Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

  I didn’t have to ask who “he” was. I sighed and started to wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. Anna smacked my head and bellowed something that resulted in a bowl of warm water and cloths being set in front of me. “Child, you are filthy. At least see to your face and hands. What is that on your jerkin?” Anna pushed away from the table. “No, I don’t want to know. Let’s see if we can clean you up.” I did not resist. Since I had been a child, and after the death of my mother, Anna had the raising of me. While my smiles had no effect on her, she was always there with the warmth of her hearth and her love. I knew better than to try to avoid her fussing.

  Othur wisely sat quietly, with a mug of ale, while I washed. He was always a quiet one, but when he spoke, you needed to pay attention. Anna tsk’ed over the state of my tunic, and took a wet cloth to the worst of them. The activity of the kitchen seemed less frantic now that the meal was done, and the cleanup started. After I had passed Anna’s inspection and been given a quick hug, I swept up my basket and followed Othur out to the castle proper.

  We kept to the back halls, passing the occasional servant. The cool quiet made for a relief from the busy kitchen. I worried my lower lip with my teeth. Perhaps I should tell Othur about the brooch after all. But all my reasons remained the same. I frowned as we walked. There was no one that I could really confide in, no one to turn to for advice. Maybe at least Othur could advise me as to how to . . .

  “Lara.” I looked up as he drew me to a stop.

  “I need to see to some of the guests that are staying. You’ve heard about today’s events?” He placed a hand on my shoulder. I nodded.

  “He is in his study.” Othur squeezed my shoulder. “Try not to anger him.”

  That was like asking fire not to burn.

  I grimaced, but nodded. Othur gave me a doubtful look, then hurried on his way toward the guest tower. I continued on mine, up the spiral stairs to the King’s tower, shaking my head as I walked.

  It was soon after Xymund’s mother died when the King married my mother and I was born. Xymund had been well in his majority and acknowledged as heir at that time, but I was sure that his resentment of me had started with the first coo from my father’s lips, and intensified with every word of praise that followed.

  I still had no understanding of it. He had been the rightful heir, and anointed King since our father’s death these three years past. But the jealousy was still there, even when I had made it very clear that I would not train for high office, that I would follow the healer’s path. I smiled, thinking back to Father’s outraged reaction to my decision. But he had come to accept it and was grateful at the end for my skills, even though I could not defeat death’s shadow for him.

  But even when Xymund had been acknowledged King, anointed and crowned, the envy and ill feeling continued. I didn’t understand. He had power, wealth, and women falling in his path eager to become the next queen. But some form of happiness eluded him, and I was fairly certain that I was to blame. It soon became apparent to everyone in Court that being a “friend of Lara” did not advance one in the King’s good grace.

  Even so, I’d tried to step back into the Court life after Father’s death, only to find that I could no longer tolerate the pomp and nonsense. The conversations were inane, the meals long and tedious. I had little in common with the ladies, and the lords all looked at me as they would a prize breeding mare.

  Which gave me more time for my studies and exercising my skills.

  Father had left me lands, which generated a modest income. Xymund held those in “trust” saying that a healer knew little of managing lands. I had tried to leave the castle, tried to retire to an estate, where I could set up a house of healing and maybe a school. But when I raised the topic, Xymund would refuse, saying that my value as a potential wife in an alliance marriage outweighed the value of my school. Although there were limited candidates in the neighboring kingdoms, especially given my age, he had always refused any offer for my hand.

  He seemed to take pleasure in denying my dream.

  I shrugged and gave myself a shake. Anna, Othur, and I had talked this out and agreed that when Xymund wed and had his own heir, he would let me live my life as I chose. It seemed likely that he would wed within a year’s time. There had been talk of at least two prospective alliances. Or at least it had seemed so before the Warlord’s attack.

  Which reminded me of that man in the tent. I stopped and chewed my lip.

