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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

By Force Alone

Lavie Tidhar

Tor Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1

King Vortigern, the usurper, sits upon his throne and waits for the end of the world. Outside the castle walls, the invaders slaughter his men and are slaughtered in turn, and the air fills with the stench of blood and the cries of the dying. King Vortigern, the usurper, is no longer a young man, and the joints of his fingers are inflamed with arthritis, but by damn he can still hold a sword.

He sits upon his throne. It is his by right. He had schemed for it and he had killed for it and it is his by force alone. The throne is carved of old cedar brought long ago from across the sea. It had been decorated in the past with intricate inlays of Welsh gold and set with amethyst, but the usurper had ripped those and many other valuables when he took the castle and now his throne is bare.

He prefers it that way.

In the old days, traveling through the deep, dark forests of the land, preying on travelers or hiring out, they had slept in burrows in the earth, by burning fires, and sat on fallen trunks and logs. Sometimes he misses them, those who were there, those who had gone. Many had taken the fairy roads and were vanished, erased, but he remained, and he was hungry, and strong, and now the throne is his by right, by force alone.

The last vestiges of battle can be heard. Sunlight drapes across the room. The king hears the gates fall and the invaders storm into his sanctum. He hears the clash of steel on steel. The throne smells pleasantly of cedar.

After a time, there is silence. King Vortigern, the usurper, hears the tread of heavy footsteps outside his door. They come closer, unhurried, and the doors of the throne room are thrown open. First through the doors comes the tossed corpse of his son, hurled like a rag doll onto the floor. Half of his son’s face is gone and his left leg below the knee, and his sword arm hangs crooked and bent backward, broken in several places like kindling for the fire. Vortigern looks on his son, whom he had held in his arms when he first came out wailing into the world from his mother’s quim, when he had placed a kiss upon his forehead, his first boy. He remembers how small he was, how strange it was to hold this tiny, defenseless animal with something like love.

Behind the boy’s broken corpse comes a man. He is a tall man, and broad-shouldered, and his hair is yet strong and black, and his sword is bloodied. The man looks at Vortigern and smiles, and Vortigern is angered by how many teeth, healthy and whole, the man still has left in his mouth.

“Uther,” he says.

“Vortigern.”

They watch each other. And Vortigern remembers one night, it must have been December, and the woods filled with snow, and the moon aglow over the trees, casting down molten silver. They had chased three Jutes across the forest, their breath foggy in the cold, and no sound but the breathing of the chasers and the chased, until they came upon their quarry like two foxes on a brace of hares, and made easy work of them until the snow was dark with the Jutes’ blood. Who the Jutes were and what they were doing this far from home and on a night like that he never knew, but they had emptied their purses all the same and stripped them of their coats and boots until the three lay naked on the snow. More snow fell then. They raised their heads and watched the moon glow through the flurry of snowdrops. He remembers that night, the silence, and the three naked bodies on the ground. How still it was.

“My wife,” Vortigern says now. “Did you—?”

“You mean, your daughter?”

“What’s mine is mine,” Vortigern says; and that’s all there is to say. “But is she—”

“Dead?”

Vortigern nods. “I sent her away,” he says, unwillingly. “But I did not know if she made it out in time.”

“Who gives a fuck?”

Vortigern rises from the throne. The great sword, how easy it was to once lift it. Uther smiles. He waits, at ease.

“As it comes to me it will come to you,” Vortigern says.

Their swords clash. Uther kicks the other man in the ribs and as he falls he lunges with the hidden knife and buries it in Vortigern’s neck. The blood spurts out, so much blood. It sprays the throne, the floor, Uther’s face. Vortigern raises his head one last time. For a moment he thinks he sees Merlin, standing quietly by the drapes, near the window.

Uther waits. The usurper falls.

Uther wipes the blade clean and takes his place on the throne.


Copyright © 2020 by Lavie Tidhar