Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan


  The guard was a familiar one, but I could not place the name. He nodded to me. “You’re early this morn.”

  I nodded and smiled, not trusting my voice.

  He lifted the flap. I took a breath and stepped inside.

  Everything was as it had been. I let out my breath slowly and swayed with the relief that coursed over me. Most of the prisoners were still asleep and not yet stirring. Someone was about, though, for I could smell kavage, and some of the braziers were alight. Maybe I was wrong.

  Maybe.

  I looked over to where Simus and Joden were, and headed toward them. The shadows clung in that area of the tent, where the light of the fires did not reach.

  Joden looked up first and seemed startled to see me. He rose from his knees and held out a hand, as if to ward me off. I moved past him and knelt by Simus, who exclaimed sharply as I reached over to pull back the blankets. I looked over, startled, then followed his gaze to the tent wall. There, where the darkness was deepest, I discovered something important.

  There was a man hidden in the shadows.

  I froze. Joden had moved behind me, blocking the guards’ view. Simus was struggling to sit up, and I assisted him almost unconsciously, my eyes never leaving the blue eyes that gleamed from the shadows above us.

  Keir.

  Joden was speaking softly, and it took me a minute to remember his language. “. . . please. Don’t betray him, Lara. I beg you.”

  “I won’t,” I answered, keeping my own voice low. I glared into those blue eyes, so bright in the darkness. “Is this some kind of foolhardy rescue plan?”

  White teeth gleamed in the shadows.

  I tore my gaze away and concentrated on Simus’s leg. My hands trembled as I opened the bandage to inspect the wound. First Xymund threatens the peace and then this fool. My mouth tightened as a wave of anger passed over me. Was I the only one who cared?

  Simus lay back down. “Something has happened.” He looked back and forth between me and the silent man in the shadows.

  “There is to be peace, and a prisoner exchange.” I worked quickly, trying to see the wound in what light I had.

  Simus stared at me. “Peace?” He shot a glance at Keir. “Under what terms?”

  I didn’t look at him. “Fealty, taxes, land. A prisoner exchange. Tribute.” The shakiness in my voice surprised me.

  Joden’s voice came over my shoulder. “Tribute?”

  I didn’t know the word in their tongue, so I used my own. “A slave.” I was digging through my satchel, hiding my face. “Me. I am to be given to him at sunset.”

  “Slave,” Joden said, puzzled. “I do not know this word.”

  Keir’s soft voice floated over us, barely a whisper. “You could flee.”

  “Yes.” I nodded. “There are people who would hide me and help me get away.” I faltered in my digging. “But if the Warlord is as ruthless as they say, what will he do to my people if I don’t go through with the ceremony?” I closed my eyes, actually picturing it for the first time. “If the Warlord is true to his word and it is a true peace, then any sacrifice would be worth it to save my people.” I jerked my head up and shot a glance at Simus. “Can I trust his word?”

  Simus nodded. “Yes. If he has set the terms, he will not be the one to violate them.”

  I looked down into the satchel and watched the jar in my shaking hands. “My father,” My voice trembled but I continued. “Father always said that the price of privilege is responsibility.” Even as I said it, I knew it to be true. Xymund may not be honorable. I could not control him. But I could act with honor. I took another deep breath and turned back to my work. As I worked, I cast a look up at Keir, hidden there in the shadows. “Xymund gave me a vial of poison.”

  Keir’s face tightened. Joden sputtered behind me. Simus levered himself up onto his elbows.

  “The drug would give you release.” Keir’s voice was dark and heavy as it floated through the dark. “Your people would suffer the consequences. The Warlord would level this city, and destroy the people if you were to die.”

  I looked over at him in the darkness of the tent. His eyes glittered at me from the shadows. A hysterical giggle bubbled up inside my throat. “You have listened to too many ballads. He probably wants a healer to ease the ache of sore muscles or lance his boils. I . . .”

  Keir’s head snapped up, and he looked at the tent entrance. I stopped, listened, and heard guards, many guards, approaching outside.

  Dearest Goddess. I had been right.