  Goddess forgive me, I was not going to betray a wounded and sick man to Xymund just so that he could undo all my work. Others might think it a betrayal of my King, but to my mind it was extending the Goddess’s mercy. Just in case, I ducked into one of the alcoves off the hall and put the brooch into the top of my boot. I pushed it down far enough to insure that it would not fall out. The boots were big enough. One would not be able to tell it was there. I’d wait and speak to Lord Warren tomorrow. He’d make sure that the right thing was done.

  A moment more, and I was before the guards at the door to the King’s study. I nodded to them and set my basket down against the wall. There was the sound of raised voices from within. The argument sounded heated. I glanced over at the guard, who shrugged. He knocked on the door. There was instant silence, then Xymund’s voice granted entrance. The guard swung the door open. I kept my eyes down, advanced five steps, and sank to my knee.

  Xymund loved the pomp of his circumstances and required the formality. Father would have kicked him in the buttocks for it. Othur felt it showed Xymund’s lack of self-confidence and I agreed.

  The guard behind me cleared his throat. “Xylara, Daughter of the House of Xy.” I turned my head and shot him a look out of the corner of my eye. He caught my meaning. “And Master Healer.”

  The argument hadn’t stopped when I entered; they were too caught up in the dispute. I could have been a chair for all that they noticed. I risked a quick glance up at my half brother. He was not a tall man, but looked impressive, still dressed in formal court garb, bedecked in a dark blue tunic and pants with silver trim. He wore a simple coronet, having discovered that the full crown had an annoying tendency to fall if he moved his head too quickly. His brown hair was graying at the temples, and his face bore lines of worry that had not been there a few months ago, although the lines were hard to see in the angry flush that covered his face. When he shifted in the chair behind Father’s old desk, it creaked. He had gained weight in these last few months.

  Another quick glance at Lord Marshall Warren, standing over by the fireplace. Spry and thin, he always seemed to me to be in motion. No flushed face there, instead his face was white, drawn, and pale. “Please, Your Majesty. We can drive them back from the walls if you let—”

  “Do you question my competence, Warren?”

  The slight pause didn’t help matters. Xymund tightened his lips, but Warren was quicker. “Majesty, none of us have had to deal with horse archers before this. We’re not used to their tactics—”

  “Damned horses,” Xymund said. He was snarling. “I hate those, said. He horses.”

  “Their horse archers are devastating against the foot, Majesty. But they have no siege equipment at hand, and the snows will come before they can build sufficient—”

  “ENOUGH!” Xymund barked and Warren closed his mouth with a snap.

  I looked down at the carpet, unwilling to rise from my knees and draw attention to myself. Xymund’s breathing was audible, harsh and fast. It took long moments to slow.

  “Rise, Xylara. You were not at dinner.” Warren was standing at the fireplace, looking at the smoldering coals. Xymund continued. “You should make an effort to attend our Courts.”

  “Yes, Your Majesty.” The word “brother” had not seen use since Father died.

  He looked me in the eye. “You went out there again, didn’t you.”

  “Yes, Your Majesty.”

  His face hardened. “Why do you insist on aiding my enemy?”

  So it was to be the same old argument.
I started with my usual rebuttal. “Sire, I tend to our wounded before I go . . .”

  He held his hand up, and I stopped obediently. I saved my defiance for when it really counted.

  “Let’s not start.” He glanced off with a frustrated look. “It’s not like you will obey me in this anyway.” Xymund continued. “How many prisoners are in the tent?”

  Surprised, I thought for a moment. “I have not taken an actual count, Sire. I would guess around twenty. I don’t really know.”

  He looked unhappy. “Well, the exact number is not important.” He fixed me with what he thought was an intimidating glare. “You are not using my supplies on those animals.”

  I shook my head no. “I am following your instructions, Sire.”

  “Are any of them likely to die in the next day or so?”

  An odd question. “Not likely, Sire. I have one that is badly wounded, but other than that they are healing well.”

  “Very well. You are dismissed.” He had the look of a man thinking about something else, and not happy in his thoughts.

