Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

  I inclined my head. “During my short time with his people, it seemed that they were tolerant of our beliefs.” I rose from my chair. “My thanks, Devoted One. Your words have brought me comfort.”

  He looked relieved and confused at the same time. “You are always welcome to confide in me, Xylara.”

  I moved toward the window, anxious to check that Keir was still here. Simus had assured me that he wouldn’t move any earlier than stated, but my heart feared otherwise. A quick glance out the window told me that they were making preparations, but they were still there.

  Othur moved up next to me, mug in hand. We stood for a moment in uncomfortable silence. “Othur—”


  We both chuckled, but Othur shook his head when I tried to speak. “No. Me first.” He lifted a hand to tug on one of my curls. “You are like a daughter to Anna and me, Lara. Don’t fault us for wanting to protect you.”

  Tears filled my eyes. “I don’t want to hurt you,” I whispered.

  Othur turned to look out the window. “I’ve thought long and hard about this, Lara. Have to admit that I prayed about it as well. Tried to imagine what your father would say. When you removed that brooch from Simus’s cloak, you were trying to save a life. A worthy goal. But kings and queens must look beyond the individual and work for the benefit of the people and the land as a whole.” He turned back to me. “You’d learn to be a great queen, Lara, but you would be miserable and lose a part of your soul in the process. The day would come when you’d make the right decision, but the weight of it would haunt you forever, haunted by the lives you sacrificed rather than rejoicing in the lives you saved. You are of the Blood, but I can’t wish that fate on you. Even more, it’s hard to admit that our chick has grown wings.” He considered my face with a wry smile. “Your arguments make good sense, Lara.” He sighed, and looked out the window. “This is what you want?” He gave me a sideways glance. “Or rather, who you want?”

  I nodded, then put my hand up to make sure the crown stayed straight.

  “And who will rule in your stead, Daughter of Xy?” There was no condemnation in his eyes, just honest concern. “Have you thought that far ahead?”

  I smiled at him, my heart feeling a bit lighter. “Are you familiar with The Epic of Xyson?”

  He grunted. “Yes, but I was hoping you wouldn’t remember.” His tired eyes sparkled with a touch of his old humor. “Very well. You have my support, Warprize.” He nodded toward the group behind us. “And you’ll have their support once they settle down. Make an excuse to leave the room for a bit, and let Warren and me talk to them.”

  Simus came up to us at that point, limping slightly, mug in one hand, a plate of Anna’s tarts in the other. “Try one of these.”

  Othur and I each took one. One bite, and I knew where the bitterest opponent of my plan lay. I looked up into Simus’s dark eyes ruefully. “Apparently I have angered the cook.”

  Simus nodded.

  “Word must have gotten down to the kitchens.” Othur dropped his tart back onto the plate. “You’d better go talk to her.”

  “She’s your wife.”

  Othur arched an eyebrow. “You’re the Daughter of Xy, and Warprize. This is one duty that you cannot abrogate.”

  I couldn’t argue with that.

  AS USUAL, THE CASTLE KITCHEN WAS HOT, OVERCROWDED, and cluttered. The staff seemed particularly frantic, and I’d heard Anna berating a maid for breaking a dish before I’d even entered the room. She was scolding everyone, standing in the center of the kitchen, wielding her wooden spoon, her apron covered in food stains. I eased in the door, and stood for a moment, just watching her. She was upset, and taking it out on everyone in sight.

  One of the servants noticed me and said something to Anna. She stiffened and jerked her head around, setting her chins to jiggling. I withstood the scorching by lifting my chin. She scowled. “Food not to your liking, eh, missy?”


  “Here now, keep turning that spit!” Anna cursed at the young boy who was turning the meat. She turned back to me, her face hard. “Rumor has it that you’re wanting to follow after that barbarian.”


  Her face changed in an instant, crumpling before my eyes. “Why? Tell me that? He let you go, gave you back to us. Why would you want to go?” She collapsed onto one of the stools, which creaked in protest. The room went silent, as everyone stared.

