Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

  Keir cursed again, dismounted, and stalked over to me. I clasped my hands tight together as he moved into my space, coming as close as he could without touching me. I closed my eyes and trembled, craving his warmth and touch. He stood there for a moment, breathing.

  Breathing in the scent of the vanilla that I had rubbed into my hair and skin.

  If this didn’t work there would be no need for chains. I was certain that if we parted again, a part of me would simply die. I opened my eyes and stared up into his, where his anger raged unabated. Hope died in my breast. This wasn’t going to work.

  I swallowed hard, and went to my knees before him there on the road.

  I didn’t make it. At the first hint of what I was about to do, he swept his cloak off and wrapped it about my shoulders. Then picking me up, he cradled me in his arms, and headed for his horse. “Joden,” he barked.

  Joden dismounted, and handed his reins to Marcus. Keir handed me off to him, then turned to his own horse. Joden smiled at me, his round face almost split by his wide smile. “Oh, Lara, what a song I will make of this!” He kept his voice down, as Keir brought his horse in close. I bit my lip, afraid that Joden was speaking too soon.

  Joden lifted me up to Keir, who cradled me in his arms. Joden’s voice rang out loudly. “I return your warprize, Warlord.”

  Keir shot him an angry look, but said nothing. He turned his horse toward the army, and we set off. I noticed that Tant had made himself scarce. He was nowhere to be seen.

  As we rode, I worked a hand free and lifted it to Keir’s cheek. I could feel his jaw clenching under my hand.

  “The Council of Xy agreed that I would serve the kingdom better as warprize.”

  The muscles of his jaw moved under my fingers, but he said nothing.

  “I made Othur Warden of Xy. He will take good care of my people and the land.”

  Keir stared straight ahead, controlling the horse as we rejoined the army. The cloak had fallen to my shoulders, and I heard the warriors react as they saw my hair whipping about in the wind.

  I kept talking, murmuring my words softly. “This is what I want, Keir.”

  He didn’t look at me. “Marcus! Find Gils and figure out where they stored the medicines. Have him come and tend her. And find her some clothes and shoes.”

  “Aye, Warlord.” Marcus moved off, but Keir still didn’t look at me.

  I tried again. “You have only to hear my heartbeat to know that each beat is for you.”

  He did not respond. I swallowed hard. “For us.”

  No response.


  I closed my eyes and pulled back my hand, afraid that I had lost.

  A finger under my chin forced my head up, and I opened my eyes to find him gazing down at me. Those blue eyes were suspiciously bright, with a trace of humor as he bent his head to whisper against my lips.


  Turn the page to read


  An original short story of the Warlands

  by Elizabeth Vaughan

  HE CAME AWAKE BETWEEN ONE BREATH AND THE next, still and silent under the blankets, his sword hilt grasped tightly in his hand.

  That was normal.

  The stone above his head was not.

  Simus forced himself to relax, easing his grip on the weapon, and pulled air into his body. The room was quiet, the embers glowing in the fireplace. There was no threat, yet each morn he awoke in this stone tent, tensed for an attack.

  Every morning since the Warprize had left to follow her Warlord, it had been the same.

  Simus had a feeling that it would always be so. To awaken with an odd, unsettled feeling. These stone walls seemed to block all light and life.

  How did the Xyians live like this? No stars above, no sun to let a warrior know the hour? No wind on the tent, or the comforting sounds of the herds all around?

  A deep longing rose within him, for the Plains, wide and free, for his people. For his home. It would be easy enough to declare that he would create a camp outside the city walls, to live in tents as the elements intended. He held his breath as longing swept through him.

  Then he snorted, feeling foolish.

  He was a warrior of the Plains, of the Tribe of the Hawk, a man who knew no fear.

  Simus grimaced. Well, no fear of danger. Council meetings, now, that was enough to scare the wits from any warrior and then some.

  He stretched out his body under the bedding, tightening all his limbs, then releasing each one slowly. The stone of the floor was hard beneath him, but that was a familiar comfort in this unfamiliar and strange place.