  My mouth dried in an instant. Quickly, I pulled the blankets up and over Simus. I staggered up, pulling my satchel with me. Keir was silent, wrapped in a cloak. He looked over at me, his face intent. “What is this? The exchange is to take place at sunset.”

  I didn’t answer. I fumbled in my satchel and pressed my small knife into Joden’s hand. “Here. Hold this for me.” I turned and strode toward the entrance. I got there just as the captain of the guard stepped through. From his look, he was surprised to see me. As he squinted at me, he opened his mouth to say something. I didn’t give him the chance.

  “Arneath. I am glad that they sent you to take charge of the exchange. I don’t quite have them ready to go yet.”

  Arneath closed his mouth and shot me a look. “My men can assist them to prepare. Why don’t you wait outside?”

  Oh no. He was not getting me away from them. I prudently stayed out of arm’s reach.

  “ ’Tis a joy for me to aid them, since it means the return of our men so much quicker.” I smiled and shrugged. “They are eager to leave. It will not take long.” I turned and called out in their tongue. “The trade of prisoners is to happen now. Everyone get ready.”

  Eager faces turned my way, and the men started to stir themselves. I felt Arneath moving behind me, and stepped away, toward where Joden stood. While I was fairly sure that the guards had no understanding of the language, I took no chance. “No one walks alone. Everyone must aid their fellows.”

  I started to make my way back to Joden, ignoring Arneath’s protest from behind me. “Some of you take up the cots of those who cannot walk.”

  I reached Joden.

  “Simus must go on a litter. Keir, you and Prest can carry him.”

  Joden started to reach for Simus, but I got in the way. “No, Joden. Stay next to me.” He looked at me, puzzled. I leaned forward and whispered in his ear, “You may need a hostage to get through this.” His eyes widened, then hardened.

  As the men gathered themselves, I waited for Arneath to order me taken from the tent. His men had the weapons. But I was gambling that his instructions were to be quiet and discreet. Hard to do that in front of the woman who was being given into slavery before the entire Court in a few hours.

  We started out, surrounded by the guards. I walked beside Joden, sticking close. Arneath said nothing but watched me carefully. If he were going to do anything, it would be in the depths of the garden, out of sight of the castle, where bodies could be buried. The path was narrow, and the men were strung out. If Arneath was to act, it would have to be there. The briar loomed before us. I breathed in the scent of the roses, and prayed to the Goddess. These men moved so slowly, even helping one another. We reached the briar and crawled past. I bit my lip, desperate to look behind, and yet not quite daring to do so. Finally, I couldn’t help it. I looked back.

  The last prisoner staggered past the briar, followed by the last of Arneath’s men. I breathed a little easier. Keir was at the foot of Simus’s litter. He blended into the group well, as if he had always been there. The only difference was the glances he darted in my direction from time to time.

  When we reached the castle gates one of the gate guards approached me. “Xylara, the King has instructed that you are not to leave the castle grounds.”

  Ah, Xymund. Brave enough to order the deaths of unarmed men, but afraid to face the Warlord without his little gift under his control.

  Arneath looked like he had lost the battle but won the war
. There were alleys, and dark places in the city. He could still carry out his mission.

  There wasn’t much more I could do. I nodded to Arneath as the gates began to open and turned to the group of men.

  Joden squeezed my shoulder and moved to take the burden off Keir. Keir stepped back, never letting his eyes leave my face. I avoided his gaze, stepped up to the litter, and put my hand on Simus’s shoulder. He covered it with his own. “My thanks. Be well, little healer.” I nodded, and stepped back.

  The gates swung open. Arneath stepped forward to lead the way.

  Only to be blocked by a large group of townspeople.

  Remn, the bookseller, stepped forward, along with the Head Priest from the Temple of the Goddess. “We have come to offer our help to these men. As we would hope that their people help our men at this time.”

  I smiled and watched as the two groups merged into one and headed down the street. Anna and Othur had gotten the word out. Arneath looked like he had swallowed something bitter. He would be hard-pressed to carry out his orders now.

