Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

  “Why not burn it?” Joden asked. He had moved his hands alongside Simus’s head, and his thumbs were stroking his temples. The big man settled down and I doubled my efforts.

  “Burning it will mean deep scarring.” I tried to think of the right words. “He may not walk. May not be able to ride.”

  Joden grunted his understanding.

  Finally the wound was cleansed. I bound the leg as tight as I dared, using fresh bandages, then pulled back, surveying my work. My audience looked as well.

  Joden frowned. “You have not tied it.”

  “No.” I glanced at him. “The wound must heal open. If I tie it, stitch it, it could . . .” I shook my head in frustration. “Sour. Go bad.”

  “Putrefy.” Rafe had come up behind me.

  Well that was extreme but I agreed with the translation.

  Joden seemed to understand as he watched Simus. Now that we were finished, he had fallen into an uneasy sleep. I reached for fresh water to bathe his face, only to see my hands tremble in front of me.

  “No.” Joden had risen and was standing next to me. He lowered his hand and held it out. “We can look to him now.”

  I nodded, and grasped his hand, letting him pull me up. My legs were numb under me and I staggered a bit to the table where I had left my basket. The sun had fallen while we worked, and the tent was darker. The bathing had finished, and I could see that the men were feeling better as a result.

  Certainly, it smelled better.

  I found the jar of fever’s foe and returned to kneel again by Joden. Simus seemed to be resting easier, his breathing a little slower and deeper.

  Joden rumbled at me. “My thanks.”

  I smiled. “Do you need tending?”

  His face seemed to close off. “No. I am not hurt.”

  Which was when the horn for the change of the guard sounded. I had overstayed my time.

  “Joden, take this.” I put the jar in his hand. Joden looked inside at the thick brown paste. “Cover your fingertip with the paste.” I dipped my finger in to show him. “Then put your finger in his mouth. Do this every hour.” I opened Simus’s mouth and put my finger inside, spreading the medicine on the roof of his mouth. “It will fight the fever.”

  He listened and watched, absorbing the information. “Will you return?”

  “Yes. Tomorrow.” I stood again, and dusted off my trous. “Prest has the orchid root. Use it if he becomes restless. But only two swallows and only once more this night. You can dose him again after sunrise if he needs it.”

  Behind me, I could hear the guard changing. They were calling for the tent sides to be dropped, and I heard my name as well. It sounded like Arneath. I hoped not.

  My patient sighed and seemed to relax a bit. Prest continued to bathe his face and arms. I reached down for the bloody cloak and the cloths I had used for the cleaning, and bundled them together. They could be boiled and used again. As I did so, I felt something cold and smooth under my hand. Through the fading light, I looked closer.

  It was an onyx brooch, a large fierce cat poised in mid-spring, with yellow eyes that glared in defiance. It seemed to gleam with its own inner light. Especially the eyes. My own eyes widened as my poor tired brain took it in. I knew what the brooch meant. This man, my patient, was a general, a leader in the Warlord’s army.

  Goddess. Xymund would kill him.

  My eyes darted to Joden’s. His eyes filled with consternation at my knowledge, then narrowed. His hand clenched at his side, as if looking for the handle of a dagger. If a weapon had been at hand, I am not sure I would have left the tent alive. He opened his mouth to speak as the guards approached from behind.


  I DIDN’T THINK. I JUST TOOK THE BROOCH OFF the bloody cloth and slipped it into my hand.

  “Lara.” It was Arneath, Captain of the Palace Guard. There’d be no cozening him. “You must leave. Now.”

  “Yes, I know.” Arneath would take great pleasure in preventing my visits to the prisoners. He’d made it clear long ago that I, a Daughter of the Blood, demeaned myself by learning a craft. I turned, placing the remaining jars in my basket, using my body to shield as I slipped the brooch inside. I stood, the handle tight in one hand, the bundle tucked under my arm. “I’m ready.”

  Arneath stood behind me, unconvinced. I think he had been expecting an argument. I looked at Joden and spoke in his language. “I’ll return tomorrow. Do not let him try to walk or stand.” I ignored Arneath as he shifted from one foot to another, looming behind me.

