Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan


  The room was silent as I stepped within. The cold marble pulled the warmth from my feet as I lowered my eyes to the floor and advanced toward the throne. The quiet was unnerving. It took forever to cross the floor, one slow step at a time. I kept my eyes on the gleaming marble, and hoped that I was headed in the right direction.

  There seemed to be no noise, no coughing, no shuffling in the crowd. Just the sound of my heart beating against my ribs, and the cold that had settled in my chest. After what seemed like years, I could see the step that lead up to the throne. A blue cushion, one I had never seen before, had been placed before the throne. I was grateful to whoever had thought of it. I halted before the throne, and slowly sank onto the cushion. On either side, I could see two black boots broadly planted and legs encased in black fabric. I was careful to keep my eyes down.

  I took a deep breath, slowly lifted my hands, palms up, and silently submitted myself to what was to come.

  The room seemed to stop breathing. I felt fingers at the base of my neck, gently unraveling my hair. Strong fingers ran through it, releasing and letting it fall free. I shivered, both at the touch and the implication that disobedience would not be tolerated.

  Cold metal encircled my wrists. I heard a click as they locked into place. Surprisingly, they were heavy silver bracelets, with no chains. Weren’t there supposed to be chains?

  A deep male voice boomed above my head, in my language. “Thus do I claim the warprize.”

  It was a voice I knew.

  My eyes flew up as the room shook with the response of the Warlord’s men as they stomped their feet and cheered.

  The blue-eyed warrior from the marketplace looked down at me, a very self-satisfied smile on his face.

  Keir was the Warlord? How had he done this, or even learned of my true identity?

  Before I could think, or say a word, he took my hands and stood, drawing me up with him. From behind him, he swept up a black cloak from the throne and twirled it around me, concealing me from all eyes, enclosing me in darkness. The fabric seemed warm and floated around me like night. It smelled of chain mail and oil and some kind of spice.

  I was swept up and over his shoulder. The move made me squawk, but I doubted that the noise could be heard above the noise of the crowd. He started to move. Through the soft cloth, I could hear his men chanting his name. I squirmed, but the cloak had me pinned, unable to move my arms or see anything.

  Then I squirmed for another reason. His hand was on my buttocks, its warmth burning through the cloak. There was a caress, and then a soft swat . . . a warning to keep still.

  I stopped squirming.

  The hand stayed where it was.

  CHAPTER 4

  MY CAPTOR WASTED NO TIME. HIS BOOTS CLICKED on the marble as he left the throne room, and the jostling told me that he had started down the stairs to the main doors. I could feel his breathing as he moved, and heard the jingle of his armor. The cold air cut through the warmth of the cloak as we moved out through the great doors. There were sounds of men moving about in the great courtyard, and the ring of the horses’ hooves on the cobblestones.

  We stopped, and I was swung down to lay like a babe in arms. The Warlord’s voice rang out, but he spoke so quickly I couldn’t understand what was being said. Instead of being placed on my feet, I was handed off to someone else. I struggled, not liking this change, trying to bring my arms up and get free of the dark material.

  A whisper came to me through the cloth. “It’s Joden, Lara. It is all right.” I stopped moving, relieved at the familiar voice, and anxious for information. Before I could reply, I was lifted up onto the back of a horse. Arms encircled me again. Joden’s voice rang out. “I return your warprize, Warlord.”

  The chest behind me rumbled. “My thanks, Joden.” The horse under us shifted, and my stomach lurched. The black cloth pressed against my face, trapping my breath. It felt tight and close, like I couldn’t get enough air. The Warlord shouted something, and a great roar went up all around us. We were moving then, and at a gallop. I could hear others around us, moving as well, yelling war cries and shouting praise for the Warlord. The thundering of the horses as they left the courtyard and ran over the wooden bridge to the city was frightening. I swallowed hard, my breath coming faster, and fought down the wave of nausea. I still couldn’t move my arms. The fear of tumbling from my perch remained, so I tucked into the body that held me and stayed still. The sound of men’s voices had faded, but they were all around us as we plunged on, the pounding of horses’ hooves and the jangling of harness the only noise. Moving through the town, down the main road, and out through the main gate.