  I gestured for the servants to leave, and they filed out, after taking the various meats and stews off the fires. Once the room was empty, I went to Anna, who still sobbed, and put my arms around her. I laid my head atop hers, and let her cry.

  Othur came in. He knelt before her and rubbed her knees with his large hands. “Anna.”

  She sniffed, her face red and tear-streaked. Othur reached into a pocket and handed her a large white handkerchief. She took it and blew her nose. “We just got her back, safe and well. Why can’t she stay?” Anna sobbed, her chins wobbling. “There’s no reason for her to leave.”

  I lifted my head and took a breath, but Othur took one of Anna’s hands in his own. With the other, he pulled me down to kneel next to him. “Anna, my love, look at her.”

  Anna looked at me with reddened eyes.

  “Anna, the eyrie’s open and our chick has flown. The truth is that she wants to go.”

  “Truly?” Anna squinted at me and frowned. Something she saw made her eyes widen. “You’ve lost your heart to that barbarian, haven’t you?”

  My eyes filled, and I tried to smile and nod at her at the same time.

  “Besides which,” Othur spoke softly, “she’s convinced me and the entire Council that it’s in the best interest of the kingdom that she go.”

  “Well.” Anna pulled her hands free and mopped her eyes with her apron. “Just so you know, whoever sits on the throne will not get one bite of food from my kitchen worth eating.”

  Othur sighed heavily. “A hard thing to be starved to death by your own wife.”


  “Anna, I am going to name Othur Warden of the Kingdom of Xy. He will rule in my stead while I am with the Warlord.”

  “Please say that you will feed me, lady wife.” Othur stood and hugged her, as she burst out crying all over again.

  THE MORNING OF KEIR’S DEPARTURE DAWNED bright and clear. As the sun left the horizon, the front-runners of the Warlord’s army moved out, scouting the way for the bulk of the army to follow. Simus and I watched from the walls, wrapped in cloaks.

  “He will kill me, you know,” Simus spoke morosely.

  I glanced at him from under my hood. “No, Simus. The blame will rest on me. Keir won’t hold you responsible.”

  Simus snorted. “It’s not Keir I’m worried about, Warprize. It’s Joden. He will be furious that he missed seeing this. At least let me send a messenger—”

  “No. I’ll not risk Keir getting wind of what I intend to do. If it’s Joden you’re worried about, then send him a letter and describe it to him. But wait awhile. This might not work.”

  “A letter?” Simus rolled his eyes. “Warprize, I can’t—”

  “You tell your words to someone, and they write them down for you.”

  “Ah.” Simus looked pleased.

  I continued my watch out over the valley. “How long before they leave?”

  “Keir usually sends the scouts out two hours before the army moves.” I turned and smiled at Simus, who just shook his head, his gold earring swaying in his ear. “Warprize, they will sing of this for a thousand years.”

  I just smiled and headed down off the battlements. The guards bowed to me as I moved quickly back into the castle and headed for the throne room.

  It was one of the fastest coronations in the history of the Kingdom of Xy, shorn of its ceremony and pomp. We’d gathered the nobles, merchants, and the entire palace staff as witnesses.

  Once I was officially Queen of Xy, Simus came forth, and I knelt before him and repeated all of th
e oaths that Xymund had made for the peace.

  I then summoned Othur forth, and in a ceremony pulled directly from The Epic of Xyson, made him Warden of Xy during my absence.

  The public announcement of my decision was harder, for the people were nervous as to its wisdom. Funny that they had been fairly confident when I’d surrendered myself into a form of slavery. Now that I was fighting for something I wanted, they weren’t so sure of themselves. But I’d made sure that the discussions in the Council chamber had been made public knowledge, and there was no outward resistance to my plans.

  As I made my private goodbyes to Othur, Anna, and Warren outside the great double doors, Simus stood close with the reins of our horses. Warren had a frown on his face. “Lara, what if the Warlord will not accept you back? What then?”

  I took a deep breath and mounted my horse, thankful that no one else had asked this question. It was one that had weighed heavily on my mind. “I’ll deal with it if and when it happens, Warren. Not before.”

