Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

  The bubbling pots and the homey smells relaxed me in a way that nothing else could. While I enjoy caring for people, this was a small pleasure of my trade, brewing elixirs that would ease pain and restore health. The closest I’d ever come to magic, that was certain. It gave me a true sense of being needed and a real feeling of accomplishment.

  I was yawning madly by the time the orchid root was ready to be poured into the small bottles that I had prepared. Moving carefully, I filled each to the neck and stoppered them loosely. The corks could be tightened once the bottles were fully cooled. The last thing was the fever’s foe. The paste had to be spooned into small jars and sealed with wax. I put the wax to melt, and started to work. It seemed to take forever, but eventually I was perched on my stool, pouring the sealing wax over the last of the jars.

  A knock came at the door, and Othur entered. He looked tired as well, with bags under his eyes. I smiled at him as I set down the wax pot. He stood there, rubbed his face with both hands, and sighed.

  “Long night?” I blew out the flame and gathered up a few of the jars to move to the storage shelves behind me.

  Othur nodded. “The King talked alone with the Warlord for hours and has been closeted with the Council ever since. They’ve been at it, hammer and tongs, for some time. They’ve sent for you.”

  I put down the last jar, and turned. “Me?” I blinked at him owlishly, surprised. “Why?”

  There was a bitterness in his eyes as he shrugged. “I don’t know. But he wants to see you now.” My father had allowed Othur in all the councils and his opinion had been asked for and taken seriously. Xymund had removed the privilege when he’d taken the throne. Yet another reason for Anna to dislike him so.

  I quickly finished cleaning the work area, and blew out the rest of the lamps and candles. Othur stood to one side and held the door. I slipped past him, smoothing down the front of my jerkin as I went. There were wax droplets and other stains, not to mention the smell, but the Council was just going to have to settle for my work clothes if they wanted a status report about the prisoners at this hour. My jaw cracked in a yawn as I followed Othur through the back halls.

  We arrived at the doors only to hear a heated argument going on inside. Othur and I exchanged looks, but made no comment. It did seem to me that Xymund spent more time arguing with his advisors instead of listening.

  The guard nodded and opened the door to let me in. The conversation stopped abruptly as the door swung open.

  Once again I found myself kneeling before my brother. But when I was granted permission to rise, Xymund was standing looking out the window. He was in formal dress, standing stiff and straight in front of the huge window. His hands were clenched behind his back. I glanced around. It seemed that the entire Council was crowded about the room. Lord Marshall Warren was there, along with Archbishop Drizen. Drizen was seated by the hearth and dressed in formal vestments, with Deacon Browdus beside him. Everyone looked tired and worn. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught side glances being exchanged. There was a tension, as if everyone was avoiding looking at me. Something was very, very wrong.

  “Xylara, the Warlord has named his terms for peace.” Xymund did not turn. He made his announcement as he stood looking out the window. His hands tightened around one another. I looked over at General Warren, who grimaced, and looked down at the floor.

  “That is good to hear, Your Majesty.” I swallowed, sensing a problem. “Are they acceptable?”

  Xymund still did not turn. “I and my nobles are to swear fealty to him. The kingdom will remain under my control and the taxes and tithes that are to be paid are reasonable. All prisoners and wounded, if there are any, will be exchanged.” There was a bitterness in his tone. Maybe because they had more of our men than we had of theirs. Xymund continued. “But he has claimed tribute.” My brother’s gaze remained fixed on the horizon.

  My fears for a peace grew. If the Warlord claimed something of Xymund’s, his pride would forbid acceptance of the terms.

  “What does he claim?” I took a step toward Xymund. Still, he did not turn. I looked around, but no one would meet my eyes.

  At last, General Warren drew a breath. “You.” He cleared his throat. “He claims you as tribute.”

  “Me?” My voice squeaked and sounded like it came from a distance.

  Xymund did not turn. “As a slave.”

  I stared at that broad back, certain that I had not heard that right. “Me? But . . .”