  I stood as the gates swung silently closed. In the few moments before they came together, I thought I saw a flash of blue eyes as Keir looked back at me.

  It was wishful thinking. Nothing more.

  I SPENT THE REST OF THE DAY IN THE STILLROOM with Anna. We reviewed the supplies, and I went over the various recipes, updating the records and recording my notes. Eln would send apprentices, and eventually a master would take my place. It felt as if I were in a dream, with a kind of blanket around my head, muffling my thoughts. I concentrated on the work at hand and thought of nothing else. At some point, Anna placed food before me, but I couldn’t eat it. My thoughts were muddled, but my stomach was perfectly aware and it rolled at the suggestion of food. At the last, I gathered up my precious books and journals and tied them together with twine. Eln would see that they went to the right people and that the knowledge was not lost. I looked at the little bundle sitting in the center of the cleaned and cleared table. It looked somehow forlorn and lost. Of all my things, these were the hardest to let go.

  Anna’s hand grasped my shoulders and moved me to the kitchen, pressing me down onto the bench. A large mug of tea was placed before me, and I watched as she added honey to it. She placed the mug in front of me carefully. “Drink. I will get some bread and cold meat.”

  “No, Anna. I’m not hungry.” My stomach was barely willing to take the tea.

  The kitchen was quiet and there were only the two of us seated there. Anna sipped her tea. I stared at mine. We sat in uncomfortable silence. In another few hours.

  “Lara. Child.” I lifted my head to see Anna staring deep into her cup and turning the brightest shade of red I had ever seen. Her rough voice dropped to a whisper. “If your blessed mother were here, she would want you to know what to expect.”

  “Anna.” I reached for her reddened hand on the dry boards of the table, trying not to laugh. “Anna, I may not know the specifics, but I know the general way that things go. It will be all right.”

  Anna looked up, tears streaming down her face. “As you say, child.”

  Neither of us believed it.

  I looked away, then rose. “I best go and get ready.”

  Anna wiped her face with her apron. “I’ll have hot water sent up to your room. I’ll be up shortly to help you.”

  “Anna, you don’t have to—”

  A fierce look from her cut off my words. “I’ll be up. Go on.” She looked away as fresh tears welled up in her eyes.

  I made my way to my room, and stood at its center looking around at my personal items. I sorted out my clothing for the maids, Anna would see to it that they were given to the right people. I had little jewelry, but a few rings and a necklace that had been my mother’s. No fine jewels here, just a simple gold locket on a chain. That was for Anna. The few remaining coins, I’d donate to the Goddess. I had some perfumes and soaps that I’d made for myself; I set those aside for Kalisa the cheesemaker. She’d cackle, and use them lavishly. The ones I liked the best were scented with vanilla oil. They were very expensive and I’d used them sparingly, saving them for a special occasion or an indulgence. As I looked at them, I wished I’d used them every day.

  There were sounds outside, and I quickly dried my eyes as the servants started to haul in the tub and water, along with towels. Ordinarily, bathing in my room by the fire was a treat, one not to be indulged in too often, what with the servants having to haul hot water up the stairs. I bit my lip and got myself under control as they sloshed bucket after bucket of hot water into the tub. Once they were gone, I stripped, throwing my clothes in the corner. I sank into the tub and started washing, using my vanilla soap unsparingly.

  Anna showed up in time to help me rinse my hair. Wrapped in towels, I sat by the fire, and rubbed the water from my hair. Anna sat on a stool next to me, looking through the small chest that had been brought to the castle by the Warlord’s men. There was a small vial in the box, along with a garment of some kind. Anna uncorked it and we both jerked our heads back in dismay as the overwhelming scent of flowers filled the air. We could not get the cork back in fast enough. We looked at each other and burst out laughing like sick fools.

  Next, Anna held up the garment and we both just looked at each other.

  “Isn’t there anything else in there?” I asked as I looked in the chest.

  “No.” Anna frowned. “You are going to catch your death.”

  Anna picked up the combs and gestured for me to sit with my back to her. She started to work the tangles out of my hair. I reached for one of my bottles and handed it to her. She looked at me. “The instructions said . . .”