  Rolling onto his side, he studied the embers in the fireplace a few feet away. There was some kavage left that he could warm, if he was willing to make the effort. With a grunt, he emerged from the warm bedding. The cold air wrapped around his naked body, sending a shiver up his spine as he scratched his belly. The one Xyian custom he’d have nothing to do with was “bedclothes.” The winds alone knew what fool came up with that idea.

  He stirred up the coals, added kindling, and waited for the flames to rise before settling the kavage pot near the fire. Once satisfied, Simus turned back, and gathered the bedding from the floor.

  Othur had given him these rooms as fitting his position. The first night, he’d made the mistake of sleeping in the bed that sat against the far wall. He glanced back at the monster, with its four pillars and the cloth that hung all around the sides. He’d sworn the thing was trying to eat him as he’d sunk into the softness. Never mind the lack of comfort, he’d flailed around like a wounded deer trying to get out of the thing. So he’d stripped off the bedding and made himself a comfortable nest in front of the fireplace.

  Of course, the next morning he’d learned the hard way not to leave the bedding before the fireplace. Anna the Cook had been insulted at the slight to her hospitality and had let him know in no uncertain terms. Chins jiggling, a scowl on her face, she’d scolded him like a thea did a small boy. Simus had been impressed at her anger, which she’d backed up with nothing but a spoon.

  It didn’t do to offend the cook.

  The fire crackled, and he moved the stone pitcher of leftover kavage closer to warm. It wouldn’t do to waste any kavage, either.

  He threw the bedding on the bed, with a scowl at its softness, and padded to the small chamber set aside for waste. Othur had been proud to show Simus that his room had such a thing, but Simus had been disgusted. It had been explained that the water of the mountain washed the waste away, but still. He wrinkled his nose at the smell, and made short work of that chore.

  And washing from a pitcher and a bowl—how was a warrior to keep clean that way? Simus shook his head as he rinsed his hands, asking the blessing of the skies he couldn’t see and the earth he couldn’t feel.

  There were hot pools under the castle, encased in stone walls to be sure, but water enough to clean a body. Kavage, then he’d bathe. Anything to feel the water on his skin.

  OTHUR, SENESCHAL OF THE CASTLE OF WATER’S Fall and Warden of the Kingdom of Xy, really just wanted to enjoy his breakfast.

  Just a bit of peace, a moment of time for him to eat his wife’s good cooking.

  “What is this world coming to, with Firelanders in the halls and underfoot every moment?” Anna scolded. “Marci, are you watching those loaves?”

  “Yes, ma’am,” came the meek response from one of the kitchen lasses darting through the door to check the outside ovens. Othur watched as Anna’s other workers flew about, preparing the morning meal.

  “See that you do,” Anna called after her. “And we’ll be needing that hearth soon, so don’t dawdle.” Anna scowled at Othur, looking at the empty plate in front of him. “And why is my lord husband sitting here with nothing to eat?”

  Othur gave her a hopeful look.

  “Must I see to everything?” Anna stomped off, rattling crocks and gathering dishes. “Bring a fresh loaf,” she called out as she thumped a crock of butter an
d a wooden paddle of bread onto the table before him, keys jingling at her belt. “There’s a Council later, and he’ll need every ounce of his strength to deal with those lordlings. And here he sits, wastin’ away from hunger!”

  There were muffled giggles from the servants at that, but Anna ignored them. Othur was grateful when she didn’t press the issue. Or make further comment on Othur’s waistline.

  SIMUS TOOK UP HIS KAVAGE AND MOVED TO THE window, looking down at the gardens where he’d been held prisoner by the late, unmourned Xymund. How had Keir managed to sneak in? Simus shook his head at the man’s daring.

  He’d known this wouldn’t be easy or comfortable. Keir had been certain that the most dangerous part of this venture was now, this time—when both people would be living together, learning their differences, like stone and flint. Not each strike creates a spark, but you have to watch each spark that might start a roaring grass fire that could sweep the Plains with death for all.

  The Warprize had changed everything by choosing to follow her Warlord. Simus grinned at the memory of watching Lara walking down the road, following Keir.