  Warren nodded. He glanced at Xymund’s stiff back, but when there was no response, continued on, “The Warlord has sworn for a true peace. No pillaging, no looting.” Warren swallowed. “He offers a true peace in exchange for you, Daughter of Xy.”

  The Archbishop raged. “He takes a Daughter of the Blood as a whore. You cannot allow this, Majesty.” He and the Deacon both wore similar expressions of horror.

  Protocol be damned. I sank into the nearest chair, body and mind numb. “You have misunderstood. He can’t want . . .”

  Xymund’s hands twisted around each other, as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. The light caught the gold brocade of his tunic as he moved. Always the regal one, my brother. “He would take you as his possession, a slave to his desires. He would not explain what your ultimate fate would be. He just repeated that he claims you, that you must be promised to him.” He moved his head slightly, but did not turn. “I offered him lands, cattle, or gold. He just shook his head no. ‘For a true peace,’ he said, ‘I claim her.’”

  I stared at him, blankly. From childhood, I had been drilled in my responsibility as a Daughter of the House of Xy. That a marriage of alliance would be expected of me. But as the years had passed, and I had gained my mastery, it had seemed a dim prospect. Yet here it was, the obligations of my birth and my house, in a form far different from any expectations. I licked my dry lips and tried to remember to breathe.

  My legs managed to get me up out of the chair, and over to stand next to Xymund at the window. Father had chosen this room for its view of the length of the valley. The river, the lake, the farms and cottages. Now I saw what Xymund saw. Campfires. Hundreds of them outside the walls, scattered over the valley. The Warlord’s men. I leaned my head against the cool stonework and looked out in despair.

  Xymund shifted slightly and turned. For a brief instant I saw it in his eyes. Deep within, hidden from the men in this room, was his utter and complete glee. “You have already promised him his tribute,” I whispered.

  Xymund tilted his head to the side.

  Rage filled me in an instant. I wanted to strike out hard and hurt him. Warren could rule better. Othur could rule better.

  The rage drained away as quickly as it had surged, leaving me shaken. The glitter of those campfires reminded me of what faced us.

  “Xylara.” Warren was standing behind us. “No one can ask this of you.” I turned to face him. He did not look at the King. “We do not know this man’s intent . . . there have been no assurances of your safety or . . .” He paused. “Or of your status. My men and I will fight—”

  “And if you fight, Warren? What is the hope?” I asked.

  Warren shook his head. “I cannot tell. We are ill prepared for a siege. Water is not a problem, but food . . .” His voice trailed off.

  “There are the tunnels into the mountains.” A large, older man spoke up. I couldn’t place his name but knew he was one of the craftsmen on the Council. “We can bring in supplies that way.”

  Warren shook his head. “The tunnels are old and rarely used. They are big enough for men to walk single file, but not for laden horses. We could not bring in enough food or supplies fast enough to feed a whole city.” He took a deep breath. “The Warlord’s men would need to build siege equipment. Winter comes on. There’s a good chance that we could hold out ’til the weather drives him back to the plains.”

  I moved back to the chair and sank into it. There was an odd kind of numbness in my brain. Voices were raised, as they debated again,
but I couldn’t make out the words. I stared at Xymund’s back, but he did not turn. He simply looked out over the valley.

  I licked my dry lips again. “Warren?” My voice was little more than a whisper. It sounded strange to my ears.

  The arguing continued in the background as he knelt by my chair. I looked into his eyes. I saw his fear.

  His fear that I would not do this.

  “Will it be a true peace?”

  Warren nodded, his head close to mine. “Yes. The Warlord has kept his word to those he has taken. It is only where any have betrayed him that he has retaliated. When he is betrayed or defied, he is ruthless.” The old man bent his head.

  “I need . . .” I cleared my dry throat and looked down at my clasped hands. The knuckles were white. What I needed mattered no longer. I looked up and let my voice carry, cutting through the useless debate. “When is this to take place?”

