Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan


  SCRUBBED CLEAN, AND WITH FRESH CLOTHES, I sat at the huge table near the hearth in the kitchen, with hot soup and bread before me. The soup was thick with chunks of meat and potatoes. The bread was warm, and Anna was spreading the butter thick with a knife. “Here, child, eat.”

  My two guards were at the kitchen door, far enough for privacy’s sake. Othur sat opposite me, nursing an ale. “Might as well, Lara. She won’t rest until you do.”

  I pulled the bowl close, hoping that the warm food would ease the pounding in my head. I craved a mug of kavage, but knew better than to ask for it. Besides, it wouldn’t taste the same without—

  I cut that thought off, and dug into the food.

  “I can drizzle the bread with some honey.” Anna moved toward the shelves.

  “No, Anna, please sit.” I tucked a strand of damp hair behind my ear, and kept eating.

  Anna finally settled her bulk on the stool next to me, her smile so large it increased the number of her chins. “There’s so much to plan, now that you’re returned safe and sound to us. A coronation feast, the ceremonies—”

  The bread tasted wonderful, and I dipped a piece in the soup as Anna talked about a half dozen things, including preparing my father’s old rooms for me. Othur said nothing, just studied his ale, then my face, then returned to his ale again. Eventually, Anna ran out of words and she sat silent, darting looks between Othur and me. Neither of us was willing to speak first, and finally Anna lost her patience. “What is it, child?”

  “She doesn’t want the crown,” Othur rumbled.

  “What?”

  “Othur,” I pleaded. “You’ve been the seneschal for years, under my father. Can you honestly say it’s in the best interest of the kingdom for me to rule?”

  Othur frowned. “You are a Daughter of Xy. Your duty requires you to rule your kingdom and rule it well, Xylara. That is what your father would expect of you. Regardless of your personal desires.”

  “Othur, I never wanted to be Queen. I don’t have the skills to be Queen. My dream was having a school of healing, not to—”

  “The events of the last month have frightened the people. They need stability, reassurance that all will be well.” Othur’s eyes drilled into me. “Your presence on the throne will comfort them. You can learn the skills necessary, given time.”

  “I—”

  “Anything less is a betrayal of your father and your father’s father.” Othur stood, pushing his stool back. “I’ll hear no more of this, My Queen.” With that, he walked out of the kitchen.

  Anna placed a trembling hand on my arm. “Child, you’re home and safe. Where else would you want to be?”

  I sighed, and ate more soup.

  I LEFT ANNA, AND WENT OUT INTO THE KITCHEN gardens, then down the path to the great rose briar. My two guards followed like shadows.

  I hated to admit it, even to myself, but Othur was right. Father had always said that the price of privilege was responsibility. Like it or not, I was Heir to the Throne of Xy. I had an obligation, one that I could not avoid or ignore or pass to someone else.

  The scent of roses grew as I got closer to the briar. Apparently Anna had not yet picked it clean. I picked one of the flowers, and held it to my nose, enjoying the scent, bringing memories of my father. But not just his sickbed. I saw him on the throne, and in council, making decisions, ruling wisely and well. I walked on, lost in my thoughts.

  I knew little of politics, little of diplomacy, and the thousand other things one needed to be Queen. Maybe Keir’s people had a better way, one that depended on proven abilities rather than birth. One thing was certain, at least to me. I’d be an inept ruler. And if I did take the throne, it was highly unlikely that I’d be able to tend a sick person ever again. As warprize, I’d be able to, even encouraged to heal, maybe teach.

  I jerked to a stop and stopped breathing. For here in the dimness of the garden, where shadows hid me from prying eyes, I faced the truth.

  I wanted Keir.

  I wanted Keir more than I wanted to make the sick well, or pass on my skills to others. I wanted Keir more than I wanted to sit on the Throne of Xy and ward my people. I wanted his strength, his touch, his sly sense of humor, his honor, and his passion.

  I stroked the flower against my warm cheek, feeling the velvet of the petals. Days? Had it only been days? Does the heart count days, or even hours?

  I moved over to one of the stone benches, and slumped down. I sounded like one of those horrid old ballads sung by minstrels to lovesick court maidens with empty heads. Part of me was ashamed to face the truth. A true Daughter of Xy would put aside her desires and serve her people.

