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By Caitlin Brennan
LunaCopyright © 2006 Caitlin Brennan
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The ninth challenger was the strongest. He came out of the setting sun, bulking as broad as the flank of Dun Mor that loomed behind the killing ground. The potent animal reek of him washed over Euan Rohe, sharp as a bear's den in the spring.
Euan swallowed bile. For three long days he had been fighting, at sunrise, noon and sunset. Eight warrior princes of the people lay dead at his hand.
Now this ninth and last came to contest Euan's claim to the high kingship. He was the champion of the Mordantes, blessed by the One God with a madness of battle. Fear never touched him. Pain never slowed him.
Euan's many bruises and countless small wounds ached and stung. His arm was bound and throbbing where the third challenger's blade had slashed it open. He looked into those too-wide, too-eager eyes and saw death.
His lips drew back from his teeth. He laughed, though his throat was raw. The seventh challenger had come close to throttling him.
One more battle and he was high king—or dead. He shifted his feet, gliding out of the direct glare of the sun. The Mordante hunched his heavy shoulders and rocked from foot to foot. His hands clenched and unclenched.
One of those hands could have torn Euan's head from his shoulders. Euan was not a small man, but he was built long andrangy, like a wolf of the steppe. This challenger was a bear with a man's eyes.
There were stories, tales told on dark nights of men who walked in beast form and supped on human blood. Time was when Euan would have called them children's tales. Then he had walked on the other side of the river and seen what imperial mages could do.
His mind was wandering dangerously close to the edge. He wrenched it back into focus.
The Mordante was still rocking, growling softly. The crowd of tribesmen blurred behind him, a wide circle of faces, winter-gaunt and hungry, thirsting for blood.
Euan's adversary had no weapon but his massive body. Euan had a knife and a hunting spear and his roving wits. He lifted the spear in his hand, weighing it, aiming for the heart beneath the bearskin.
The Mordante lunged, blindingly fast. Euan's spearpoint glanced off the heavy pelt. The haft twisted out of his hand.
A grip like a vise closed on his wrist, pulling him up against that hot and reeking body. He groped for his knife, but it was caught between them. The hilt dug into his belly, a small but vivid pain.
He went limp as if in surrender. The Mordante grunted laughter and locked arms around him, crushing the breath out of him.
Euan let his knees buckle and his body go boneless. He began to slide down. The Mordante clutched at him. His free hand snapped upward.
Blood sprayed from the broken nose—but Euan had not struck high or fast enough. It had not pierced through to the brain.
Still, it was a bitter blow. The Mordante dropped, blind and choking.
Euan was nearly as far gone, his ribs creaking and his sight going dark and then light. He staggered and almost went down.
Already the Mordante was stirring, drawing his legs under him, struggling to rise. His heavy hands clenched and un-clenched. Euan's death was in them, blood-red like the last light of the sun.
Euan's knife was in his hand. He had one chance—one stroke. He was dizzy and reeling and his body was close to failing.
The Mordante lurched up. Euan dived toward him.
All his focus had narrowed to one spot on that wide and bristling chest. The bearskin had fallen away from it. He could hear the heart beating, hammering within its cage of blood and bone.
The whole world throbbed to that relentless rhythm. Euan's blade thrust up through the wide-sprung ribs, twisting as the Mordante tried to fling himself away from it. But it was already lodged inside him.
Again it was not enough. The man was too big, his body too heavily padded with muscle. His long arms dragged Euan in once more, his hands groping for Euan's throat, to crush the windpipe and break the neck.
Euan had no defenses left. All he could do was keep his waning grip on the knife's hilt and let the Mordante's own weight thrust it deeper.
The pounding went on and on. It was coming from outside now. The tribes were stamping their feet, beating on drums and shields, roaring the death chant.
It was very dim and far away. With the last of his consciousness, Euan felt the knife's blade pass through something that resisted, then gave way. The hilt throbbed in his hand, leaped out of it and then went still.
Euan spun down through endless space. Pain was a distant memory. Fear, desperation—only words. Sweet darkness surrounded him. Lovely death embraced him.
It was warm. He had not expected that. He could almost believe it had a face—a woman's face, a smooth oval carved in ivory, with eyes neither brown nor green, flecked with gold.
He knew that face, those eyes, as if they had been his own. He reached for them, but they slipped away.
The thunder of his pulse had shaped itself into human sense. Voices were chanting over and over.
Ard Ri! Ard Ri Mor! Ard Ri! Ard Ri Mor! They were acclaiming the high king.
The Mordante was dead. Euan had felt his heart stop. He was dead, too. Then how—or who—
A sharp and all too familiar voice filled the world. "Up now. Wake. I'm done carrying you."
Purest white-hot hatred flung Euan back into the light. More hands than he could count lifted him up. He rode on the shoulders of his warband, his most loyal companions.
The sun had died in blood, pouring its death across the sky. The royal fires sprang up around the killing ground and along the hilltops. They would be lit from end to end of the people's lands, leaping across the high places, declaring to all the tribes that there was a king again in Dun Mor.
Euan looked for the man who had dragged him back from the edge of death. All the faces around him were familiar and beloved, his blood brothers and his kin. He had to look far into the shadows to find the slight dark figure with its terrible weight of magic.
