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Bitter Chivalry

by Shannon McNear

The battle was over, and the king lay dying. Daymonde waited in the shadows of the pavilion's inner chamber while the physician examined King Glenmarr of Nyland, shook his head, and made the king as comfortable as he could. They dared not even remove the arrows from the king's body, for fear it would hasten his death.

With bowed heads, the physician and his assistant slipped out, leaving Daymonde, the King's Champion, alone with his beloved monarch.

"My son—" Glenmarr's gasping broke the silence inside the tent— "my son, where are you?"

"Here, M'lord," Daymonde said, stepping forward to kneel beside the king's pallet.

His face was grey in the flickering candlelight. Silver glimmered in the long red hair and full beard. Pale blue eyes searched for Daymonde's as the king's hand groped toward him. Daymonde hid a wince, and clasped Glenmarr's hand in his own.

"My son," the king said again. "Ever have I honored you as if you were my own."

"Aye, M'lord."

Glenmarr took a breath, coughed, spoke again with a wheeze. "Take care of my kingdom."

"I will – do my best, M'lord." Daymonde cleared his throat, sought to forestall the charge he knew would come if he held his silence. "I will see that Fiona weds well."

The reddish mane waved as the king's head tossed restlessly. "Nay – you. I want her to wed – you."

Dismay contracted Daymonde's insides as the wish he had seen lurking in the king's thoughts for weeks became spoken word. The Pit take this cursed war, and those who had begun it – this was not supposed to happen. Glenmarr should have survived long enough to wed again himself and produce a male heir.

Daymonde fumbled for the words. Admonitions from the Book of the Law, embedded in his consciousness since boyhood, surfaced now. … and yet not to rule you himself, for that would be too great a burden … He wondered how to reconcile his desire to please his King with obedience to a higher directive.

"I need – your assurance, my son."

He bent his head to Glenmarr's shoulder. "M'lord … you ask me to transgress the Law."

"Do I?" The King's voice was suddenly stronger. "I know nothing that says a man of the Gift may not serve his sovereign by providing heirs to the throne." He paused for breath. "Unless Fiona herself distresses you? She is young, but will grow …"

Daymonde squeezed his eyes against the memory of the slight girl, hardly more than a child, with her father's abundant auburn hair and pale eyes. His stomach twisted anew at the thought of the girl's awe and adulation in his presence. Not that she was any worse than anyone else—

He took a deep breath. Ach – the mingled blessing and curse of the Gift in being able to see through others, to know the depths of virtue – and vice. Many an eye-pleasing lass had a heart as black as night, while some who might never draw a second glance were full of unseen light. Daymonde searched far and wide for one who was lovely both inside and out, for it was his duty to wed sooner or later, to ensure the continuation of the Gift—

"My son!" The King's voice grew desperate.

Daymonde lifted his head. How could he refuse Glenmarr, whom he had sworn to serve with his very life? Mayhap the Stranger would be merciful in granting him contentment at least with Fiona – and after all, the Law did not explicitly prohibit a man of the Gift from wedding a princess.

"Aye," he said. "I will serve you in this."

Glenmarr's long sigh caused Daymonde's heart to leap in fear that the king had gone already; but after a moment the older man stirred. "Fetch my captains. Prepare a last cup, and you will share it with me to signify the covenant you make."

The King's word was carried out. A dozen strong men of Nyland, cloaks still wrapped about them from the bitter cold, clad in armor and maille, filed into the pavilion and stood around the bed as witnesses. Daymonde held his longsword unsheathed as he vowed to fulfill Glenmarr's last request. The King's jeweled gold chalice was filled with the best Gemanan wine. Propped in the arms of his two head captains, Glenmarr drank, and then Daymonde.

The King held his gaze. "Keep her honor well."

With a rattling breath, his spirit fled.

#

Daymonde stumbled out of the pavilion, into the ankle-deep snow and driving wind, past the rows of tents till he stood near the rim of the glen where they made camp. He grieved not only the loss of a good and kind king, one who had been as a father to him since the passing of his own – but with the decision past, a fresh horror gripped him. All his life, he had been told the place of the Gift was to serve – never to hold a position of authority – the temptation of power was too great even for those most disciplined in the precepts of the Law. The King's desperate plea did not dispel Daymonde's conviction that he had done something very wrong. It was more than the disappointment of surrendering his dreams of marrying for love. The weight of the Law itself pressed upon him, condemning him for being so easily swayed.

He looked at the chalice still clutched in his left hand, the sword bared in his right. With numb fingers, he tipped the cup, spilling the last drops into the snow; then with a soft gasp, dropped the chalice and staggered forward a few steps.

Unmindful of his billowing cloak and the chill penetrating his clothing and armor, he stared unseeing into the evergreens. At last he bowed his head and stood till the swirling flakes half covered his boots and softened the prints behind him, while the tears formed rivers of ice on his cheeks.

Note: This story was written for the Deep Magic December 2003 Writing Challenge, and was originally published in the January, 2004 issue of Deep Magic. It has been republished here by permission of the author.

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