  With that, we turned our horses toward the gate and left the castle.

  SO IT WAS THAT SIMUS AND I WERE ON THE RISE that overlooked the road when Keir’s army began to move. The road stretched for long miles down the valley to eventually reach the plains. A well-worn path, it was trampled dirt for miles and miles. The day was clear and crisp, with a slight breeze. It would be cold when the sun sank behind the mountains.

  With distant cries, the army began to pass in front of us, with the leaders in the forefront. I spotted Iften and Joden, but my eyes locked on Keir. He was astride his horse, dressed in black, hard to miss with his scarlet cape. He rode at the lead, eyes to the front. Joden had obviously seen us, he surged forward and spoke to Keir. But Keir passed without turning his head, without a glance.

  Simus chuckled. “He’s showing off.”

  “How so?”

  “Moving out at a trot. Normally the army moves at a walk.”

  “To save the horses.”

  Simus laughed. “No, to save our asses. Trotting’s hard on the rider. He’s trying to impress. They’ll slow once they are out of sight.”

  It took some time for the entire army to pass by, but at last the stream of soldiers and equipment ended. While we couldn’t see them, Simus had assured me that the rear guard had stayed behind. They’d wait for about an hour, then spread out, checking for pursuit, reporting back to Keir on a regular basis. I was counting on that last part.

  When the last man passed the fork in the road, I dismounted, and removed my cloak and shoes.

  “This is dangerous, Lara.” Simus frowned. “You’ll be alone on the road, with no protection. At least let me follow at a distance to watch over you.”

  “No, Simus, I forbid it.” I shivered in the white shift and crammed the cloak and shoes into the saddlebags. “Your people love a grand gesture, and this certainly qualifies.” I handed Simus the reins. “The Warlord has claimed me. I will take nothing except from his hands. I just wish I knew how he will take this.” After all, I had his heart, he’d said so himself.

  “Would that I could offer you assurances, but all I know for certain is that he will be furious.” Simus sighed, then flashed a grin. “So will Joden. Tell him I will send my words. Be well, Warprize.”

  “Be well, Simus.” I turned and walked away, down the road, following the army.

  We were still within sight of the city walls, and I could hear a faint cheer as I started down the road. Word had spread of my intentions, and there was a crowd along the walls, watching me go. Othur, Warren, and Simus would take good care of the kingdom, of that I was sure. I was not sure how this grand gesture of mine would be received.

  I could see the army moving away up ahead, the cloud of dust still visible. The road was pounded dirt and cool beneath my feet. I walked carefully, trying to avoid the sharper stones and keeping my pace deliberate, not hurried. I had a long way to go before I caught up, and would need my strength. The breeze picked up, cut through my white sheath, and blew my hair around my head. I’d left it down, deliberately trying to look as I had looked that night.

  I tried to keep my thoughts still and quiet, but I had little success. With every step I imagined Keir’s anger when he realized what I had done. My head was filled with mental images of being whipped at a post, or just trampled under the hoofs of his horse. I bit my lip as a stray stone cut into my foot. Best I start watching where I walked, instead of thinking about what might happen. I tried to stay in the clear parts of the road, avoiding horse dung. Perhaps going barefoot had not been the wisest choice.

  THE SKY WAS A VIBRANT ORANGE WHEN I FINALLY heard the thunder of hooves behind me. I didn’t turn, just continued to walk at a steady pace. For a brief moment, I feared that Simus or Othur had sent troops after me. But instead, as Simus had predicted, the first of the rear scouts moved past me at a gallop, their horses veering around me. One looked back, and let out a yelp of surprise. He pulled on the reins so hard his horse reared, legs splayed in its effort to stop. The other scout, hearing the noise, pulled his sword and turned off the road, arcing back to me.

  I ignored them and kept walking.

  The first scout came up on horseback. “Warprize?” he asked, looking horrified. I looked up to see Tant, the warrior that had been whipped for falling asleep on watch.

  The other scout came up, scanning for danger. He glanced at his partner. “That’s the Warprize?”

