Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan


  His tone was even cooler as he recited the recipe for me. I added those items to my growing pile. He stayed close, nervously sorting some of the stock near me. “I was wondering if you had heard anything, Lady? About the war?” His tone was fawning, but I heard the fear underneath.

  I responded, keeping my tone calm and my information general. He nodded, listening carefully, and I was sure my words would be all over the market within minutes of my departure. I kept it simple, and positive, and made no mention of the truth. That was for Xymund to announce, not I.

  Finally I had what I wanted and headed to the counter to where the apprentices had set out the other items. I gave them a sharp look, for they were clearly Estoval’s older stock—wilted and withered and not at all suitable. I gave Estoval a sharper look when he named his price.

  He avoided my eyes. “Prices go up when supplies are limited.”

  “Supplies aren’t limited yet, Estoval. And I wouldn’t feed some of this to a goat, much less use it in medicine.”

  He lifted his chin. “You’re healing those barbarians. The better stock is reserved for Xyians, not those filthy—”

  I cut him off. “By the Order of the King, Estoval.” I drew myself up, and fixed him with my best High Court look. “As I am a Daughter of Xy, and as I execute the King’s Command, you will sell me the best you have and at your normal prices. Or answer to Xymund and his Council.”

  Estoval shriveled up. With a quick gesture, his apprentices brought out fresh items, and I paid a fair price for them, exchanging herbs for coins in silence. I was grateful that he had relented for there would have been no support from Xymund. Of that I was certain.

  As I was packing the last of my purchases, Estoval’s normal civility to a customer took over. “Was there anything else you required, Xylara?”

  “No. I think that I have everything for today, Estoval.” I hesitated for a minute, thinking. “Have you ever heard of kavage?”

  Estoval wrinkled up his nose. “Is it an herb?”

  “No.” I shook my head. “It is a drink of some kind. I have no idea what it is. I think one of my patients would enjoy some, but I doubt that there is any to be had.”

  “One of the prisoners?” Estoval sniffed, but his merchant’s instincts won out. “You might try the tinker’s cart three stores down, if he is there. I think he has snuck out of the city and is trading with the warlord’s men. Mention my name, Daughter of Xy.”

  I nodded my regal thanks, and headed off in the direction he’d indicated.

  I spotted the tinker’s cart easily, decorated with pots and pans, and ribbons aflutter in the breeze. I paused for a bit, since he was dealing with a customer, a tall, broad-shouldered man in armor. I occupied myself by looking over his wares. There was all matter of trinkets and metalware that gleamed in the sunlight. After a bit, the tinker turned his attentions to me.

  “How may I help you?” His eyes gleamed in anticipation.

  I smiled. “I am in no hurry.”

  The tinker winked. “This fellow can’t make up his mind. While he ponders, you and I will treat. What can I interest you in?”

  “Estoval told me that you might be able to help me. I am looking for some kavage.”

  He wrinkled his nose. “Ugh. What would you be wanting with that foul stuff?”

  “I am tending some of the prisoners. One mentioned that it is a drink that they enjoy.” I wavered, thinking. “Is it some form of spirits?” I had visions of trying to explain a tent full of drunken prisoners. Xymund would kill me.

  “No.” A deep voice with a faint accent answered me. I turned to see the other customer looking at me. Short black hair and skin tanned dark by the sun caught my eye, but what startled me were his bright blue eyes. Tall, with broad shoulders, he seemed to tower over me and the tinker, almost blocking the sun. My guess was he was one of the mercenaries that had been hired by some of the wealthier lords to guard their lives.

  The tinker laughed and agreed. “The land take me, no. It is truly foul tasting stuff that they make by dripping water through seeds.” He started to rummage through his cart, head and shoulders stuffed into one of its compartments. His muffled voice floated back at me. “In truth, I traded for some a while back, but once I tasted it”—he emerged with a good-sized sack and some kind of strange metal implement—“I knew I could never sell this here. The citizens would cry themselves poisoned and the City Guard would be on my neck.” His eyes gleamed. “I will sell it to you, fine lady, but give me no blame when it eats at your insides.”

  “Well then,” I replied with a smile, “must not be worth much.”