  With Keir beside me, that service was one that would fill my days with joy and purpose.

  Without him, it felt like a cold and joyless burden.

  If I’d thought my options limited with Xymund alive, they seemed even more confining now that he was dead. Being the warprize might be a risk, but it held out opportunities I’d never dreamed of.

  Keir had made his decision, for reasons I didn’t fully understand. Clearly, Anna and Othur would not help me. They seemed to think that they could put everything back the way it was, reassemble the broken teapot and put it back up on the shelf, as if nothing had happened. Except, I didn’t want to go back on the shelf, and I couldn’t believe that my father would have wanted me to be miserable.

  There had to be a way.

  ANNA HAD HOUSED SIMUS IN THE QUARTERS USUALLY used by visiting ambassadors. They were large and spacious, with plenty of room for him and his guard. The rest of his men were housed in one of the barracks. As I was admitted to the outer sitting room, I scanned the faces of the guards, but saw no one familiar.

  “Little healer!” Simus’s voice boomed out, and I turned to behold him standing there, hands on hips. My smile and laugh burst out spontaneously. He was a vision, dressed in a flowing shirt of white, black trous, a belt of red, and a bright blue vest. I’d never seen him in other than armor. His left ear was pierced with five gold hoops of varying sizes, and they glittered every time he moved his head. He grinned at my reaction, and spread his arms wide. “I thought to make your people green with envy at my splendor. Have I succeeded?”

  “Beyond your wildest expectations.” I chuckled. “Their eyes will pop out of their heads like marbles.”

  Simus drew himself up proudly, then made a sweeping bow. “Welcome to my chambers, Your Majesty.” His Xyian was carefully pronounced. “How may I assist you?”

  “Simus, I want to ask your advice about something.”

  He looked at me carefully, growing serious, and reverted to the language of his people. “I can’t promise to assist you, Your Majesty. The Warlord has made his wishes known, and I am bound to obey him.”

  I rubbed my sweaty palms on my dress, trying to remain calm and controlled. “Simus, I don’t understand. Why is he doing this?”

  Simus shrugged. “What’s to understand? Does one understand the wind or predict the flame?” Simus gestured me to a chair. “There are things you do not know, little healer. Being warprize carries its own dangers. The warrior-priests and the elders will fight Keir tooth and nail over this, and you’d be in the center.”

  “Do they hate Keir that much?”

  Simus’s face grew serious. “Ah, that hate lies on both sides, and who is to say whose is the greater? But it matters not. Keir is the Warlord, and his will binds me. You will remain in your kingdom, and be crowned its queen. Once that is accomplished, I will return to the plains, and all will be well.”

  “Simus—”

  He shook his head, setting his earrings glittering in the light. “No. I will not discuss this with you.” He gestured toward two chairs by the unlit fireplace. “Come. We will have some of Anna’s good cooking and swill this drink called ‘ale’ and you will tell me of your ceremonies. Tell me what a ‘coronation’ is and what tasks you are required to perform.” He raised a finger in warning. “But I will hear no talk of anything else. Understoo
d?” His eyes were kind but firm.

  “Understood.”

  ELN OPENED THE BACK DOOR OF HIS CLINIC, AND regarded Heath and me and my four bodyguards with a neutral expression. After a slight pause, he stepped aside. Heath and I slipped past him, into the stillroom, followed by two of the guards. It was a bright, cheery place, with a crackling fire in the hearth, and various potions bubbling in cauldrons. I felt myself relax as I breathed in the familiar scents of medicines and tonics. I’d learned my craft here, and it felt like home.

  “What’s that stink?” Heath asked, screwing up his face.

  “A medicine.” Eln moved over to the table to stir a pot. He glanced at me with a questioning look. “What brings Your Majesty to my humble clinic?”

  “My majesty needs to talk to you. To talk to someone I can trust.” I sat on a stool. Heath wandered the room, looking at the various bottles and jars. The two guards remained by the door.

  “Trust?” Eln focused on me, at the same time he reached out and slapped Heath’s hands away from a jar.