  I looked over at Lord Warren, but his gaze was fixed on Xymund. I sensed that now was not the right time to request an interview. Instead, I bowed to the King, and backed away. I managed to leave without banging into the door.

  THE SUN ON MY FACE WOKE ME THE NEXT MORNING. I rolled over, burrowing my head in the blankets and pillows, and sought the return of sleep. My muscles were warm and limp and the bed was so comfortable. I could feel myself starting to drift. But something niggled at me. I drowsed for a bit, trying to remember what was so urgent. Then I heard horns from outside.

  I threw back the covers, darted to the window, and threw open the shutters. From my little window, I could see the city sprawled below, beyond the walls, and into the valley stretching far below. The Warlord’s army lay there, the small white tents covering the fields beyond. It was an impressive sight. I stood for a moment, then scrambled about my small room, looking for the clothes I’d tossed aside last night.

  I took a sniff, and decided that fresh ones would be a good idea.

  I found a simple gray dress in my trunk and dressed quickly, shoving the brooch back into my boot before I finished. It was safer with me than not.

  I would get a hurried look at the big man, check his wound, go to market and get the items I needed, do my rounds with Eln, then back to the tent, spend a few hours brewing in the stillroom, and with luck, be back in bed before the next dawn. I dug my money pouch out from under a pile of notes and stopped in dismay.

  I hadn’t realized how little was left. My only income was from the sale of some of my mixtures and lotions to ladies of the Court. I usually had enough for my needs, since by living at Court I had no real expenses. But I had been buying herbs and other supplies for a while now, and my coin had depleted quicker than I expected. I frowned, dug out what coins there were, and glanced around my room. There was nothing here that had much value, and I had not the time to make any lotions. I reached for my belt pouch and the pile of notes that I had shifted fell to the floor to reveal a potential source of funds.

  It was an old book, the first that I had purchased for myself. A listing of herbs and a discussion of their properties. I stared at its leather cover. I almost had the darn thing memorized, I’d had it so long.

  I didn’t think twice, because it would have hurt too much. I swept up the book, grabbed a satchel, and crammed it in. I slung the whole thing over my shoulder and headed down to the garden.

  The garden seemed its usual self this morning, bright in the sunlight. I had to stop when I entered the tent and give my eyes time to adjust. No one was stirring, so I made my way quietly to the big man’s pallet. I managed not to step on anyone or anything as I made my way.

  He looked good and seemed to be sleeping. I hesitated to rouse him, but curiosity won out. Carefully pulling back the blankets, I uncovered the leg and lifted the bandage, holding my breath at what I might see.

  I let my breath out with a whoosh.

  It looked great. The heat was down, the redness had eased. There was still pus, and it would need to be cleaned, but I could already see signs of healing. The skin had that healthy tone. It would scar, no aid for that. Although I had heard that a mixture of . . .

  A soft sound drew my attention away from my musings. Joden had awakened and was lying on a pallet on the other side of my patient. I looked into his eyes and smiled at him in delight. He looked at me for a moment and then slowly, a smile crept over his face as well. “Simus is well?” he said softly in his own language.

  My face almost cracked, my smile was so wide. “He is very well. Very good, very well.” I didn’t have the word for fantastic or wonderful, but I was fairly sure that the glee in my voice made up for the lack. I carefully replaced the bandage and the blankets, and tucked him in tight. The big man never stirred. “Has he woken?”

  “Yes. He knew me, but slept most of the time.”

  “Do you have any of that drug I gave you yesterday?” Joden nodded. “Good. Keep giving it to him. I will bring more tonight.” I leaned back, rejoicing quietly. I’d not lose this one. I scrambled to my feet and threw a last smile at Joden. “Do you have everything that you need? Food?”

  Joden sat up, rubbing the sleep off his face. He shrugged. “The food is food.” He got a soft smile on his face. “This one will be like a wet ruffled bird because there is no kavage.”

  I cocked my head. “I do not understand ‘kavage.’ ”

  Joden chuckled. “A drink. Very strong.” He gestured at the sleeping man. “He will be . . .”