  Xymund turned. “Sunset. The ceremony will be at sunset tomorrow.” He gestured toward the window, where dawn could be seen on the horizon. “Today.”

  I nodded. It took every bit of strength, but I managed to get to my feet. “The House of Xy has always seen to the needs of its people.” I took a deep breath. “I will be ready at sunset.”

  Everyone in the room but the King sank to their knees, removing helms and uncovering heads. I looked steadily at Xymund, who stared back at me, sullenly.

  I turned and walked toward the door on legs gone numb. Once in the hall, I moved without really seeing anything. Next thing I knew, I was in my room. I stood for a moment, looking at my belongings scattered about, at the fire that burned so cheerfully, at my books, and papers, and . . .

  I fell to my knees and managed to get to the chamber pot before retching up my supper.

  I heaved and panted over the pot for what seemed an endless time. The spice of the stew burned my lips. It occurred to me that it would be a long time before I could stomach the taste of Anna’s stew again. Then I realized that would not be a problem. My stomach cramped at the thought.

  My eyes closed, I tried to concentrate on my breathing instead of the wretched cramping of my gut. A slave. The heaving began again, although there was nothing left to purge.

  Sounds at my door, then hands pulled back my hair, and a cool cloth was on my neck. My breathing started to even out, and a cup of water was pressed to my lips. I took some water in, rinsed, and spit. Supporting hands drew me up and away. It was Anna, who clutched me to her ample breast, making soft sounds, and rubbing my back with her hands. I buried my face in her neck and clung like a sick child. She smelled of bread, and grease, and home. Her big, warm hands rubbed my back as she cradled me, both of us kneeling on the floor. My sobs eased as she hugged and rocked me. “You cannot do this thing,” she whispered into my ear. “. . . you cannot.”

  Word travels fast.

  “I must,” I whispered back. “Xymund has already promised.” I lifted my head and sniffled, wiping my eyes with my hands. Othur was seated on my bed, his eyes red-rimmed, his hands hanging between his legs.

  Othur snorted. “He had no right.” He took a deep breath, his lips thinning as he pressed them together.

  “Bastard he is, bastard in blood and deed,” Anna hissed. “Fine, then he can answer to the Warlord. We will get you away, hide you ’til this is done.”

  I dropped my head to her shoulder and allowed myself to be comforted for a moment.

  “We have friends beyond the mountains, where you could go, Lara.” Othur’s voice was soft.

  I lifted my head and looked into his worried eyes. “It wouldn’t just be Xymund that answered to the Warlord, would it? It would be the city.”

  Othur dropped his gaze. He said nothing.

  I pushed myself away from Anna and sat up. “Would it?”

  Othur looked into the fire. “Rumor has it that the Warlord is ruthless when betrayed, or when a promise is not kept.”

  Anna spoke up. “Child, you are not responsible for . . .”

  I looked at her, at her tear-streaked face. “What would Father have done?”

  Othur sat up at that comment. “If your father were alive he would be horsewhipping your brother through the halls and down into the stables. He’d never have pledged you without consulting you first.”

  Anna nodded in agreement, her chins jiggling. She took up a damp cloth and wiped my face. “Child, please. There is no need for this.”

  “What is the alternative? I walk away from the city? From these people? From you? And leave you to what fate, Anna?”

  I rose to my feet. Othur stood as well, and we both helped Anna get her bulk off the floor. Once she was on her feet, Othur swept me into a hug. “This isn’t over, Lara. We need to talk about this before—”

  The door slamming open brought him up short.

  It was Xymund.

  He stood in the doorway, a small chest under his arm.

  Anna covered the chamber pot with the damp cloth, and picked it up. With a nod to Xymund, she left the room. For one brief moment, I held my breath, afraid that the contents of the pot would be flung in his face. But Anna went past him without a word. Othur bowed to Xymund, then followed his wife out. As he closed the door, he cast a glance at me that told me that our discussion was not over yet.