  Joden’s face and tone did not change. He remained kneeling at Simus’s side. His dark eyes glittered in the remaining light. “Do not betray him, or I will break you over my knee.”

  I didn’t reply. I just turned and brushed past Arneath. Rafe nodded to me as I left, staying well back and out of the way. He had learned early on that Arneath struck hard when he was not obeyed.

  Arneath followed me out. “What did that last one say to you?” He looked suspicious.

  “That no matter the healer, medicines always taste terrible.”

  One of the other guards guffawed at that. Even Arneath chuckled as he held open the tent flap for me. We emerged into the twilight. The cool night air felt good after the stuffiness of the tent. The stars above were peeking out. Once outside, I realized that Heath had already left. He was probably in the castle kitchens.

  Arneath’s mirth faded as he took up his position. “Don’t see why you waste time on them. Nothing but animals.” His gruff, oily tone followed me as I started off toward the castle. “Or maybe you’re thinking that helping the dogs will make you friends in the enemy camp. In case things go bad.”

  I pulled up short, stopped in my tracks. There were chuckles from the guards, but they were uneasy ones, as if they believed that evil lie. I turned and managed to keep my voice even. “It is by the King’s command, Arneath. Besides, I am a Master Healer. I treat any who are in need.” I tilted my head and smiled. “Did the ointment you asked for clear up that crotch rot?”

  Arneath flushed as the guards guffawed. Amidst the laughter and taunts now aimed at him, I turned and continued on my way, entering the overgrowth. Once out of sight, I let my shoulders sag a bit. I shouldn’t have done that. Father would have shook his head in despair at my flash of temper, and my crudeness. Worse, Arneath was in a position to take his frustrations out on the prisoners. I scowled at the hapless path below my feet. Still, he’d deserved it. How dare he imply that I, a Daughter of the House of Xy, would—

  I remembered the brooch in my basket and flushed.

  The shadows were deeper now. I narrowed my thoughts to staying on the path and shivered slightly in the night air. As I walked, I mentally started to inventory my supplies. I wanted to go to the market early on the morrow to get what I needed. Xymund had made it clear that none of his supplies were to be used on the prisoners. I rolled my eyes. As if he had ever gathered herbs for the stillroom.

  At that, I started to worry my lower lip. It was easier to think about herbs than to think about the brooch in my basket. It marked the large black man as a leader of men, something I was sure no one had yet realized. If Father were still alive, I’d have no hesitation in telling him. He’d have used the situation to his advantage, but he’d not kill a man in cold blood. I could tell Heath, but he’d have no choice but to go to his superior, which was Arneath. My steps slowed as I thought about that option. Arneath would kill the man, of that I was certain. If Heath took the information to Xymund directly, it would place Heath square between us if it came to an argument, and I’d not do that to him. Same for Othur, the Seneschal. Now, Lord Marshall Warren, he I could trust. Father had appointed him to his office and had faith in him. He would stand against Xymund to the extent that anyone could. I took a deep breath. It would be some time before the man was conscious. I would tell Warren and let him decide what to do with the information.

  I remembered the rose hips as I came to the briar and decided to try to gather enough
for a potful of syrup. It was dusk, true, but I could see well enough and touch would tell me if they were ready. I set the basket and bundle down and reached into the bushes, feeling my way. The scent of the remaining roses surrounded me and filled my lungs. And my memories. The scent of roses by Xyron’s bedside, as he lay dying.

  Father had sickened slowly, gradually. Like the shades of gold that dust the trees at summer’s end. The signs had been there, but I’d missed them along with everyone else. Once it was obvious, the illness had continued, regardless of the remedies that we’d tried. He’d wasted away slowly, growing weaker with every passing day. Nothing had helped.

  Xymund had slowly taken up the reins of power, trying to ease the burden on our father, but that had not gone well. At first, Xyron had encouraged Xymund to take up his ceremonial duties, so that he could conserve his energies for the business of ruling. But as his energy waned Xymund had to try to fill the holes. I’d credit him that, for my half brother never once moved forward unless he saw that Father was no longer able to perform a duty, or concentrate on a problem set before him. But Xymund had fumbled a few decisions while learning his role, and members of the Council and the Guilds had gone to Xyron directly, setting ailing father against fledgling king.

