By Brianne McDonald
James nudged the lifeless body of the former King with the tip of his grime encrusted boot. He glanced up at me, flecks of blood on his cheeks, “So… that’s it then?”
I glanced around the massive hall, harsh noon-light filtering through the jagged edges of shattered stained glass windows. The floor was bathed in hues of red even without the added ambiance of all the blood. It was a throne room and I doubted it had ever been as silent and empty as it was now. The air was heavy though, thick with pain, fear, and death. It caught in the back of my throat like sticky sweet bile.
I understood the intent of James’s perplexity. It all felt very anticlimactic.
I wasn’t entirely sure what I had expected. Fanfare? Angelic creatures descending from the heavens to bless and sanctify my victory? I didn’t need a holy man or ancient tome to tell me that this moment was many things, but none of them were holy. I enjoyed battle; I enjoyed the prospect of death nearly as much as I anticipated the challenge of living. Call it a character flaw. I had many. I’d long realized that not all men felt similarly, but those who did were only qualified to a certain type of life. I was not made for quiet halls and gentle palaces. I felt driven to conquer, but never to linger, always I pressed on, searching for something I couldn’t quite name. I suspected it was a certain type of vengeance, though the perpetrators of my childhood suffering were long dead. I wondered who was I attempting to punish. All of humanity? Or maybe just those I felt deserved it. Those I felt were of the same ilk as the men who had destroyed my life, who had ruined the man I might have been. It may have seemed a heroic notion, but I wasn’t misguided. I was no hero. I was a killer and there is very little that is heroic about killing. It’s mostly a lot of mess. I found beauty in death and pain. It wasn’t quite pleasure, exactly, more like a reverent awe that I’d learned to appreciate and respect.
“Yeah…” I said quietly. A drop of the King’s blood slipped down the tip of my sword blade and splattered on the golden rug beneath our feet. “That’s it.”
“Huh,” James said, crouching down with a creak of leather and the faint grind of poorly oiled armor to roll the King over. The man was large, taller than either of us and quite a bit wider, and he flopped onto his back with a resounding thud. He was at least two decades older than I, with a carefully trimmed beard and thick black, gray streaked hair. His eyes, the color of dun, where opened and glossy, a very thin stream of blood creeping from the edge of his lined mouth. James reached out and pulled the crown from his head and tossed it to me with a sly smirk.
Driven by an instinct I couldn’t name, I caught it on the edge of my sword. I let the golden circlet slide down the blade with a cringe worthy thrum until it met the worn cross of the hilt with a sharp sound like the tolling of a bell. I had no intention of wearing the blasted thing. I didn’t need a crown to govern men. A true leader was evident from the moment he stepped into a room, or so my father had always said. Besides, we could use the gold. War making wasn’t cheap.
James swiped at his nose with the back of his hand, leaving a trail of dirt and blood like a streak of war paint across his ugly face. “What do you mean to do with his son?”
I sighed and turned, heading back down the hall. I didn’t bother to side-step the bodies. They were all dead anyway. James fell in step behind me, eying my raised sword and the crown it carried with amusement. There was very little in life that James didn’t find amusing, and I’d proved to be a never ending source for him. I could hear the voices of my men and the faint crying of women from the court yard below. The sound was more sobering to me than the trail of bodies I left in my wake.
“We’ll take him with us.” I said at last when we reached the end of the chamber and turned into a deserted hall. Several vibrant trails of blood across the worn stone indicated my men had already set about collecting the dead, leaving me to my supposed moment of victory. They needn’t have bothered. King killing had proven to be remarkably easy and uneventful, actually.
James shot me a sharp look, “Is that, er, wise milord?”
“No. But we’re going to do it anyway. Be sure to bring his wet-nurse, and do your best to keep the lads from her. One babe is enough to be dragging around with an army.”
James knew better than to argue, though his look told me he certainly wished to. He knew me better than most. We’d been on the road together a long while, but I would hesitate to call him friend. The man who considered James his friend was a fool indeed, though I supposed the same could be said of me. I had use of soldiers and allies, not of friends.
I couldn’t explain my desire to bring the princling brat. I had a slew of crimes under my belt, more than I could honestly recall, but I’d yet to consciously set about murdering a child. Though sense told me that if there were ever a child to murder, this would be the one. I was, after all, responsible for the death of its mother and the wielder of the sword that had felled its father. But something within me stayed my hand, cautioned me toward mercy where it normally did not. I wasn’t in the habit of over analyzing my instincts and actions, so I did what I had long done; I embraced the impulse and moved on. The boy-child would live and maybe, someday, he might even be of use to me.