  The cloak offered some protection, but outside the city walls, the wind was sharp. I shivered. In what seemed like moments, we were splashing through the river that lay between the city and the Warlord’s camp, and moving up the slope that it occupied. There was no hail, no greeting, but the horse slowed. I wanted to ask what was going on, but held my tongue. I did not know if slaves were allowed to talk, much less ask questions. Instead, I clenched my fists in the fabric, and tried to get my breath.

  The horse stopped. This time, the Warlord shifted in the saddle and slid down to the ground. My stomach lurched as we fell. I must have cried out somehow, for the arms held me close. “One more ceremony, then we’re done.” The whisper came from beside my ear. The sounds changed, and his boots strode on wood. I was placed on my feet, the cloak still enveloping me. His arms gave me a minute to steady myself as my bare feet felt the cold, rough wood underfoot. I swayed slightly, but regained my balance, and his hands withdrew.

  “My warriors!” the Warlord shouted, and there was a note of pride in his voice. “Behold the warprize.” With that, the cloak was whipped away.

  I was standing on a platform, in a pool of light from the torches that surrounded me. The cold air cut through the cloth of my shift. Out in the darkness beyond, I could just make out people standing and staring at me, the Warlord’s army, a full ten thousand strong, or so I had heard tell. I could well believe it when they roared out their approval to the night sky.

  Startled, I stepped back, colliding with the Warlord, who stood behind me. He wrapped his arm around my waist, and I raised my hand to cover his. The heat of his arm seeped through the shift to my stomach. He held up his fist in the air, and the men renewed their cheers. Drums and voices seemed to explode into the night, more noise than music.

  It was too much. My vision went gray, and my hand slipped from his arm. Next thing I knew, I was once again cradled in strong arms and moving. The cheers and music continued, but they were somehow muted and indistinct. There was an impression of many people that parted as I floated by. I lost track of things for a while, but then I was in a tent, and lying on something soft. Someone was speaking as a hand brushed my hair off my face with a gentle touch.

  “Warprize. Did you eat or drink anything at the castle? Before the ceremony?” The sound was muffled, as if from a distance. It was the Warlord’s voice, urgent, demanding an answer. Another voice, older and harsher, murmured in the background. The Warlord replied, but all I heard were fragments. Bastard. Poison. A soft blanket covered me. Hands reached under the blanket and felt my hands and feet. “She’s cold, very cold.” Odd. He sounded worried. Gentle hands were moving me, and suddenly there was warmth at my feet. Then by my hands. The warmth seeped into me, slowly, and I felt my body relaxing, sinking into the softness, heavy as a stone.

  Someone lifted me up, putting a bowl to my lips, urging me to drink, but the voice was far away and distant. I swallowed, and warmth flooded my throat and belly. There was an odd taste, strong and pungent. Once the bowl was empty, I was lowered, and covered once again with blankets. The voices continued to talk quietly, as all that heat seeped into my bones.

  The voices were gone. I lay still, eyes closed. The bed shifted, the blanket rose, and I froze, hardly daring to breathe.

  Something soft brushed my lips.

  A stab of fear went through me. It h
ad come, and as much as I thought I could handle it, I was frightened. I fought to open my eyes, trying to gather my wits, and found myself staring into startled blue eyes. I must keep my part of the agreement.

  The Warlord had other ideas, for he shook his head. “No, Warprize. Have no fear.” A hand cradled my head. I closed my eyes and felt a soft touch on each lid. I did not have the strength to open them again. A hand moved to rest over my heart. Its warmth was a comforting feeling. He pressed down gently, as if he was claiming the organ that beat within. I relaxed back into the bed, letting the warmth and the comfort take me.

  “Sleep, now.” His voice soft and low. I managed to get my eyes open enough to see him lie down next to me, on his side, on top of the blankets, and lay his head on his arms. He wore trous, but was naked from the waist up, and I could just make out the tattoos on his arm. In the dim light of the tent, I looked at him, puzzled. His eyes were closed, and his breathing regular, but I didn’t believe that he slept. I turned my head slightly and stared at the tent above me. It seemed, well, a bit disappointing, somehow.

  I puzzled over that idea until I fell asleep.