By the One God, he hated the man—but there was no denying that Euan owed him a debt. He had brought Euan out of the dark. Euan was awake again, alive and aware.
Euan straightened painfully. The strongest men of his warband lifted a shield and held it high. The rest reached to lift him up, but he had a little strength left.
He snatched a spear from the hand of a man who was shouting and brandishing it. All his aches and wounds cried protest. He ignored them.
A path opened before him. He sprinted along it, grounded the spear and launched himself toward the shield.
He hung in air, briefly certain that he had failed. He would fall. If he was lucky he would break his neck rather than suffer such an omen against his kingship.
His feet struck the shield with blessed solidity. It rocked under his weight but steadied. He stood high above the people, dizzy and breathless, grinning like a mad thing.
He spread his arms wide as if to embrace the world. He had done it. He had won. He was the Ard Ri, high king of all the tribes.
"Now you have what you wanted," Gothard said. "Only remember. Glory always has a price."
"I could not possibly forget," Euan said.
He had danced and drunk and feasted from night into morning, then slept a little and woke to Gothard's face staring down at him. It was not the sight he would have liked to see on his first day as Ard Ri. He would have given much never to see it at all.
But there the man was, squatting in this still unfamiliar tent. Neither the warband nor the royal guard had managed to keep him out.
Nothing in this world could, maybe. Gothard was a dead man, a sorcerer who had been destroyed and his body unmade—but he had come back through the power of his magic to walk among the living. The peculiar horror of his existence was not that he was terrible to look at or speak to, but that he seemed so mortally ordinary.
Euan sat up carefully. While he slept, he had been bathed and salved and his arm newly bandaged.
Except for Gothard's presence, Euan felt remarkably well. His head barely ached and his wounds were no trouble.
Even his badly abused throat was less raw than he might have expected.
He would have been smiling if anyone but Gothard had been watching. As it was, his frown was not quite as black as it could have been. "What do you want?" he demanded— rude, yes, but the two of them were long past any pretense of civility.
"It's tradition, you know," Gothard said. "When the new king first wakes, his most loyal servant admonishes him against excessive pride and bids him remember the price of glory. It's usually a priest who does it. Aren't you glad I came instead?"
"No," Euan said. It was hard not to growl, the state his voice was in, but this was intentional.
"I do smell better," Gothard pointed out. For him, that was rollicking humor. "You're given three days to enjoy your elevation. Then the reality of it comes crashing in. I'm to remind you that these aren't the tribes your predecessor ruled. They've suffered a monstrous defeat and great loss of life and strength. The winter has been brutal and the weak or wounded who did not die in battle are dead of starvation and sickness. It's a raw, bleak spring with a grim summer ahead, while the empire strips us of what little we have left and crushes us under the heels of its legions.
"You are high king of the people, and that's a great thing— but it's also a heavy burden. Even if they were victorious, you would still bear all their ills as well as their triumphs. Now in defeat, it's all on your shoulders. You bear the brunt and you carry the blame."
Euan's shoulders sagged as if they were indeed loaded down with all the horrors of a disastrous war and its even grimmer aftermath. But he was no mage's toy, whatever Gothard might hope to make of him. He shook off the spell with a snap of contempt. "You don't think I know all that? This is mine and always has been. I was meant for it."
"Surely," said Gothard, "but are you prepared for the bad as well as the good?"
"I've ridden out two great defeats," Euan said. "There will be no third. You are going to help me make sure of that."
Gothard's brows arched. "A new plan, my lord?"
"Maybe." Euan rose carefully from his blankets. "Maybe the same one, with refinements. We don't need to destroy the imperial armies if we destroy its leaders. We've known that from the beginning."
"But war is so much more glorious than conspiracy and assassination." Gothard's tone was mocking but his eyes were deadly earnest. "Will the tribes understand, do you think?"
"The people won't be going to war again for a long time," Euan said. "It's not a choice between glory and practicality. There's no glory left."
"You want revenge."
Gothard's smile showed an edge of fang. "What do you have in mind?"
"Come to me after the kingmaking is over," Euan said.
"It's time to strike the deathblow against the empire. We've failed twice. Third time will end it—one way or the other."
The gleam of Gothard's eyes told Euan his words had struck home. Gothard was half an imperial. The late emperor had sired him on a concubine, and by that accident of birth denied him the right to claim the throne—a fact for which Gothard hated his father with intensity that had nothing sane about it.
Gothard had raised the powers that destroyed the emperor and almost taken the rest of the world with him. If he had his way, his sister who was soon to be crowned empress and his brother who was something else altogether would be worse than dead—Unmade, so that nothing was left of them, not even a memory.
Gothard said no word of that, nor had Euan expected him to. He turned on Euan instead and said, "You'd die and abandon the people?"
"I'll go down with them," Euan said, "if that's how it has to be."
"Maybe you are meant to be king," Gothard said.
"If I had been king sooner, we would not have lost the war." Euan could feel the anger rising, old now and deep but as strong as ever. He throttled it down. There was no profit in wasting it on Gothard, who was his ally—however unwelcome.
Excerpted from Shattered Dance by Caitlin Brennan Copyright © 2006 by Caitlin Brennan. Excerpted by permission.
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