  The tinker tried for an offended look, but burst out in a laugh. “Ah, Lady, you have the advantage.”

  We dickered a bit, just to be polite, but were quick to come to terms. I paid him, well satisfied with my purchase. The tinker was kind enough to give me a sack to carry the beans and the pot in. As I toddled off with my burdens, I heard him call behind me. “Come again, Lady, and buy some more of my wares.” If my hands had not been full, I’d have waved farewell.

  “They drink it with milk.” The man with the bright blue eyes had moved up next to me, walking, matching my pace. He’d apparently lost interest in a purchase. “Would you like some help?”

  The market was filling up. I would find it difficult to avoid the market-goers with my bulky bundles. I felt my face flush a little when he took the sack and satchel. His gaze was steady and very disconcerting. It was rare for anyone to pay attention to me like that. I told myself not to be foolish.

  “I am Lara.”

  The man smiled. “I am Keir.” We started back up the street. “The liquid is drunk with milk and honey.” The phrasing was awkward, and that faint accent was there again. I couldn’t place it.

  I nodded, thinking. I had money remaining, and the cost of those items would be small. I smiled at Keir. “Then I must get some. It will be a treat for my patients.” I looked at him. “You learned this in the fighting?”

  He gave me an intent look. “One must always know the enemy.” Keir shifted his burdens. “You are treating the prisoners, are you not?” I nodded. He continued. “Are you treating one named Simus?”

  My feet slowed, wiser than my head. It took my head a minute longer to realize the implication. And before either could react, I was pushed into the alleyway off to the side, pressed up against the wall by a large body, and a large hand was covering my mouth. The packages lay at our feet, scattered.

  I’d been warned, oh yes, Anna and Eln and Remn and the others. That if I wasn’t careful I’d be assaulted in the market, alone and helpless. I’d never believed them. I’d always thought that I’d be able to scream or fight or get away from any foolish enough to try anything. But the body pressed against mine was strong and hard and held me effortlessly as I fought, trying to kick, struggling to get my hands free, anything to win my release.

  “Be still. I will not hurt you,” the voice rumbled, and his warm breath on my ear made me shiver. I forced myself to relax, glaring at the man, since it was all for naught anyway. I wasn’t moving anywhere until he was ready to let me go.

  Given the location of where we were and what he was doing, there was no reason to believe his words and every reason to believe that he would hurt me. And yet . . .

  I believed him. I was not scared. In fact, I had never felt more alive. My whole body seemed newly aware of itself. It was like my skin had taken on a life of its own. He had pressed himself up against me, holding me to the wall, his mouth a scant inch from my ear. The power of his body warmed me even through my clothing. Was this what it was like to—

  His voice cut through my shameful thoughts, his eyes focused intently on mine. “All I want is information. How is Simus?” He pulled his hand back slightly, enough for me to talk. I could still feel the warmth of his hand on my face.

  “He is well.” I darted a glance off to the sides, but there was no one near.

  “When could he travel?”

 
; I could see where this was headed. “Days. Even then, he would have to be carried.”

  He locked his eyes on mine for a moment, then seemed satisfied with the truth of my answer. “You will carry a message to him.”

  “No.”

  He looked at me sharply. “You heal the enemy—”

  I cut him off. “No. I don’t know who you are, or what you hope to do, but I will not help you.”

  His blue eyes gleamed. His hand moved down to my throat and rested lightly on it. “I could kill you now.”

  I swallowed hard and closed my eyes. “Who then would take the kavage to Simus?”

  There was a huff of amusement. The hand left my throat, and I felt the heat of his body move away. I opened my eyes onto an empty alleyway.

  I stood for a moment, just breathing, trying to let the feel of my body return to normal. But I could still feel the weight of him pressed against me, and the warmth of his breath on my cheek. Outside the alley, traffic ebbed and flowed, and the normal sounds helped me get myself under control. My packages lay at my feet, and I picked them all up, hoping that none of the bottles and jars had broken. There was still so much to do and time was wasting. I took a deep breath and started walking.

  I was a fool. My cheeks flushed with embarrassment. An ignorant fool. I would talk to Lord Warren as soon as he was available.

