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Morgan Rice

A March of Kings

“Is this a dagger which I see before me,

The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.”

— William Shakespeare, Macbeth

CHAPTER ONE

King MacGil stumbled into his chamber, having had way too much to drink, the room spinning and his head pounding from the night’s festivities. A woman whose name he did not know clung to his side, one arm draped around his waist, her shirt half-removed, leading him with a giggle towards his bed. Two attendants closed the door behind them and disappeared discreetly.

MacGil did not know where his queen was, and on this night he did not care. They rarely shared a bed anymore, she often retiring to her own chamber, especially on nights of feasts, when the meals went on too long. She knew of her husband’s indulgences, and she did not seem to care. After all, he was king, and MacGil kings had always ruled with entitlement.

But as MacGil aimed for bed the room spun too fiercely, and he suddenly threw this woman off. He was no longer in the mood for this.

“Leave me!” he commanded, and shoved her away.

The woman stood there, stunned and hurt, and the door opened and the attendants returned, each grabbing one arm and leading her out. She protested, but her cries were muffled as they closed the door behind her.

MacGil sat on the edge of his bed and rested his head in his hands, trying to get his headache to stop. It was unusual for him to have a headache this early, before the drink had time to wear off, but tonight was different. It had all changed so quickly. The feast had been going so well; he had been settling in with a fine choice of meat, a strong cask of wine, when that boy, Thor, had to surface and ruin everything. First it was his intrusion, with his silly dream; then his knocking his goblet out of his hands.

Then that dog had to appear and lap it up, and drop dead in front of everyone. MacGil had been shaken ever since. The realization had stuck him like a hammer: someone had tried to poison him. To assassinate him. He could hardly process it. Someone had snuck past his guards, past his wine and food tasters. He had been a breath away from being dead, and it still shook him.

He recalled Thor’s being taken away, to the dungeon, and he wondered again if it had been the right command. On the one hand, of course, there was no way the boy could have known that goblet was poisoned unless he himself had poisoned it, or was somehow complicit in the crime. On the other hand, he knew Thor had deep, mysterious powers, too mysterious, and perhaps he had been telling the truth: maybe he had indeed envisioned it in a dream. Maybe he had, in fact, saved his life, and maybe MacGil had sent to the dungeon the one person truly loyal.

MacGil’s head pounded at the thought, as he sat there rubbing his too-lined forehead, trying to work it all out. But he had drank too much on this night, his mind was too foggy, his thoughts swirled, and he could not get to the bottom of it all. It was too hot in here, a sultry summer night, his body overheated with hours of food and drink, and he felt himself sweating.

He reached over and threw off his mantle, then his outer shirt, dressed in nothing but his undershirt, and reached up and wiped the sweat off his brow, then his beard. He leaned back and pulled off his huge, heavy boots, one at a time, and curled his toes as they hit the air. He sat there and breathed hard, trying to regain his equilibrium. His belly had grown today, and it was burdensome. He kicked his legs up and lay back, resting his head on the pillow. He sighed and looked up, past the four posters, to the ceiling, and tried to get the room to stop spinning.

Who would want to kill him? he wondered, yet again. He had loved that boy, Thor, like a son, and a part of him sensed that it could not be him. He wondered who else it could be, what motive he might have-and most importantly, if he would try again. Was he safe? Had Argon’s pronouncements been right?

MacGil felt his eyes grow heavy, as he sensed the answer just outside of his mind’s grasp. If his mind was just a little clearer, maybe he could work it all out. But his mind was not there. He would have to wait for the light of morning to summon his advisers, to launch an investigation. The question in his mind was not who wanted him dead-but who did not want him dead. His court, he knew, was filled with people who craved his throne. Ambitious generals; maneuvering councilmembers; power-hungry nobles and lords; spies; old rivals; assassins from the McClouds- and maybe even from the Wilds. Perhaps, even closer than that.

MacGil’s eyes fluttered as he began to fall into sleep; but something caught his attention which kept them open. He detected movement, and looked over to see that his attendants were not there. He blinked, confused. His attendants never left him alone. In fact, he could not remember the last time he had been alone in this room, by himself. He did not remember ordering them to leave. Even stranger: his door was wide open.

At the same moment MacGil heard a noise from the far side of the room, and turned and looked. There, creeping along the wall, coming out of the shadows, into the torchlight, was a tall, thin man, wearing a black cloak and hood, pulled over his face. MacGil blinked several times, wondering if he were seeing things. At first he was sure it was just shadows, flickering torchlight playing tricks on his eyes.

But a moment later the figure was several paces closer and approaching his bed quickly. MacGil tried to focus in the dim light, to see who it was; he began instinctively to sit up, and being the old warrior he was, he reached for his waist, for a sword, or at least a dagger. But he had undressed long ago, and there were no weapons to be had. He sat, unarmed, on his bed.

The figure moved quickly now, like a snake in the night, getting ever closer, and as MacGil sat up, he got a look at his face. The room still spun, and his drinking prevented him from seeing clearly, but for a moment, he could have sworn it was the face of his son.

Gareth.

MacGil’s heart flooded with sudden panic, as he wondered what he could possibly be doing here, unannounced, so late into the night.

“My son?” he called out.

MacGil saw the deadly intent in his eyes, and it was all he needed to see-he started to jump out of bed.

But the figure moved too quickly. He leapt into action, and before MacGil could raise his hand in defense, there was the gleaming of metal in the torchlight, and fast, too fast, there was a blade puncturing the air-and plunging into his heart.

MacGil shrieked, a deep dark cry of anguish, and was surprised by the sound of his own scream. It was a battle scream, one he had heard too many times. It was the scream of a warrior mortally wounded.

MacGil felt the cold metal breaking through his ribs, pushing through muscle, mixing with his blood, then pushing deeper, ever deeper, the pain more intense than he had ever imagined, as it seemed to never stop plunging. With a great gasp, he felt hot, salty blood fill his mouth, felt his breathing grow hard. He forced himself to look up, at the face behind the hood. He was surprised: he had been wrong. It was not the face of his son. It was someone else. Someone he recognized. He could not remember who, but he knew it was someone close to him. Someone who looked like his son.

His brain wracked with confusion, as he tried to put a name to the face.

As the figure stood over him, holding the knife, MacGil somehow managed to raise a hand and push it into the man’s shoulder, trying to get him to stop. He felt a burst of the old warrior’s strength rise up within him, felt the

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