WarDance – Elizabeth Vaughan

It took everything Simus had not to plunge his sword into the chest of the arrogant warrior-priest who barred his way. But that had been the exact mistake that Keir of the Cat had made when he had conquered Xy, hadn’t it. Simus wasn’t about to do the same. Instead, he eased back in his saddle, took a long, deep breath of the sweet air of the Plains, and let his glare sweep down over the bragnect before him. The warrior-priest stood, unimpressed. His hair hung in long, matted braids; his face, neck, and chest were covered with swirling red, green, black, and brown tattoos. Nothing marked him from his fellows except a long scar that ran along the side of his face, puckering the corner of his lip. He’d offered no name, no token, no courtesy. Simus seethed, holding his temper in check. His warriors, gathered behind him, shifted in their saddles, muttering darkly, no doubt fingering the hilts of their swords. They’d no love for the warriorpriests, either. “I say again,” the warrior-priest said, his eyes as dark as Simus’s own skin. His lip curled with disdain. “The Eldest Elder Hail Storm has decreed that all shall pull back, out of sight and sound of the Heart.” Simus focused behind the man, trying to let his anger go with the wind.

Behind the warrior-priest, the Plains stretched out with the splendor of new, green grasses and the flowers that danced in their midst. They’d only to ride a few more miles, over a few more rises, and they would be at the Heart of the Plains. Simus took another breath, letting the man wait. The spring air, the flowering grasses crushed under their horses’ hooves, made every breath a pleasure. Especially after a long winter spent in the dark lodges, with naught to do but sharpen weapons, and talk and plan with Keir of the Cat as Xylara, his Warprize, grew heavy with their child. Keir and Lara had left for Xy at the earliest hint of fair weather. For reasons Simus didn’t fully understand the birth of the babe must occur in Xy, under the eyes of the nobles. Since that time, Simus had spent countless hours training and preparing for the Spring Trials, conducted each year at the Heart of the Plains. Keir’s plans required a weaving of new patters between Xy and the Plains, binding the lands together. No longer would Xy be subject to raids from the “dreaded Firelanders”.

No longer would those of the Plains be dependent on the raids for survival. But for those plans to come to pass; for Keir and him to hunt this prey successfully, Simus needed to enter the Spring Trials, face all challengers, and become Warlord. Nothing would stop him from earning that status in his own right, with warriors sworn to his service. Nothing stood between him and that goal except his survival of the Trials and this arrogant bragnect standing there with his curled lip and vivid tattoos. Simus tightened his legs, and his horse shifted under him, sensing battle. Simus’s fingers twitched toward the hilt of his own weapon— “Isn’t Wild Winds the Eldest Elder of the Warrior-Priests of the Plains?” Joden spoke up from behind Simus, his voice calm and understanding. Far more understanding than Simus was prepared to be. “Who is this Hail Storm, to turn us from our traditional ways?” Simus stilled his hand, glad for his friend at his shoulder, gladder still for his support. But he didn’t ease up his scowl, since he’d missed what Joden had plucked from the warrior-priest’s words. Who was this Hail Storm? “Is it not the season?” Joden continued.

Simus flicked a glance back to see Joden tilt his head to look at the sun. Joden’s broad, brown face was deceptively pleasant as his dark eyes considered the sky. “Perhaps we now reckon time as a city-dweller and have missed the day?” There was a ripple of laughter from the warriors gathered behind Simus, an easing of tension clear in their voices. Ah, Joden, soon-to-be-Singer, whose reasonable tongue had the sharpest of edges. The tattooed man bristled, probably from Joden’s insult, but maybe for his mistake in naming another warrior-priest. Certainly, this one had not so much as offered his name, appearing out of the tall grass to bar their path. “It is the season,” the warrior-priest acknowledged, his scar rucking up as he snarled. He tightened his grip on his staff. “But the Heart is needed for our purpose. Take yourselves off.

” Simus’s loathing boiled over. Skies, he hated the warrior-priests of the Plains, who had no truth, who claimed false powers, and worked not for the People, but to preserve their own status. Mistake it might be, but the insult was not to be borne. Simus snarled and went for his sword. But the snarl was still in his throat, and his blade not clear of its scabbard when other warriorpriests appeared. The hair on the back of Simus’s neck rose, and a feeling of dread washed over him. They wisped up like fog from the grasses, their tattoos bright, some holding naked blades, others with staves adorned with bleached human skulls. They stood in silence, their disdain a pressure on his skin. They made no move, no sound, but the threat was clear. Simus stilled his hand.

He felt his warriors behind him, waiting for him to unleash their fury. “It would be best,” Joden said softly, in perfect Xyian, “to put this off for another time.” “Bastards,” Simus cursed in Xyian, and thrust his sword back into its sheath. He turned his horse’s head away with no further word. His warriors waited and watched, covering his back, and then turned to follow his lead. Silently, he led them directly away from the Heart. Once his group was well away, Eloix came up beside Simus. Her skin still had that pale winter look, but she’d already a touch of redness on her cheeks. Her blue eyes reflected her fierce frown as she glanced back behind them. “Simus, they disappeared back into the grasses as the last of us rode away.

