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Morgan Rice

A Clash of Honor

“Be not afraid of greatness:

some are born great,

some achieve greatness,

and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

— William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

CHAPTER ONE

Luanda charged across the battlefield, narrowly avoiding a galloping horse as she weaved her way towards the small dwelling that held King McCloud. She clutched the cold, iron spike in her hand, trembling, as she crossed the dusty grounds of this city she once knew, this city of her people. She had been forced all these months to witness their being butchered-and she’d had enough. Something inside her snapped. She no longer cared if she went up against the entire McCloud army-she would do whatever she could to stop it.

Luanda knew that what she was about to do was crazy, that she was taking her life into her hands, and that McCloud would likely kill her. But she pushed these thoughts from her mind as she ran. The time had come to do what was right-at any cost.

Across the crowded battlefield, amidst the soldiers, she spotted McCloud in the distance, carrying that poor, screaming girl into an abandoned dwelling, a small clay house. He slammed the door behind them, raising a cloud of dust.

“Luanda!” came a shout.

She turned and saw Bronson, perhaps a hundred yards behind, chasing after her. His progress was interrupted by the endless stream of horses and soldiers, forcing him to stop several times.

Now was her chance. If Bronson caught up to her, he would prevent her from going through with it.

Luanda doubled her speed, clutching the spike, and tried not to think how crazy this all was, how slim her chances were. If entire armies could not bring down McCloud, if his own generals, his own son, trembled before him, what chance did she, alone, possibly have?

Moreover, Luanda had never killed a man before, much less a man of McCloud’s stature. Would she freeze up when the time came? Could she really sneak up on him? Was he impervious, as Bronson had warned?

Luanda felt implicit in this army’s bloodshed, in the ruin of her own land. Looking back, she regretted that she had ever agreed to marry a McCloud, despite her love for Bronson. The McClouds, she had learned, were a savage people, beyond correction. The MacGils had been lucky that the Highlands divided them, she realized that now, and that they had stayed on their side of the Ring. She had been naive, had been stupid to assume that the McClouds were not as bad as she had been raised to think. She thought that she could change them, that having a chance to be a McCloud princess-and one day queen-was somehow worth it, whatever the risk.

But now she knew that she was wrong. She would give up everything-give up her title, her riches, her fame, all of it-to have never met the McClouds, to be back in safety, with her family, on her side of the Ring. She was mad at her father now for having arranged this marriage; she was young and naive, but he should have known better. Was politics so important to him, to sacrifice his own daughter? She was mad at him, too, for dying, for leaving her alone with all of this.

Luanda had learned the hard way, these last few months, to depend on herself, and now was her chance to make things right.

She trembled as she reached the small clay house, with its dark, oak door, slammed shut. She turned and looked both ways, expecting McCloud’s men to bear down on her; but to her relief, they were all too preoccupied with the havoc they were wreaking to notice.

She reached up, the stake in one hand, and grabbed the knob, turning it as delicately as she could, praying she did not alert McCloud.

She stepped inside. It was dark in here, and her eyes adjusted slowly from the harsh sunlight of the white city; it was cooler in here, too, and as she stepped across the threshold of the small house, the first thing she heard was the moans and cries of the girl. As her eyes adjusted she looked over in the small house and saw McCloud, undressed from the waist down, on the floor, the girl undressed, struggling beneath him. The girl cried and screamed, her eyes bunched up, as McCloud reached up and clamped her mouth shut with his beefy palm.

Luanda could hardly believe this was real, could hardly believe she was really going through with this. She took a tentative step forward, her hands shaking, her knees weak, and prayed that she would have the strength to carry through. She clutched the iron spike as if it were her lifeline.

Please, god, let me kill this man.

She heard McCloud grunting and groaning, like a wild animal, having his fill. He was relentless. The girl’s screams seemed to amplify with his every move.

Luanda took another step, then another, and was just feet away. She looked down at McCloud, studied his body, trying to decide the best place to strike. Luckily he had removed his chainmail and wore only a thin, cloth shirt, now drenched in sweat. She could smell it from hear, and she recoiled. Removing his armor was a careless move on his part, and it would be, Luanda decided, his last mistake. She would raise the spike high, with both hands, and plunge it into his exposed back.

As McCloud’s groans reached their peak, Luanda raised the spike high. She thought of how her life would change after this moment, how, in just seconds, nothing would ever be the same. The McCloud kingdom would be free of their tyrant king; her people would be spared from further destruction. Her new husband would rise and take his place, and finally, all would be well.

Luanda stood there, frozen with fear. She trembled. She knew that if she did not act now, she never would.

She held her breath, took one final step forward, raised the spike high overhead with both hands, and suddenly dropped to her knees, plunging the iron down with all she had, preparing to drive it through the man’s back.

But something happened which she did not expect, and it all happened in a blur, too fast for her to react: at the last second McCloud rolled out of the way. For a man with his bulk, he was much faster than she could imagine. He rolled to one side, leaving the girl beneath him exposed, and it was too late for Luanda to stop the plunge.

The iron spike continued, to Luanda’s horror, plunging all the way down-and into the girl’s chest.

The girl sat straight up, shrieking, and Luanda was mortified to feel the spike piercing her flesh, inches deep, all the way to her heart. Blood gurgled from her mouth and she looked at Luanda, terrified, betrayed.

Finally, she lay back down, dead.

Luanda knelt there, numb, traumatized, hardly grasping what had just happened. Before she could process it all, before she could realize that McCloud was safe, she felt a stinging blow on the side of her face, and felt herself go down to the ground.

As she flew through the air, she was dimly aware that McCloud had just punched her, a tremendous blow, to the face, had sent her flying, had indeed anticipated her every move since she had walked into the room. He had feigned ignorance. He had waited for his moment, waited for the perfect chance to not only dodge her blow, but to trick her into killing this poor girl at the same time, to put the guilt of it on her head.

Before her world dimmed, Luanda caught a glimpse of McCloud’s face. He was grinning down, mouth open, breathing hard, like a wild beast. The last thing she heard, before his giant boot rose up and came down for her face, was his guttural voice, spilling out like an animal:

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