” she called over her shoulder. “Aye!”

  “Make sure you say please!”

  I heard her faint “Aye” as I turned to my guards and looked them over. The younger one shifted uncomfortably. The older one gave me a patient look. “Your Majesty, Lord Marshall Warren’s orders are that you are to be protected at all times. Him and the Warlord’s orders.”

  I sighed, but knew this was a lost cause. I nodded to the guards, and started down the corridor.

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