  I lost the rest, unable to understand. “He needs the kavage? Like a drug?”

  Joden looked at me, puzzled. It was clear that we weren’t communicating well. I just shrugged and repeated the word, wanting to make sure that I had it right. Joden nodded. I grabbed my satchel and threaded through the tent. I lingered for a moment and smiled at the guard like a lunatic, feeling almost giddy with relief. He blinked at me a few times, then smiled back.

  I barely noticed the walk back up to the castle and through the gates. The big man was healing very well, something I had not been sure of when I had first seen the wound. Oh, there was still danger of fever and blood poisons, but I was optimistic. I wound my way through the city to the markets with a light step and lighter heart.

  It was early enough the market was not crowded. Most merchants should have been setting out their wares. But there was an eerie quiet to the place, an unusual stillness. When I reached Remn’s shop, the door was closed, the windows shuttered. I knocked, and he let me in with a worried expression. Shorter than even me, and twice again as round, he greeted me with a smile, but there was a sadness in his eyes. “Xylara. What are you doing out this morn?”

  “Good morning and good trade to you, Master Remn.” I slipped through the door, and watched him bolt it behind me.

  “Trade.” He heaved a sigh, and gestured at his shelves. “In wartime, no one buys books, Lara. We are free to sit and drink and eat my wife’s tarts in the echoing silence of my shop.” He shook his head in despair.

  I pulled the book from my bag. He smiled when he saw it. “Ah, I remember when you bought this. Your first, yes?” He turned it over and ran his large hand over it. “Does it need a repair?”

  “No. I was wondering how much you would give for it.”

  He looked at me, dark eyes questioning. “Word in the market is that you are buying healing supplies for the prisoners.”

  I shrugged.

  He thinned his lips and thought for a moment, tapping the book with one long finger. “Wait here.” Abruptly, he went in the back, and returned with a small pouch. He handed it to me, and it clinked in my hand. “My brother’s son was lost in battle. We have heard no word, but I do this in his name. I pray to the gods that there is one on that side with a heart such as yours.”

  I opened the pouch and looked in. “Remn, this is too much . . .”

  He held up his hand. “I hold your book as s
urety, Lady. I know that you will repay me.” He pointed his finger at me. “Mind you don’t take too long about it.”

  I laughed and hugged him. He brushed aside my thanks and urged me to go home. I refused, gently.

  He scowled at me. “Very well, then. Take one of my apprentices with you. You should have an escort, young lady.”

  “I’ve only to go to Estoval’s. I’ll be fine.” He grumbled but opened the door, and I waved as I continued on.

  I stopped briefly at Kalisa’s cart. She was busy with actual customers, who looked close to buying all of her stock. So I tucked a bottle of my joint medicine into her gnarled hand and moved off. She called her thanks behind me.

  Next to Estoval’s. He was farther down the street, and now the early morning crowd was beginning to enter the market. But the merchants weren’t opening their windows to display their wares; instead they were dealing from behind their doors and shutters. There was an air of desperation from those seeking to purchase goods. I hurried my feet and concentrated on trying to remember another mixture that was supposed to help scarring. I could remember goat’s milk boiled thick, but the rest eluded me. Ah, well. Perhaps Estoval would know. Also, I needed plenty of lotion makings. I’d no wish to sell any more books.

  As I moved through the crowd, a funny feeling began to creep up the back of my neck. As if someone was watching me. I stopped for a bit and rummaged through my bag as if looking for something. I glanced through my hair, trying to see if someone was following me, or watching me, but I saw no one. I shrugged. Guess the hours that I was keeping were getting to me.

  “Xylara.” Estoval greeted me cooly, surrounded by his pungent stock. “How may I help you?”

  I rattled off my mental list, and he gestured for his apprentices to gather up the items. I moved about, picking up the items that looked best for some of my lotions. “Estoval, do you recall an unguent to prevent scarring? With goat’s milk boiled thick?”

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