  Serving my apprenticeship and performing my journeymen duties had pulled me out of active Court life. I’d been isolated even further when Father grew ill, for my attentions were all spent on him. Xyron was a warrior betrayed by a body that had served him long and well, and his temper grew worse as his body failed. He was quick to anger, and even quicker to blame, finding fault with everything. This made his relationship with Xymund harder. It made keeping servants to attend him almost impossible. So my role was healer, daughter, and peacemaker. I rarely left my father’s side, and at the end, rarely left his chambers. We’d used flowers and rose oil to sweeten the air as he lay dying. I suspected the scent would always bring back those long hours.

  I continued to pick, dropping the fruit into the basket, covering the bottle and jars. I had to move slowly to avoid the thorns. Best to get some before Anna the Cook descended on the briar to pluck and snip for her own uses. Her rose-hip jell was wonderful in the winter months, spread on toasted bread with honey. My arm stretched in further, getting several good scratches for my pains. Perhaps this had not been such a good idea after all.

  I froze all of a sudden. The hairs on my neck had risen and drew my attention to the unnatural stillness.

  There was something out there.

  I held my breath. All the normal sounds of the garden were gone. The tiny birds settling in for the night, the small sounds of rabbits and the like, all were missing, as if a large predator was in the area. I wondered for a moment if one of the hunting dogs had gotten loose. Though my brother rarely hunted, he still kept a few dogs for the use of the huntsmen. But those dogs were all tail and wiggles, eager for a touch on the head and a scratch behind the ear. They’d not stay still for a minute.

  I pulled my arm back slowly, and took a step away from the briar. I drew in a deep breath and held it, straining to hear over the noise of my own body. Nothing moved, and I could hear no sounds. I remained quiet and unmoving for a minute or two, glancing about as if my eyes could pierce the night.

  Then my stomach growled and reminded me that the morning meal had been some time ago, and that Kalisa’s cheese only went so far. I laughed nervously. Overtired for certain. I dropped the last of the rose hips into my basket, then indulged in a good stretch. Which, in turn, caused my hair to fall out of its bun. Again. I cursed and fumbled with it, managing to get it pulled back. There was a tie in my pocket and I pulled it out to restrain the curly mass. The night was still silent when I picked up my basket and moved on.

  Apparently I was the only large predator prowling the garden tonight.

  THE WARM LIGHT SPILLED OUT OF THE CASTLE windows as I moved through the kitchen garden and approached the back door. The High Court must be in fine fettle tonight. Considering that there was a war on, it seemed rather odd and inappropriate. But then, the lords and sycophants that made up the bulk of the Court would think nothing odd about it.

  In our glory days, Xy had been a center for trade. The valley and the mountain passes were a gathering point for caravans, according to the history books. Xy had maintained a standing army, bolstered by the wealth of the merchants and the produce of the fertile soil. But in my great-grandfather’s time, the trade routes had dried up. To make matters worse, in my grandfather’s reign the Sweat had devastated the land. Grandfather had sealed the great trade gates, closing the mountain passes and isolating Xy even further. The standing army had been disbanded, leaving only the Palace and City Guard, and not many of them. The landed gentry that remained farmed the valley and Xy survived, small and alone, a shadow of what had been.

  Xymund longed for the glorious days of old, and attempted to maintain a “Court,” gathering the “lords and ladies” and their children to fawn upon him. Since my father had added the craftmasters and the clergy to his Council there was quite a crowd willing to eat at Xymund’s table, and play at the game of nobility.

  Once the Warlord had started his march up the valley, many of the lords had fled their farms and manor houses and sought the city, bringing the fighting men at their command. This left the hamlets and villages normally under the lords’ protection to the mercies of the Warlord, and allowed the brute to advance swiftly, apparently to our very gates.