” Simus grunted, letting his rage cool. He waited until they were a few rises beyond to turn to Joden. “What do you make of it?” Joden urged his horse forward until he was even with Simus. Eloix slowed her horse, politely dropping back. Joden shook his head, his face reflecting his confusion. “I know not. But that was a rare display of power for a warrior-priest. Every time I convince myself that their powers are false, they do something like this.” “Truth,” Simus said. “Whatever they are doing, it must be important.

” “And I do not know the name ‘Hail Storm’ either,” Joden added. Simus grunted. “Wild Winds was Eldest Elder when the Council sundered. That was but a season ago.” “It feels like a lifetime,” Joden said. Simus really looked at his friend then, seeing the lines of pain about the man’s eyes. Joden bore the grief of having lived through sickness and death, strange to those of the Plains. ‘Plague,’ the Warprize had called it, and even her great powers had no cure. “You keep your sorrow within,” Simus said abruptly. “You need to sing of it.

” “When I have the words,” Joden said, and there really was no more to say to that. Simus knew that the plague had caused Joden to doubt Keir, and he’d spoken his truths openly, making no secret of them. He’d come to see the truth of Xylara as Warprize, and had supported her before the Council. Simus trusted Joden’s truth and honor. But that did not mean that Joden would support every change Keir and Simus were working toward. “Riders!” Eloix called a warning to them. Simus looked and saw two riders coming over a ridge, headed directly for them. “That’s Osa.” Joden recognized her before Simus did. Odd to hear him use her name without the title of Warlord, but such was the tradition of the Spring.

‘Warlord’ had to be re-earned, each and every year. A warrior did not use it unless their oaths had already been sworn. Joden continued with a tone of resignation. “And that’s Ultie with her.” Simus kept his face bland but grimaced within. He lowered his voice, meeting Joden’s gaze. “What was it Lara called him?” “The arrogant, loud-mouth, over-bearing, obnoxious, bad-breathed Warlord Ultie,” Joden said, his face bland, a smile dancing in his eyes. “A woman of insight, our Warprize,” Simus muttered, but then he couldn’t stop from laughing out loud, letting his voice roll over the grasses. He and Joden shared a quick smile, but Simus sobered his face as the riders drew closer. “Greetings, Osa.

Greetings, Ultie,” Simus called and urged his horse forward. Osa and Ultie had both been Warlords in the previous seasons. Now they were his rivals, and if he survived the Trials, his equals. Simus felt no qualm in treating them as such. What he wasn’t sure of was their positions as to Keir’s plans. Keir had made no secret of his plans for Xy. Nor had he concealed his hatred of the warrior-priests, and his desire to break their hold on the People. But neither Osa or Ultie had expressed more than a passing interest in Keir’s schemes, although both of them had courted the Warprize before her confirmation. Before she’d formally chosen Keir as her Warlord. Osa was the first to approach, looking ravishing as she always did, her hair like flame and her pale skin contrasting with the browns of her leather armor.

Her whip was at her waist, her slight smile reflected her eyes. “Simus.” She nodded. “You have come for the Trials then?” “If these warrior-priests ever allow it.” Ultie scowled, glancing off in the direction of the Heart. “You were driven off as well?” Simus asked. “They’ve prevented anyone from raising their standard,” Osa said. “Of the few that intend to.” “What?” Simus asked sharply. Osa raised an eyebrow in the direction of his warriors, and reached back into her saddlebags for a strip of bells.

“We’d have private words, Simus. With Joden of the Hawk as well, if he is willing.” Simus gave a nod, and looked over at Eloix, summoning her closer. “Set camp,” he instructed. “A temporary one, for the night. Let’s not have those warrior-priests thinking we will wait patiently.” “Another rise or so to the north and you should be far enough off for the damned warriorpriests,” Ultie said. The big man’s weathered skin hadn’t lost its tan over the winter months; his brown hair and beard were still long and shaggy. “I’ll see to it.” Eloix nodded respectfully to all of them, and lead the warriors off.

Osa leaned forward and tied the bells in her horse’s mane. All four of them drew their horses close, and cast a wary eye on the grasses around them. “Who knows if the elements-forsaken warrior-priests would even honor the privacy of the bells,” Ultie growled. “They shift like winds, and are not to be trusted.” Osa shrugged. “I mislike this, but they are the warrior-priests. It is within their rights.” “You said ‘of the few’?” Simus asked. Osa nodded, settling back in the saddle as her horse lowered its head to tear at the grass. “The warrior-priests drove us off yesterday at dawn.

Ultie and I have ridden the wide circle around, to see who has appeared for the contests. We found fewer than I could wish.” “Four Warlords for each of the four elements are required,” Ultie growled. “Less than half of that have appeared, and most of them new to the contests. Colts, all of them, and unsteady on their legs.” “Especially when you ride up and bellow at them like a rutting ehat,” Osa said dryly, then focused on Simus. “But he states the truth. Few warriors have appeared to raise their banners for challenge, and fewer still of the elders of any tribe have gathered.” “Where are they?” Joden’s frown was deep and worried. “Made themselves scarce, and there’s wisdom in that,” Ultie said darkly.

