Dragon Queen Excerpt: The Bloody Judge

There was a peace to killing.

Men pressed him from all sides, crushed together. His own soldiers pushed against his back and to either side. Ahead, the enemy were forced before him by their own sheer numbers. He met them with remorseless savagery, slashing and stabbing, reaching for any inch of unguarded flesh. The black moonsteel edge of his sword glittered in the sunlight. Dark as night and sharp as broken glass, it shattered steel and splintered bone with a hunger all of its own. Spears and swords broke. Armour ripped open like skin beneath a tiger’s claw. Entrails spilled across the ground to join the bloody mess of severed heads and arms. His feet slipped and slid beneath him. Sweat stung his eyes. The air stank of iron and death. Blood ran down his blade and over his gauntlets. He could feel it finding its way through the cracks and joints and seams, oozing down his arm underneath the leather and the metal scales. A part of him forgot his name, forgot why he was there, forgot everything and gave itself over to the savage he kept inside, letting it fill up every pore, every hair, every thought. The rest looked on as if looking down on the battle from above, ready to tell the madman when to stop. Yes, there was a peace to killing. He’d always found it so.

A spear glanced off the scales covering his ribs. A bone cracked but he barely felt it; an instant later he split the spearman with a thunderous blow. The pain shot up and down his side with every breath. He screwed up his face and howled. Tasted blood in his mouth as he stepped over the fallen body and sheared an arm from the soldier behind him. Damned sword was a horror of its own. It would cut through anything.

The Tethis soldiers broke and ran. He held his sword high, signalling his men to hold and not to pursue. He was breathing hard, and still each breath came with a wave of pain. Under the sun he was drenched in sweat. There was a breeze across the battlefield – he could feel it now he had some space in front of him. He wanted to take off his helm and let the wind cool his head, but he didn’t. He’d been in too many battles for that.

‘Shield line!’ he roared. The ground right ahead was churned to mud, littered with spears and shields tossed aside by the fleeing soldiers. Bright sun glinted off discarded helms. He watched the Tethis soldiers go, scattering into the long grass, racing for the line of trees ahead. On another battlefield cavalry would have charged them down and made the slaughter complete, but Queen Gelisya had chosen her field well, edged with hummocks and holes and hidden ditches, and so he made himself be still and watch them go. The savage inside wanted their blood but the savage was always on a leash – always except in the thick of battle.

He looked up and down the line of his men, the shield wall packed hard again. Berren. My name is Berren. Berren the Bloody Judge. Berren the Crowntaker. Berren who’d once been a thief-taker’s boy. He’d killed a king. Queen Gelisya’s father. Ten years of hell and misery and now I will end it. He still tasted salt and iron. Blood. His or someone else’s? He didn’t know and he didn’t care. His men raised their swords and their spears and banged them together and roared. One tight line of them. A wall of shields and deadly steel.

‘On!’ He lowered the moonsteel sword, pointed to the trees and snarled at the pain from his side. His hands felt sticky inside his gauntlets. A steady march. No reckless charge at the wood. If there was a trap then he’d not fall into it. They’d come at the enemy one last time, if there were any of them left. He’d smash them before the Dark Queen could rally. Ten years and she’d cost him every drop of blood she could take from him, her and her vicious coven. Their feud had defined them both.

A knot of the enemy emerged from the trees, half a dozen swordsmen packed tight. They ran straight at him, one mad suicidal charge. Pressed around by his own men in the wall of shields he had nowhere to go. He bared his teeth. The men either side of him readied their steel, and then Berren saw the seventh man, hidden between the screaming swords, and a flood of rage swept through him. A man in the colour of death – grey robes, grey cowl – and at the sight bloodlust clamped his head in a vice and roared, all else forgotten. As the swordsmen reached him, crazy-eyed and wild, he bashed and battered their swings aside with his shield. The men either side of him lunged and slashed. One of the swordsmen barged into him, staggering him back, but the press kept him on his feet and he drove the moonsteel blade straight through the man’s mail and into his heart. Blood sprayed over him as he snapped the sword away and the man fell, already dead. Another struck at him but his armour took the blow and turned it aside, and then the grey sorcerer was in front of him and it was the easiest thing in the world to drive his moonsteel through the heavy robes, through flesh and blood and bone until the point emerged from the man’s spine and only its hilt stopped Berren’s hand from reaching inside to pull out the warlock’s entrails. The surviving swordsmen turned and ran, four of them still on their feet. Madness.

‘For Talon and Syannis!’ he hissed. Vicious triumph coursed through him, blood pumping hard and full of victory. He stared at the warlock, at the pale pasty skin of the sorcerer’s face, the lines, the wrinkles, the sheen of sweat, the tattooed sigils, the dark flecks of blood, the dying gleam in the eyes, then snapped back his sword. ‘One less of you.’

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