  Keir would succumb to her demands, of that he was certain. And once Lara was with him he’d have to return to the Plains as quickly as he could. The Warprize must be confirmed before the Council of Elders.

  That left Simus in Xy with half the army, scanning the dried grasses of Xy for dangerous sparks. Even though it was necessary, Simus scowled, for this was the decision he disliked the most. His absence moved Iften up to stand beside Keir, giving the blond warrior opportunities to cause problems within the ranks of the army returning to the Plains. There’d been no choice in that either. Keir wouldn’t leave Iften behind with Simus, and Iften had earned his rank as had the other warleaders.

  Now Simus faced his task alone, as Second to the Overlord. Othur was a good man, as was Warren, but they all knew that when the grass fire started it would be up to Simus to quell the flames. Simus knew full well it was coming. The warriors that remained with him had been told of the Xyian ways, had the bonding rituals explained, had been told of the lack of tokens and fighting skills. But they were living through this winter in a stone castle, with so many warriors in tight quarters with Xyians. Simus knew the way of things, the grass fire was coming, it was only a matter of time.

  Simus drained the last dregs of the kavage, tilting his head back to get every last drop. A land taken, a Warprize claimed—who could have seen that all this would happen so quickly? Truly the skies favored the bold in the form of one Keir the Cat, Warlord of the Plains.

  And how did they fare, the Warlord and his Warprize? Keir was bold, yes, but Simus was certain that one slight Xyian woman, she of the curling brown hair and light blue eyes, was galloping circles around him.

  Simus smiled wryly at the thought. Lara had swept Keir’s heart as sure as the winds swept the Plains, of that he was sure. Keir may not realize it yet, but the Warlord was as conquered as this country was. Sure as the rain, the next time he saw them, they’d be sworn and bonded, one to the other, the glint of gold in their ears. Sure as the rain and the snows.

  Simus’s heart had never been taken that way. He’d no desire to bond. He loved women in all their forms—with a meal before you, what was so desirable about limiting your appetite to just one dish? And the effort it took, to bond with another; why bother? Best to be free to give and share pleasure with whomever one chose. Far easier. Besides, who was he to deny others his body and skills?

  But he had to admit, when he saw Keir and Lara together, there was something there—something more than just a sharing of their bodies. Something . . .

  Simus shook his head, and scratched himself again. Enough thinking. Bath, then food. Anna’s cooking was even better than Marcus’s, although he’d never speak that truth out loud. He’d have to start sparring harder and more often, or Joden would sing of his fat belly when next he saw him.

  He looked in his empty mug and sighed. This day there was another Council meeting, and it would be the death of him. The lords and craftmasters were sure to yap at him for most of the meeting. What a fate for a warrior of his prowess to die of boredom in a stone room of fools.

  Pah! Enough brooding! Simus took up his sword, sheathed it in its scabbard, and opened the door to the outer chamber. Four of his warriors were within, but only two heads turned toward him. The others’ gazes remained on the door out into the corridor.

  “Second.” Wilsa gave him a nod and an appreciative glance for the glory of his body. Simus returned the nod with a smile, although Wilsa was fully clad in her armor. She was a fine warrior and skilled bedmate. Perhaps later . . .

  “I’ve a mind to bathe in those hot springs in the depths of the castle.” Simus waved the others down as they stood. “I’ll go alone.”

  “Like that?” Alco, a quiet lad, had a wide grin on his face. “Well, that will be answering some questions for them.” The others chuckled in agreement.

  “How so?” Simus asked.

  Wilsa laughed. “One of the Xyians asked us if you were dark-skinned all over, or just your hands and face, as if the rest of you were as white as they are.”

  Simus roared as the others joined him. These Xyians and their clothes. As if they had anything no one else had ever seen. So at best, their arms and faces were tanned, and the rest of their bodies as white as snow. “Aye, they will get an eyeful.” Simus smirked.

  Eloix tilted her head to the side and gave him a wink. “And will you use the bathing chamber for the men or the women?”