  BETWEEN THE STILLROOM ACTIVITIES AND HELPING Eln, it was late before I got to the prisoners’ tent. I yawned as I took the final part of the path, heading for Heath’s post. I stopped when I got to him, put down my satchel, sack, and jugs, and stretched as high as I could, yawning with my mouth wide open. He smiled. “Tired?”

  I grinned and nodded. “After this, I go to bed . . . no stops along the way.”

  Heath jerked his head toward the castle. “I heard the horns announce the arrival of the Warlord. Have you heard anything about the talks?”

  I snorted. “Heath, I’d be the last person anyone would tell. I know that Warren is involved, but that’s all I know.” I sighed and picked up my bundles. I was tired, and the damn brooch was raising a blister on my ankle. I was frustrated as well, since I’d tried to speak to Lord Warren, but it hadn’t been possible. “I hope they went well. It’s nice not to have more wounded.”

  “Aye.” Heath had that mischievous look in his eye. “You’ll have more ladies of the Court looking for lotions and potions.” I rolled my eyes, and he chuckled as he lifted the tent flap.

  I looked for Rafe when I went in and saw him near Simus’s cot. As I moved through the tent, I could see that there were more men up and moving about. Although some were shaky and had others assisting them, they were moving.

  “Rafe.” I called a greeting. He, Joden, and the other man, ummm . . . Prest, were near to Simus’s pallet. I set my parcels down and knelt to look at my patient.

  “Has he woken?”

  Joden shrugged. “He has been in and out all day.”

  Prest looked at me. “Will he be well?”

  “Let us look.” Prest and Joden started the unwrapping process. I looked over at Rafe and grinned. “I found this in the marketplace. Maybe you have a use for it.”

  He looked puzzled, but took the sack and opened it. His eyes got very big and excited. “Kavage! It is kavage!” He looked at me as the others started to react. “Where did you . . .?”

  “There was a merchant in the market that had some. He could not sell it; everyone thinks it is a poison.” The tent laughed, but Rafe paid me no attention as he and a few others started examining the contents and commenting on the seeds. They seemed sort of obsessed. I bit my lip and started to worry that I had done the wrong thing.

  Joden caught my eye and smiled. “Have no fear, healer. It is a drink like any other. But it is a taste of home, and it will divert them for a time while they figure out a way to grind the beans.”

  I smiled with relief and turned to the wound.

  It was doing very well. I took a closer look than I had earlier and was still pleased with his progress. We cleaned and redressed it, smearing it this time with an unguent made of fever’s foe and fairysfoot.

  Satisfied, I left it to Joden and Prest to wrap up my patient. I started on my rounds, tired but pleased. Each man was well out of danger and healing well. As I worked, I could hear Rafe and his group talking excitedly as they apparently found different ways to grind the beans I had brought. I stopped to watch for a moment as one man tried to grind them against a piece of wood with his bootheel. “Will that not affect the taste?”

  He nodded without looking up. “Aye. It will add flavor.”

  Eventually there was no noise at all, and I looked over to see the men in fierce contemplation of the metal pot the tinker had given me, hovering over one of the braziers of hot coals. I just shook my head and continued my work. Before long, an odd aroma filled the tent. Odd, but pleasant.

  Finally, the last one was done. I went over to where Joden sat by Simus, and dropped down next to him. I dragged my satchel along, and started to re-pack everything in it. I was almost done when Joden nudged me, and I looked up to see Rafe standing before me, a mug of something steaming in his hand.

  “We want you to have the first taste.” Rafe looked proudly at me as he handed me the mug. The rest of the tent was watching me, all eyes bright. I took the mug in one hand.

  “You would not try to poison an innocent young healer, would you?” I looked suspiciously at Rafe, who stared back as innocent as a lamb.

  “No.” Rafe looked very serious. “On my honor.” Then his grin flashed. “I would not waste kavage that way.”

  Everyone in the tent started laughing, and a few pounded on Rafe’s back for his jest.

  Taking a deep breath, I put the mug to my lips and sipped.

  Once again the tent exploded in laughter as my face screwed up in disgust. I managed to swallow, but it was a near thing. The liquid was hot, thick, and bitter.