  SOMETHING TOUCHED MY HAIR.

  I stirred, half waking from the movement of the bed.

  “Go back to sleep.”

  I gasped at the sound, my body jerking awake. My eyes flew open, and I looked about, taking in my surroundings. The tent was in shadows, the only light from braziers that held a sullen glow. There was a strong smell of horse, and something sharp and clean that I didn’t recognize. The tent was large, with what appeared to be stools and a table, with trunks and benches lining the sides. Outside, I could hear men and horses milling about.

  Someone stood with his back to me, dressing quickly, sorting through gear that was laid on a bench. A half-dressed man, whose back muscles rippled in the dim light.

  I so rarely see healthy men.

  There were scars there, old scars. The light played over the skin, dancing with the shadows over the hollows and rises as he moved. Then Keir turned, and a gleam of an eye looked my way. I stared openly as he moved closer. There were tattoos on both arms and scars on the front too, harder to see because of the chest hair, but there all the same. They told tales of battles fought. So many scars.

  He stood for a bit, looking down as I looked up, frowning at me. He dropped his gear on the end of the bed and pulled a tunic over his head. I watched from where I lay, wary of what was to come. He hurriedly strapped on sword, dagger, and a small pouch, and secured them to his belt. Keir looked me in the eye, leaning down with his free hand out, as if to touch me.

  I flinched back.

  He froze, then pulled back, looking grim. A voice was raised outside, announcing that his horse was ready. Keir clenched his jaw, turned, and left through the flap. Within moments, the men and horses were gone. An odd silence descended, only to be broken by the cough from one of the remaining guards.

  It took time for my body to relax, but eventually it did. The warmth of the tent and the blankets pressed me down into the bed, and my body seemed to sink deeper and deeper with each breath. My heavy eyelids closed, and I drifted off on a lake of warmth and darkness.

  THE NEXT I KNEW, I WAS ON MY SIDE, LOOKING AT the tent wall. I lay for a while, thinking about nothing really. Or perhaps, trying hard to think of nothing. After a bit, my stomach gave out a rumble. Then other parts of my body started demanding attention. So I stirred, and sat up.

  Only to realize that I was stark naked under the blankets and furs.

  I clutched the coverings to me, and remembered where I was. What I was.

  The tent was a big one, and seemed to be made of hides. The floor was covered with all sorts of woven mats in blacks and browns. There was a table made of tree trunks and rough-hewn planks, with fat, short stumps around it as seats. Three braziers gave off heat. The bed where I lay was huge, with many pillows, and a large dark fur that covered the entire expanse. There was no sign of the shift. Or of any other clothing. Maybe slaves were kept naked? I shivered at the thought.

  Part of the tent wall twitched, and I could see someone peering inside through the flap. A very short man, bald as an egg, popped in. I stared openly. His right eye glared at me. The left eye was gone, and the entire side of his face was horribly scarred. The flesh was mottled, with no hair. The ear was gone, and the left corner of his mouth seemed stiff and unmoving. Belatedly I remembered my manners. I focused my gaze on his one good eye, and fumbled for a greeting in his language. “Good morning.”

  He glared at me. “I am Marcus, Token-bearer and Aide to the Warlord.” There was obvious pride in his voice. He stepped back, then re-entered the tent with a bundle in his arms. “Hisself left instructions to feed you when you woke. Hisself gave me an idea of your size.” Marcus frowned and eyed me critically. “We’ll see how close he came to the mark.” He placed the bundle on the end of the bed and moved off to the tent wall on the other side.

  I clutched my blanket closer and cleared my throat. “Where did the Warlord go?”

  Marcus moved another flap to reveal a smaller chamber beyond. Apparently, this tent was larger than I thought. As Marcus moved, I could see that the scarring also covered his left arm. The skin had an odd texture to it, with no hair that I could see. It was hard not to stare. “Hisself is dealing with attacks on the herds.” He turned. “You’ll be washing first, then food.” His lopsided mouth seemed grim.

  I ran my hand through my hair. “Wash?”

  “Aye.” He nodded toward the smaller room. “I’ll fetch water.”

