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The King's Best Soldier
Beric races for home, haunted by a Dakhanni demon.
Susan Brassfield Cogan
Author of MURDER ON THE WATERFRONT,
Read a review from OVER MY DEAD BODY:
Order now from Amazon.com http://countess.notlong.com
Please visit my website: http://www.coganbooks.net
AUTHOR'S E-MAIL ADDRESS
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The King's Best Soldier
Susan Brassfield Cogan
Two days after midwinter, Beric saw Danzia, the most famous of all the Dakhanni, standing in the snow, thin as a blade. Hard as steel. He saw her because she allowed him a glimpse of her. Fear seized him when he saw her standing there, merely looking at him. If she was close enough to see, she could have executed him any time for the deed he had done. The deed that now haunted him like the demon woman herself.
Beric’s village lay only a little further. He had been pushing himself through the bitter cold, under the heavy sky, for two days. He longed to see his home one more time. Each beat of his heart yearned for that safety and warmth. In the few snatches of sleep he had managed, he dreamed of those he loved--his wife, his mother, his children. But the village might as well be in a valley on the moon. Death now stalked him in the snow and he felt he would never know warmth of any kind, ever again.
Beric hid himself from the cold gaze of the Dakhanni. He quickly unloaded his pack of everything but a few bits of food. The heaviest thing was the gold cup that had belonged to King Godfrey. Seven days ago the king had called to him in the midst of holiday revelry. "You are my best soldier," the king had said in front of the assembled court. The king had drained the deep red wine from the bejeweled cup and, in front of all the nobles, had given the cup to him. It was the proudest moment of Beric’s life. Now the bejeweled thing glittered at him mockingly.
Beric flung the cup away and stood, wishing he could fling away his burden of guilt as easily.
He hastened on through the snow-clad trees. No need to conserve his strength now. Soon the cold trek would be over one way or another. His heavy sword dangled from his waist. His dagger, red with innocent blood, would never again leave its scabbard. He should have thrown it away, too. The deed he had done with it cast gloom over his heart.
The unrelenting wind pulled at his cloak. Dark clouds crouched low on the horizon. A killing storm would roll in by nightfall but Beric would be dead by then or home. He did not actually hope for the latter, though his urge to see it one more time had become a need greater than the need for sleep or warmth or life itself.
King Godfrey had explained everything so clearly. If King Roderick were to die, then war would end and the people could finally live in peace. What a blessing! Beric was King Godfrey's best man, the only one with the courage and resolve to do such a grim deed. The king filled the heavy gold cup with wine and urged Beric to drink. Beric drank. He pledged to do the awful deed and bring peace to his people.
When Beric topped a rise he glanced back. The Dakhanni was closer. Another breath of fear shivered his vitals. She was playing with him.
Without hope, he increased his pace. Some time later, atop another rise, he saw she was gone. That frightened him more than the sight of her soulless eyes peering up at him.
He rounded a familiar bend, almost home. In the snowy path sat his gold cup. He halted and drew his sword.
"Show yourself!" he called to the silent woods.
Only silence answered him. Frantically, he looked all around and up into the snow-laden tree branches. He kicked the cup into the underbrush and ran down the path. The sun far above the dark clouds was sinking. The world was becoming gray and indistinct.
Then his gold cup landed in a little splash of snow before him. He stared at it, shivering. Daniza, the most famous Dakhanni, emerged out of shadow like a wraith. Beric gripped his sword hilt, trembling. Danzia had not drawn her blade.
“Aren’t you here to kill me?” he asked, his voice husky.
“Yes,” she said. “But you do not deserve the mercy of a quick death.”
“I only did what I had to do,” he said. “You would do no less.”
“Dakhanni choose their killings. I would have done less.” Her words were bleak and cold as the stones under the snow.
“So you choose to kill me?”
“Queen Allena sent you,” said Beric bitterly. “You are her creature.”
“I am her friend.” Danzia drew her sword. “You murdered that which she loved more than life itself. You will not live to rejoice in that bloodshed.”
Beric remembered Queen Allena’s cry, vibrant with the agony of a damned soul. “There is no rejoicing in what I did.” In fact, deepest regret rolled over him like the dark clouds above. Suddenly his sword was too heavy to lift. His heart was too heavy to bear this weight. He focused on the golden cup in the gathering gloom. In this light the jewels looked like dark blotches of disease.
“I will submit to you, Dakhanni, if you will grant a last wish.”
“I can kill you where you stand whether you submit or not,” she said with a touch of surprise. “What is your wish?
“To see the lights of my village.” She said nothing, so he pressed on. “Walk with me. Only a mile or two further. When I see the lights I am yours.”
She stared at him. He could detect no mental struggle, her gaze was impassive. “Put your sword beside the cup,” she said. He did as she asked. He thought of putting the dagger there also, but he didn’t. The deed and the blood were his do bear and would bear that burden a little longer. He walked past her. A moment later she appeared at his side, silent as a shadow.
Beric had known that Queen Allena walked to church in the evening. He knew she would be protected by a single guard and the traditional midwinter truce between her people and his. Behind the queen walked a young maid carrying Roderick, the baby King. Beric had lain hidden beside the road. When the queen and the guard were well past, he snatched the maid and killed her silently. Beric caught the babe as it dropped from her lifeless arms. No more than half a year old, King Roderick looked at Beric with the wide curiosity of all infants and also died without a sound. That innocent look haunted Beric. That, and the cry of Queen Allena when she found what he had left for her to find. That keening agony flung itself across the void and pierced his heart as no blade could ever do.
Beric was the king’s best soldier and he did what he had to do, but the deed had destroyed him. The Dakhanni would merely complete that destruction.
They topped a familiar rise that, in summer, would overlook a sweet meadow. The village nestled below in the curve of the valley. Many windows glowed yellow in the glittering dark. In the distance Beric could hear the lowing cattle being driven into a warm stable out of the coming storm. Love and sorrow stole over him. He had brought peace to his kingdom and to the quiet village that held all he loved and now some small portion of that peace came to him as well.
He felt a flash of pain as the Dakhanni blade entered his back. He fell to his knees, not taking his gaze from the village below. Then the last of the light failed and he fell forward into the unforgiving snow.
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© 2004 Susan Brassfield Cogan
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