  “Trust that you have no preconceived notions of what is best for the kingdom and for me.”

  Eln gave me a sharp look before turning to Heath. “Scamp, make yourself useful. There’s a load of new wood at the back. Go cut it for me. And take those two lummoxes with you.”

  Heath looked startled. “We’re protecting Lara.”

  Eln snorted. “She’s worked in this clinic for many years with no fears. Your muscles are wasted in here when they could be useful. Go. Or I’ll set you to chopping herbs and stirring cauldrons.”

  Heath flashed a grin. “At least we won’t be breathing in the stink.” He laughed as Eln scowled. The guards chuckled, too, as they headed out the door.

  “So?” Eln looked me over from head to toe. His face was still neutral.

  “Eln, I know what I want. Everyone at the castle is certain that I’m best for the kingdom, and I don’t think that’s true.”

  “And?”

  I gritted my teeth. Eln was in teacher mode, which was very irritating. “Simus won’t talk to me. Othur and Warren have already decided what is best for the kingdom. And I’m not sure of what to do next.”

  Eln stirred his pot for a moment. “If the kingdom were ill, what would you do?”

  “What?”

  He shot me a look. “If the kingdom were to somehow stumble into the clinic, weak and ill, what would you do first?”

  “I’d ask questions, try to discover what was wrong.”

  “Such as?”

  Impatient, I glared at him. “What is wrong? How are you feeling? Have you urinated today? Have you vomited? How are your bowels?”

  Eln kept silent and kept stirring.

  “One of the rules you teach us is that before we can start to cure a patient, we must first understand the disease.” He nodded, taking a pinch of marjoram and sprinkling it into the pot. I sat for a moment, trying to apply my healing skills to my problem. “I need to know what problems my coronation solves, and see if there’s an alternative.”

  He shrugged. “You need to start thinking.”

  I rubbed my cheek. “So you said.”

  “Well, you came up with a punishment for me, I fear.” He smiled ruefully. “Seems my newest patient wants me to read The Epic of Xyson to her on a daily basis. A fate worse than death.”

  I sat up, surprised. “Is Atira here?”

  “Just so. The Warlord sent her to me, with a pouch of gold. Asked that I see to her, since her healer is no longer available.” He held up a hand at my indignant expression. “His words, not mine.”

  “Where?”

  “I put her in the corner room. If you’re going back there, take this to her.” Eln handed me two mugs of tea. “She asked for kavage, but will have to make do with this for now.”

  I took the mugs and headed for the corner room. It was one of the larger ones, with a big fireplace of its own. Behind me, I heard Eln call out the door for one of the guards to fetch water, and for the others to keep chopping. I had to smile as I ducked into the corner room.

  Atira lay there, her leg suspended from one of Eln’s rigs, his weights pulling it straight. She blinked at me for a moment, then a smile covered her entire face. “Warprize!” She struggled to sit up. “No, no, that’s not right.” She narrowed her eyes in concentration. “Greetings, Your Majesty.” She spoke the words in Xyian. “Did I say it right?”

  I set the mugs down and helped her sit up. “You did.” Once she was settled, I handed her one of the mugs.

  She sipped it, and wrinkled her nose. “If I’d had time, I’d have asked for kavage before they hauled me here. But the Warlord hustled me right out of camp.”

  “Maybe Simus will share his supply.”

  She rolled her eyes. “Nay, he’ll hoard what he has and use the grounds twice, even if I had a headache that might kill me. Not that I blame him.” She looked at me over the rim of the mug. “I only got hints of what happened at the castle. The Warlord said that I was to be cared for here until the leg is healed, then join him on the Plains.” Her eyes were bright with curiosity.

  I took the hint and summarized what had happened. She listened intently, shaking her head when I reached the end.

  Heath stomped in, a load of wood in his arms. “Eln never changes, Lara. Always the taskmaster.” He moved to the wood box and dumped his load. As he stood, he flashed a grin at Atira. “How’s the leg?”

  She frowned, and answered carefully in Xyian. “It is well. Thank you.”

  Heath laughed. “I don’t envy you, stuck here with Eln for the next few weeks.”

  Atira smiled. “I have this.” She held up The Epic of Xyson and the reader that I had purchased.