“With the Council sundered last season, and warrior attacking warrior, who is to know what to expect?” “The Council was concluded,” Joden said. “Eldest Elder Essa ended the Council after the outcasting, and before the Warprize chose her Warlord.” “Don’t know what that city-dweller was thinking,” Ultie groused. “I would have been a better choice. What does Keir have over me?” “You dropped your trous to show her your ‘weapon,’” Osa said. “Little wonder she stomped from your tent and declared the courting at an end.” Simus kept his face straight, and didn’t dare look at Joden. “City-dwellers,” Ultie snorted in disgust. “I will never understand them. And Keir thinks we can —” “Regardless,” Osa cut him off.

Her horse lowered its head to graze, the bells chiming in its mane. “Have either of you seen any of the Eldest Elders? Reness? Essa? Wild Winds?” “Reness left with Keir and the Warprize,” Simus said. “They have returned to Xy for the birth of her child, and Reness thought to attend her. She may have continued on with them to Xy. Of Essa, I have not heard or seen. And Wild Winds—” Simus looked at Joden. “The warrior-priest who barred our way said that Hail Storm was the Eldest Elder of the Warrior-Priests,” Joden said. Osa and Ultie exchanged glances. “Not a name I know,” Ultie said grimly. “Not that they share their names.

” He looked at all of them. “But I will speak this truth. I have held back the Elders among my warriors. They will not approach the Heart unless I send word.” Simus frowned. “Why would you—” “To keep them safe,” Ultie said. “To wait and watch and see what is. To not risk their knowledge and wisdom to the madness that seems to infect us now.” He glowered at Simus. “Has Keir thought of that, eh? If there are not enough Warlords? How will the armies raid, to provide for our people and the thea camps? How will we survive, eh?” “Liam will come, if needed, although he will wait at the border of Xy.

” Simus met Ultie’s glare. “There is time yet, for others to appear and set up the challenge banners for Warlords and Tokenbearers and to form the armies.” “And if they do not?” Ultie said, his horse as agitated as he. “And if the sun does not rise?” Osa said impatiently. “I can say this much. Antas of the Boar was seen, cloaked and hooded, going into one of the camps of the warrior-priests.” Simus narrowed his eyes at that news. Antas had been the Eldest Elder of the Warriors, until his betrayal of the Council. He’d tried to have the Warprize slain in the very Council tent. “I wonder what he sought there?” Simus mused.

Ultie just snorted. “Antas would be Keir, if he could.” “Perhaps he seeks to be WarKing as well,” Osa said mildly. Simus jerked his head up to stare at her. “Oh, do not give me that look, Simus.” Osa gave him a sly smile. “He may not have shouted it to the winds, but how else can Keir plan to repair the damage he has caused? He has cut the Council tent to ribbons and only a WarKing can mend the tears.” “He caused?” Simus asked. Osa shrugged. “Many say so.

” “The warrior-priests alone cannot make Antas WarKing,” Joden pointed out. “That requires the full Council and the Eldest Elders.” “And round and round we go,” Osa said. She tilted her head, and studied Joden. “And do you support Keir as WarKing?” “I take no position,” Joden said. “And if you were Singer?” Osa pushed. “You ask me to comment if I were Singer? If the Council re-forms, if the Eldest Elders are found, if the Warlords are chosen and the armies formed?” Joden chuckled. “You might as well ask in what pattern the clouds will form tomorrow.” Osa’s smile was wry. “A Singer’s answer.

” Joden shrugged. Ultie started to turn his horse. “Well, this talk will not settle anything, and I’ve had my fill for this night. We can talk further as we sit and wait for the warrior-priests to finish whatever they would do at the Heart.” He spat in the grass. “Elements grant that the prey they stalk turns on them.” “Night comes. Time enough tomorrow to beat theses grasses flat,” Osa agreed. She took the bells from her horse’s mane. “Seems we must wait on events.

” She wrinkled her nose, gave them both a nod and rode off. Simus watched after them, then looked at Joden. “What do you think?” Joden shrugged. “A Singer’s answer.” Simus rolled his eyes, turned his horse, and headed for where his warriors were making camp. Joden followed silently. As they rode up, warriors met them to take their horses. Eloix came up on foot as they dismounted. “We’ve strong kavage, and meat spitted over the fire.” She looked them both over.

“You’ve the look of too much thinking, Simus.” “Aye to that,” Simus said, feeling anger simmering under his skin. “I’m in need of a sparring session to work out my frustrations.” Eloix sidled up next to him and nudged his hip with hers. “Perhaps I could offer a better distraction?” Simus gave her a warm smile, and reached out to stroke her cheek lightly with his fingertips. “Afterward, lovely one. I would call a senel tonight. The warrior-priests may have kept us from the Heart, but I would keep us to the path I have chosen.” Joden straightened as did Eloix. They both lowered their eyes, and gave him the traditional bow of respect.

“Yes, Simus.” Simus grinned. “We will begin the rituals tonight.”

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