  Xymund placed the chest on the small table by the door.

  “The Warlord’s men brought this. His instructions are that you be bathed, oiled, and anointed with perfume. Your hair is to be down. Wear the garment that has been provided and nothing else. When summoned into the throne room, you will walk to the throne, kneel before the Warlord, and extend your wrists for your chains.”

  I did not reply. I would not give him the satisfaction.

  “I have something else to give you.” He held out a small vial with a dark fluid in it. I took it, and looked at him with a question in my eyes. “It’s monkshood.”

  One of the deadliest poisons known. Takes less than a few breaths. My voice barely emerged from my throat. “What am I to do with this?”

  “The right thing.” He put his hands behind his back. “I had no choice, Xylara. My generals tell me that we could not withstand him. By doing this I save the kingdom.”

  “And your throne.” Suddenly I was very, very tired. I sat in a chair, and looked at the vial. So small. So deadly.

  “I am giving you an escape. I will leave the timing of it to your discretion.”

  I let the bitterness escape. “My thanks, to be sure.”

  He stiffened. “The best time would be after the ceremony, but before he can . . .” His voice trailed off, and I closed my eyes. “I know that you will do what is best for our people.” Bitterness and something even darker now lay in his tone. I looked at him and found it on the tip of my tongue to ask him why he hated me.

  I doubted that I would get an honest answer.

  He endured my look for a moment and then turned on his heel and left the room, closing the door behind him.

  The brown liquid flowed back and forth as I turned the vial in my hand. I stared at it as I turned it over and over . . .

  All I had ever wanted was to heal. To fix the hurts of others. A school of my own, a place to study and learn and teach, and heal. Now, I would be a . . .

  I swallowed as the bile rose in my throat again. I stood and started to pace in the confines of my small room. I kept going over the scene in Xymund’s study, trying to find another way, an alternative to what he had promised our enemy. Xymund’s words kept running through my head. “I and my nobles are to swear fealty to him. The kingdom will remain under my control and the taxes and tithes that are to be paid are reasonable. All prisoners and wounded, if there are any, will be exchanged. But he has claimed tribute.”

  “. . . claimed tribute . . .”

  “. . . claimed tribute . . .” But there was something else, something . . .

  “All prisoners and wounded, if there are any, will be exchanged.”

  Dearest Goddess—“if there are any”!

>   I stood suddenly, dropping the vial onto the bed. Xymund had no intention of exchanging prisoners. He would obey the letter of the agreement but not the spirit. I swallowed hard, glancing out the window to the rising sun. It might already be too late.

  I was up and moving without another thought. I flew out of the room, reaching the circular back stairs, throwing myself down them as fast as my feet could go. I burst through the kitchen door, and bless the Goddess, Othur was still there with Anna. They looked up, staring at me as if I had taken leave of my senses.

  I hurried over, talking as fast as my breath would let me.

  “Slow down, Lara, slow down.” He frowned. “Xymund wouldn’t. He’s too afraid of that demon to . . .”

  Anna wiped her face, her expression grim. “He would, damn him. A sop to his pride. What can we do?”

  “I think I can get them safe to the castle gates, but beyond?” I trembled at the thought of a slaughter, of its effect on the peace.

  Othur rubbed his chin. “Let me worry about that. Go to the tents, Lara. Maybe we’re wrong, but go anyway.”

  I nodded, ran to the stillroom, and grabbed up my satchel. Without further thought I exploded out of the kitchen and down the garden path, running for all I was worth, praying that I was wrong.

  I stopped at the briar patch, just out of sight of the first sentry post, and tried to catch my breath. No point in giving myself away. I dropped the satchel, bent over, hands on knees, and concentrated on breathing.

  Once I had it under control, I picked up the bag and started walking down the path at my normal pace. I had to be in time, had to be . . .

  The first sentry appeared unconcerned, giving me a genial wave as I passed by. I returned it, and continued on. One slow step at a time. The next sentry came into view. I waved and kept my pace normal.

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