  Tant swung down from his horse, to stand beside me. “Warprize, what are you doing here? Where is your escort?”

  I walked past him. “I am returning to the Warlord’s side.” I kept moving. They followed, Tant leading his horse, the other remaining in the saddle.

  “Warprize, please mount, and we will take you to the Warlord.” Tant’s voice came over my shoulder. “There’s really no need for you to walk.”

  “She’s barefoot,” the other observed.

  I kept moving, looking forward. “My Warlord has claimed me. I will take nothing except from his hands.”

  Tant came alongside, and he gulped. “Warprize, the army will not rest for at least another two marks. It’ll be some time before you reach him, and I can’t allow . . .” I glared at him and he did not complete the sentence. He stopped dead, and I heard curses muttered behind me. I just kept walking, determined to continue on. There was an argument going on behind me.

  “You go tell the Warlord.”

  “No, I’ll stay with her, you go tell the Warlord.”

  The argument continued, then the same voice snarled. “Pluck hairs, then. Short hair goes.”

  After a moment there was a snort of triumph and then the mounted scout was galloping off toward the army. Tant caught up with me, his voice pleading. “Warprize, please, take my boots and cloak. You’re cold, and your feet are bleeding.”

  In point of fact, they burned like flames. “No.” I kept walking.

  Muttering something, Tant raised his hands to the sky as he walked beside me. I wasn’t sure if it was a prayer or curse, but I distinctly heard “Why me?” I was tired, my feet hurt, and I wasn’t going to listen to his whining on top of it all. “Return to your duties.”

  “With all due respect, Warprize, I will not.” Tant caught up again, his horse protesting at being jerked forward. “If you’ll not take my help, at the least, I’ll guard you.”

  “You disobey the Warprize?” I looked at him.

  “Yes, if that’s the choice.” He twisted the reins in his hands. “The way the Warlord’s been stomping around like a crazed ehat, snapping and snarling at any that come near, I’ll disobey you. Better a punishment at your hands than death at the Warlord’s.”

  I nodded, faced forward, and kept walking. But my heart was a bit lighter. Snapping and snarling, was he? Like an ehat, eh?

  Of course, I still didn’t know what an ehat was.

  It seemed like hours before there was a commotion ahead of us. A cloud of dust betrayed the horsemen coming hard and fast up the road. My self-appointed guard faded
back as Keir came thundering into view, galloping his horse, his scarlet cloak flaring behind him. There were a few more men behind him. I stopped and stood where I was, waiting.

  Keir reared his horse to a stop in front of me. The animal towered over me, and I could hear its harsh breathing. I kept my eyes down, on the road.

  “What in the name of all the elements do you think you are doing?” Keir thundered.

  “Following my Warlord.” I kept my voice steady.

  “You have sworn fealty to me, to hold these lands.” He moved his horse, circling me. I could feel the heat of his gaze on my neck, and shivered at the bite in his words.

  “The queen may have so sworn, the warprize has not.” I lifted my eyes as his horse moved in front of me. His face was distorted with rage. I swallowed hard, but continued. “The warprize follows the warlord.”

  The horse moved to circle me again. “I’ll have you taken back to the castle.”

  “That just means that I will have to walk this all over again.”

  Keir brought the horse around again to face me. “Not if you’re chained to your throne,” he snarled.

  Joden coughed from the side of the road, where he sat on his horse. Marcus was beside him, mounted as well, wrapped in his familiar cloak. Keir whipped his head around. “What?”

  Joden shrugged. “Well, it occurs to me that the army is marching away from us as we speak.”

  Marcus piped up. “And when your high and mightiness is finished hollering, ya might notice that she is bleeding.”

  Keir’s head whipped around, and his nostrils flared as he raked me with his glance. I tried not to fidget under his glare. He cursed. “Ride with Marcus. We will see to your feet, and return you to the castle.” He turned his horse away from me.


  “What!” Keir jerked his horse’s head around, and the animal snorted in protest.

  I looked up. “My Warlord is sworn to care for me. I will take nothing except at his hands.”

  Joden started laughing at that. “Oh, what a song this will make!”

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