  Joden patted me on the back as the rest of the tent started to share in the pot and make plans for another one. “Most prefer it with some milk and honey to take away the bitter.”

  “Yes! That’s right.” I looked around for my other purchases. “Keir told me that. So I brought some with me.”

  The silence in the tent was immediate and thick. I froze under all those eyes drilling into me. And a voice, thin and weak, arose from the pallet that lay beside me.

  “Keir? You spoke to Keir?” Simus struggled to sit up.

  Joden and Prest reached out and pushed him down. I handed the milk and the honey to Rafe, who took it without comment. I turned back to Simus.

  “I met a man in the market this morning who told me that the kavage was taken with milk or honey.” I was suddenly very thankful that there were two guards inside the tent with me. Two guards that were looking very nervous. One caught my eye and I gave him a smile. They relaxed a little.

  Joden made a gesture, and the rest of the tent started to break up, talking and drinking from their mugs. He helped Simus to sit up and Rafe came over to help. He brought with him a mug, and Simus’s hand emerged from the blankets, weak and shaky, but latched onto the mug like a desperate man.

  Joden looked at me. “A man with eyes like blue flames?” I nodded. “Did he send any message?”

  I returned the gaze. “He wanted to. I refused.”

  Joden’s eyes narrowed. Simus watched me over the brim of his mug as Rafe helped him drink from it.

  I did not back down. “I am a healer of any in need of my services. But I am not a . . .” I could not think of the word for “traitor.” “I am not an oath-breaker. I have an oath as a healer, but also to my King. Any rescue attempt this Keir tries will be without my aid.”

  The minute my mouth closed, I winced. Joden, Rafe, and Simus relaxed. I could feel the tension leave them when they heard my words. I had probably just delivered the very message Keir wanted them to have anyway. I flushed again.

  Simus sighed. “This kavage is terrible. Who made it?”

 
Rafe coughed.

  “I should have known.” He looked up at Joden. “How long?”

  “Two days.” Joden replied. “You were brought in with a bad wound and fever.” Simus raised an eyebrow at that, and gave Joden a long look. Joden looked away, as if ashamed, but continued on. “Lara here treated you, and the wound does well. I do not think you will lose the leg.”

  Even more tension left Simus’s body at that news. He took another sip from his mug. “Any news?”

  Joden shook his head. “I have had none.”

  Simus looked at me and raised both eyebrows. I saw no harm. “All I know is that the Warlord arrived about midday to talk peace.”

  Simus thought about that. “You are wrong, little healer. The Warlord is here to talk surrender.”

  CHAPTER 3

  AS I WALKED BACK TO THE CASTLE THAT NIGHT along the garden path, I felt strangely invigorated. The tiredness that I had felt before had dissipated as quickly as it had come. Before leaving the tents, I’d finished the mug of kavage, once I’d laced it with milk and honey. A strange herb. I wondered if it held healing properties.

  Since there seemed little chance that I would sleep anytime soon, I went to the castle stillroom off the kitchen area. I waved to Anna as I entered the kitchen, snagged a bowl of stew and some bread, and retreated into the dim recess to eat. I was starving, and couldn’t remember if I’d eaten at midday or not.

  Perched on my stool, I ate quickly. The room with its rows of shelves and worktables was cool and quiet. The candle lamp only lit the small area around me. I’d light the rest when I started working. The scent of the spicy stew filled my senses, canceling out the scent of medicines and mixtures. As I wolfed down the food, I looked about, making plans. I’d concentrate on the medicinal recipes. If the fighting started back up, I would need all that I had on hand, and more. The lotions and perfumes could wait awhile.

  Hours later the braziers were hot and the mixtures brewing. Water and willow bark were in one kettle boiling down to make fever’s foe. Another pot held the ingredients for the scar mixture, once I’d filched goat’s milk from the larder. As I stirred some of the orchid root mixture, I heard horns blowing. I stopped, listening, but they did not repeat. The Warlord must be leaving out the main gates. If that was the case, they’d been at it a long time. I breathed a silent prayer to the Goddess that things had gone well. Xymund’s pride had caused him to do foolish things in the past. But Lord Marshall Warren was a good man. I hoped he would see the wisdom to peace.

 
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