  Simus rolled his eyes, and gave another laugh. Yet another Xyian custom that made no sense. These people spent more time hiding their bodies from each other than was healthy, to his mind.

  “So you’ll wander the castle, sword at the ready?” Wilsa gave him a sly look that drifted down slightly.

  “A warrior must be prepared for any adventure that comes his way.” Simus laughed, and threw open the door to the hall.

  A young woman was in the hall, her hair bundled up, her hands filled with linens. Startled, she took one look and shrieked, clapping her hands over her eyes as the cloths fell to the floor.

  Simus gave her a wide smile and walked toward the stairs.

  He was going to enjoy this.

  ANNA’S BREAD WAS BEST WARM FROM THE OVEN, with butter and honey. Othur took another bite and tried to ignore the chaos around him. Anna had it under control. He was determined to enjoy his wife’s cooking.

  The servants bustled about, leaving with covered trays for the lords and ladies, returning with empty dishes and special requests. The only warning he had of trouble was the clatter of broken crockery and a passel of maids spilled into the room, crying out in horror, their voices shrill and frantic.

  Othur ignored them all and sank his teeth into his buttered bread.

  Anna’s outraged voice forced him back from bliss. “That man is walking naked through my castle!” She turned on him. “And you sit there, doing nothing.”

  He took another bite, his eyes closed. “After I finish my breakfast.”

  “Then I’ll see to this myself,” Anna growled, grabbing up the bread paddle and heading for the door.

  SIMUS HAD BEEN GIVEN A TOUR OF THE CASTLE. The hot pools were deep beneath the castle, bubbling up from the very rock of the mountain. Simus had been impressed at the sight, and had made a point to learn the paths that would take him there.

  He took the long way.

  There were quite a few people about, since the day had just begun and the castle was stirring. Simus grinned at it all, the muffled curses, the slammed doors, the giggling maids, and the blushing page boys.

  Simus continued on, his strut a bit more pronounced. He reached back to scratch his ass once in a while, just because he could.

  After all, just because there’s a danger of a grass fires, that doesn’t mean its certain. A warrior will still make sparks.

  He smiled at one of the maids, who’d covered her face and was peeking though her finge
rs, and continued on his way. This was working even better than he’d planned. Soon enough, these people would understand that he—

  “There’s the wretch,” a voice boomed behind him.

  Simus heard a different note in that roar of anger. His grip on his scabbard tightened, for that was the sound of an enraged warrior, not an offended city-dweller. He gave a causal glance over his shoulder.

  Anna the Cook stood at the end of the hall, wielding a paddle, her keys jiggling at her belt. Her entire body shook with rage as she raised her hand and shook a wooden paddle at him, speechless with pure outrage.

  For an instant, Simus knew he was doomed. He could not win this fight.

  Anna advanced, her weapon in hand, her scowl enough to tell him of his danger.

  With a whoop and a laugh, Simus bolted for the baths.

  SIMUS SLAMMED THE DOOR BEHIND HIM, AND plunged into the deep pool, his sword and scabbard high over his head. The waters of the pool were warm, and smelled strongly of the earth. Thank the elements there was no one else about. He waded deep, faced the door, and waited.

  No one came through, and there were no sounds of pursuit. Simus laughed, and waded over to place his sword on the stone rim surrounding the pool. He’d offended Anna the Cook, and he’d pay the price for that.

  But there was method to his actions, although she might not see it. Best to answer for all the questions about skin, hair, and body parts. The entire castle could now confirm that Simus the Hawk was a man, such as they. That should end the speculation once and for all. Of course, the stories of the blue Firelanders wouldn’t go away, unless a warrior-priest came this way.

  Simus grinned. Of course, there was the pure joy in causing a ruckus, when it came down to it.

  He eased into the warmth with a sigh and sank beneath the water, letting it flow over his head. The heat filled him with a sense of peace, of belonging. The water flowed around him, over his arms and between his legs, supporting him as he floated there for a moment. But air demanded its tribute, and he rose, letting his face break the surface. This time the breath he took felt cool within his lungs.

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