  I slipped in through the old wood door, and tarried for a minute on the threshold. For all its size and huge hearths, the kitchen always seemed hot, overcrowded, and cluttered. Here Anna the Cook reigned in all her glory. She was standing in the middle of the room, directing serving staff, cooks, and footmen like the skilled general she was. A huge, fat woman, whose apron was covered in food stains, she tolerated nothing and no one. I noticed with envy that all her straight black hair stayed in its bun. Wielding her wooden spoon, she was a force to be reckoned with. Nothing escaped her scrutiny.

  Including me.

  She took one look and gave an exasperated snort, which set all of her chins wobbling at once. “Child, look at yourself.” Her voice boomed across the kitchen. Some of the staff looked up and glanced at me with sympathy, but then continued on with their work. Anna made her way over, scowling, her keys to the spice cupboard rattling as she moved. “You look like a ragged pilgrim.” She threatened me with her spoon. “You haven’t eaten, have you.” Her voice carried easily over the noise and confusion.

  “Anna, you can read me like a book.”

  “As if I would waste time reading a book.” She bellowed something out and before I knew it, she and I were seated at a corner of the large, battered wooden table amidst the dishes, eating fresh hot bread with her special honey butter slathered all over it. My bundles had been added to the dirty rag pile, and my basket sat on the table. She kept a stern eye on the staff as we ate and occasionally erupted into admonitions when things weren’t being done to her standards.

  She sighed. “Have you been out working all this day?”

  I stuffed my mouth with a bite of bread and waggled my eyebrows at her. Anna leaned back in her chair and let out a laugh that set her whole body to shaking. Anna, Goddess love her, knew how to laugh. She caught her breath, laid her fat arms on the table, and looked at me shrewdly. “His Mightiness pulled the army back within the walls this day, against Warren’s wishes. The Warlord’s men are before the walls.”

  “I heard as much in the market. Is that true?” Not that I doubted her. Anna always seemed to be the first to know.

  “Aye.” She leaned forward and snagged the last of the bread. She turned her head and bellowed at someone over by the fire. Then she looked at me. “I hear tell that Warren was saying that His Mightiness panicked.” She sniffed. “Blood tells.”

  “Anna.” I scolded her. She hadn’t liked the foreign Queen and didn’t like Xymund and never had. But Anna was an institution and Xymund loved his comfort and his meal
s. So there was a truce of sorts. He stayed away from her domain, and she let him run the kingdom with a full stomach.

  She shook her head, setting the chins to wobbling. “Heard tell he’s sent a messenger to ask for terms.”

  My eyes flew open at that. I thought that the battles had been going well, but perhaps Xymund’s pride would not allow him to admit to anything less. For Xymund to even agree to talk to the man who had beaten him so soundly, so recently, was a sign that things were bad.

  A plate appeared on the table, this time with slices of toasted bread and cheese, with roasted onion. I dug in, getting a piece before Anna could reach for one first. The cheese was still hot and bubbling on top, and I blew on it, eager for a taste.

  Anna inhaled her piece, impervious to the heat. She reached out a fat finger and prodded my basket. “Does he know that you were out there again today?”

  I shrugged, my mouth full.

  “I suppose you charmed your way past that son of mine.”

  I shrugged.

  She tapped her finger on the table, which caused ripples to move up her fleshy arm. “Watch yourself, child. Xymund is not Heath, to be wound around your finger. You are a thorn in his side, and you can only push so far.”

  “Look who’s talking.”

  Anna focused a serious look on me, but said nothing more.

  The doors to the main dining hall opened and in walked Othur, Anna’s husband and the castle seneschal. A great barrelchested man, he made his way through the servants toward us. He was sweating, his brown hair plastered to his skull. He looked very tired and very pleased at the same time.

  “Anna, my love.” He put his hand on her shoulder and gave her a hearty kiss. “You did a wonderful job as usual.”

  “Goddess spare me from High Courts.” She grumbled, but I could see that his praise had pleased her.

  Othur grabbed a chair and sank into it with a sigh. He snagged the last slice of bread and cheese. “And you, young lady.” He bit into the bread and chewed. “He is looking for you. And getting worked up about it.”

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