  “I’d rather smell of vanilla.”

  She sighed, but opened the bottle and began to rub the expensive oil into my hair. I started with the scented creams on my body. The vanilla’s gentle scent surrounded us, but wasn’t overpowering. Once I was done, I sat quietly, staring at the fire as Anna brushed my hair dry.

  When she was done, as a further small act of defiance, I wound my hair up on top of my head as I was wont to wear it and placed more of the scented oil on my neck. Anna clucked like a hen, but I felt better for it.

  Until I put on the garment. It was little more than a sleeveless shift of fine, shiny white cloth. It fell to below my knees, and clung in ways that brought a blush to my cheeks. Thankfully, the neckline was high, showing only my collarbone, since it was cut straight across. Anna stepped back, and we both looked at each other. It was fairly clear that the Warlord wanted to be able to inspect the merchandise before claiming it.

  With a deep breath, I moved closer to the fire, and looked around the room. Anna picked up my slippers, but I shook my head. “I am to wear only what was in the chest.”

  Anna looked at me, and let the slippers fall back to the floor. I moved about, telling her what I wanted done with my possessions. I pressed my mother’s necklace into her hand, and hugged her hard as her silent sobs racked her body. “You’ll see to this?”

  She managed to nod, unable to speak.

  The horns announced the arrival of the Warlord’s party. Our heads jerked up together and we both stared out the window. Sunset had arrived. I looked over at Anna. She stood there, frozen, her misery reflected in her face.

  I took one last look around my room, at my notes, my books. Xymund had said that I was forbidden to take anything with me. Slaves do not own property. They are themselves owned.

  I stood in the center, closed my eyes, and took another deep breath. It did no good. My heart started racing, pounding out of my chest. I could not do this. I could not submit to this. I opened my eyes, and saw the vial where it sat on the mantel. One quick swallow . . .

  Anna had already moved to the door. After she opened it, she knelt down slowly, wincing as her knees pressed against the stone. Gathering my wits, I walked to the door and paused to gently place my hand on her head. She reached up, took my hand, and pressed it to her lips. She looked up, eyes brimmi
ng. “Thank you, Daughter of Xy.”

  I nodded and managed a smile before I stepped into the hall. And brought myself up short.

  The corridor was lined with people. They stood on either side, pressed into corners and against the walls. I stood for a minute, looking. The nearest ones went down on their knees. I heard their quiet “Thank you, Daughter of Xy.” I took a few steps forward, and more sank down.

  As I walked down the halls toward the ceremony they each knelt and murmured, “Thank you, Daughter of Xy.” Through the main halls, down the stairs. There were servants, townspeople, healers that I knew, some of the wounded I had tended. The people who would not be in the throne room.

  The ones I was doing this for.

  They were with me, all the way to the door of the antechamber. Their thanks and their faces would be with me forever.

  I could do this.

  At the antechamber of the throne room, the guards on both sides opened the door, and I stepped inside.

  My eyes clouded, and I stood for a moment, trying to blink them clear. One of the pages approached, knelt, and held up a cloth. I took it, wiped my eyes, and returned it to him. Othur was standing there. “Daughter of Xy,” he said. “The fealty ceremony has begun. The Court herald will announce you when it is time.”

  I nodded and stepped into his arms, getting a quick hug. He whispered, “Thank you, beloved Daughter of Xy,” in my ear, and quickly left the room.

  I moved to the fireplace and felt the warm hearthstone under my feet. The fire crackled cheerfully, but I felt cold. I tried to rub the chill bumps from my arms.

  I stiffened when the herald’s voice rang out. “Xylara, Daughter of Xy, you are summoned to the Court.” The guards opened the doors, and I walked forward.

  I lost my breath in the next instant.

  The white marble of the throne room gleamed in the light of the sunset. The lords of the Court stood against the walls, as did an even larger number of the Warlord’s men. I could not make out the figure on the throne, but I knew that it was the Warlord. He would have been seated there for the ceremony. Xymund was off to the side, standing with the Council members.

 
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