  He left. I scrambled out of the bed, dragging the blanket with me. I grabbed the bundle and went into what appeared to be a privy area. Here, the floor was of hides, except for a small wooden platform in the center. Rough-hewn benches lined the walls, and there were tree trunks scattered about, and rough-hewn boards formed a table of sorts. There were what I assumed to be chamber pots under the benches.

  Marcus bustled in with a steaming bucket, dropped it with a grunt, then left. I washed my face and hands quickly, and pulled on the clothes. There were trous of brown cotton, and a tunic of a red-brown cloth, like the shift, but heavier. It all fit well. Some thick socks and a pair of brown shoes that were a bit too big. As I dressed, I could hear men moving about outside, apparently guards. The sounds made me nervous, and I hurried to get into my clothes.

  When I emerged, cleaner and more awake, food was laid out on the table. Marcus stood next to the table, a small pitcher and bowl in his hands. He gestured and I sat on one of the stumps and eyed the groaning board. “Are you eating with me?”

  “No.” Marcus frowned at me. “Hold out your hands.”

  Puzzled, I held them out. He placed the bowl beneath them, and poured water over them, muttering some words I couldn’t hear. He nodded to a cloth on the table, and I dried my hands. Marcus seemed satisfied. “Hisself says you need to eat. Tuck into this, now.”

  Nothing looked familiar. The meat had been chopped up into small pieces. The bread was flat, but soft. There was no knife, or fork. I picked up a piece of the flat bread, and dipped it into the meat. I took a bite, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it tasted good. Marcus nodded, as I took a second bite. There were grains as well, and I found that more of the food made its way into me than I had thought possible.

  Marcus poured a mug of kavage for me, setting down a small bowl of white pellets as well. “We’ve no sweetening for this just now.” I took the mug anyway, and dared a sip. It was better than what Rafe and the others had made. I eyed the white pellets, and reached out for one. It felt slightly soft, like a piece of dried whey. I popped it in my mouth, and bit down.

  A horrible, bitter taste flooded my mouth.

  Marcus had drifted away, moving around the tent as I ate, straightening as he went. Not that it was necessary; the sleeping area was very neat and plain in its furnishings. Too neat. There was no place to spit the stuff out. I screwed up my face and swallowed, followed by a long drink of kavage. Whatever
that stuff was, it was awful.

  Finally, I reached a point where I could eat no more. Marcus grunted and started to clear away the dishes. “Now, Hisself says, rest and sleep. He will be back for the night meal.”

  I nodded but really had no mind to go back to bed. “Marcus, do you know a Simus? He was one of the wounded—”

  I did not have to finish. Marcus was nodding his head as he balanced the dishes in his arms. “Oh yes, that one is a snarling bear. Unhappy at everyone and everything.” He frowned. “How do you know Simus?”

  “I treated him in the city.”

  “Treated?” Marcus’s one eye glared. “You treated his wound?”

  I nodded.

  He sniffed. “A warrior-priest, you think you are?”

  I stiffened. “I am a healer. I would like to see him.”

  “Healer, eh?” He rolled his one eye. “Well . . .” he shrugged. “Gets you out from underfoot.” His eye focused fiercely. “You understand that you are to take nothing except from the Warlord’s hands? Nothing at all?” At my hesitant nod, he placed the dishes back on the table. “Come.”

  Marcus took me outside. It was only then that I realized how big the tent was. It was divided up inside, to make the sleeping area and other rooms. This flap led to a bigger area that seemed like a large meeting room. Here too, wooden blocks and sections of trees were about, with pillows and a raised platform at the end of the room.

  Marcus led me past that, and held open the tent flap for me to exit into the open. There were two guards standing at the entrance, and they acknowledged Marcus with a nod of their heads. I stepped out and got my first glimpse of the camp. Marcus didn’t follow.

  We were on a slight rise, down in the valley below Water’s Fall. I swallowed when I saw its walls rising in the distance. From here, the camp spread out before us. There were tents everywhere, varying in size and placement, broken up with fire pits. There were horses everywhere, in clusters picketed near the shelters, and a herd that roamed the open expanse in the fields around the camp. Given its size, I could easily believe that the camp housed ten thousand men. It was huge, and seemed to stretch out all around us. It also seemed very quiet. “Where is everyone?”

 
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