  Heath rolled his eyes. “That hoary old thing? There are better books to read.”

  Atira’s eyes got big. “There is more than one?” She looked at me for confirmation.

  Heath laughed. “I’ll bring you something from the castle that’s better than that one.” Eln’s voice raised from the stillroom and Heath grimaced. “Back to work.” He gave me an imploring look as he walked to the door. “Please, don’t be long.”

  I laughed at him, then turned back to Atira, switching back to her language. “Will it harm Keir, not to produce a Warprize?”

  “Aye.” Atira nodded. “The Warlord sent messages when you were claimed. If he can’t produce you, the people will say that the Warprize rejected him.” She thought for a moment, stroking the cover of the Epic. “The Warlord built this army carefully, explaining that we would not receive the usual share of the spoils. Instead, he made agreements to pay his warriors with money or land. If he can’t reward the army, he will be shamed. Or worse.”

  “I don’t understand him.” I set my mug down and ran my fingers through my hair. “Why is he doing this?” She shrugged. “Atira, Simus said that the warrior-priests and the elders hate Keir as much as he hates them. Why?”

  “I don’t know all the details. Keir has always been vocal that warrior-priests withhold their magic from those who need them most.”

  “Magic? They use magic?” My voice squeaked. “There’s no such thing, Atira.”

  “Yet that is what they claim.” Atira frowned. “I’m not privy to the ways of warlords, or their councils. I didn’t even know that a warlord could renounce a warprize.” She shrugged. “But then, I am no singer, to know all the laws and customs.”

  I blinked. “Joden would know, wouldn’t he?”

  “Of course.”

  Keir had taken Joden back to camp, and forbidden me to follow. I chewed my lip, thinking about that for a moment.

  “Now.” Atira looked at me intently. “You can answer a question for me. I’ve been thinking about the Epic, and listening closely. It speaks of a son ‘inheriting’ from his father. Does this mean that the son can ‘inherit’ a thing? Like a horse?”

  I nodded. “Yes.”

  “Can a son ‘inherit’ power? Status?”

  “Or even a throne. Xymund go
t the throne when my father died.”

  Atira frowned, thinking. “So a man with no real skill could hold a place of power, without earning it? That is very strange.” She sipped her tea, then looked at me. “And with Xymund’s death, you take the throne.” She paused. “Who takes the throne if you die with no children?”

  My eyes widened. Who indeed?

  I BURST OUT OF THE CLINIC, TO FIND HEATH AND the guards at work on the firewood. “Heath!”

  “Lara?” Heath turned, surprised, as the guards reached for their weapons. “What’s wrong?”

  “I need to get some maps of the lands that surround us and talk to Remn. And Estoval, and Kalisa, if I can find her.” I grabbed my horse’s reins and mounted. The guards ran for their mounts.

  “The cheesemaker?” Heath stood there, looking like a halfwit, the axe in his hand.

  “Yes, the cheesemaker.” I urged my horse out the back gate. Heath dropped the axe and ran to his horse. “And Warren. I need to talk to them all, right now.”

  Heath heaved himself into the saddle. “What’s the rush, Lara?”

  “The Warlord’s army leaves in two days!”

  MY HANDS WERE SWEATING, MY STOMACH LAY IN knots, my head ached, and the crown of the Kingdom of Xy was going to fall off my head at any moment. I’d sent messages as soon as I had returned to the castle, and called a Council meeting for sunset. Since that time, I’d locked myself in my room with maps of the region and considered my options.

  The council room was packed, with Simus, Othur, Warren, and the Council members. All of them staring at me as I sat behind my father’s desk. I sat up straight, and kept my hands in my lap. It would make it easier to conceal their shaking. I cleared my throat, and the room settled. “I have called this meeting to discuss the welfare of the Kingdom of Xy.” I took a breath to quiet my stomach. “Simus of the Hawk is here as a representative of the Warlord Keir. The Warlord has confirmed that he will relinquish his claims to the Kingdom of Xy once I have been crowned.” Simus inclined his head as an acknowledgment. His attendance was important, but even more important was that he didn’t understand what I was doing until it was too late.

 
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