The king’s prayer concluded, “And make our knights brave and wise and their horses surefooted; our infantry stalwart; and our people steadfast under attack. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
Every head raised and every eye opened. Except those of Alaric. His head had never bowed and his eyes had never closed, for Alaric was the king’s food taster. He took it upon himself, not only to taste the king’s food, but to watch every soldier, lord, or serving wench within a spear’s reach of the king’s food. He dared not close his eyes, not even for prayer, not even here in the King’s pavilion on the field of battle surrounded by the army.
As the war counsel disbanded, the king reached for grapes from an untasted tray. “Sire, me first,” Alaric insisted. With a seemingly unpracticed dexterity that avoided all appearance of impropriety or insolence, Alaric removed the grapes from King Betrand’s hand before that hand reached the royal mouth. The cool juice soothed Alaric’s mouth as his teeth popped the skin. Yet only with hesitation did he swallow.
Feigning nonchalance, the king watched with sidelong glance for any twitching of Alaric’s muscles, any contorting of his features, any sign of restricted breathing, any dilation of the eyes.
“Sire.” The word and the slightest nod of the head indicated the grapes were safe. The king plucked several from the bunch.
“Alaric, my heart still troubles me over your service. Ought a Christian king employ a food taster? We are both made in the image of God. In His eyes, my life has no more value than yours. Ought I ask you to die that I might live?”
“Nay, my Liege, do not trouble yourself over this question. Think of me as a soldier. You do not hesitate to ask a knight or even a baron or a duke to die defending your people from the invading barbarians. As our Lord Christ Himself said, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ Your people need you alive as much as they need your armies in the field. You have been appointed by God to be king. As your knights may die to protect a village, so I may die protecting you; but I, like they, will die willingly.”
“You are a good and wise man, Alaric.”
At a signal from the king, his aide-de-camp cleared the pavilion of all remaining stragglers from the war council. Finally, with a bow and a flourish, the aide himself backed out of the pavilion. He knew it was no use asking whether Alaric would stay or go. Alaric always stayed; he was the king’s food taster and the king might desire nourishment during the night. No, Alaric would sleep in the pavilion on a cot near the serving tables.
“Alaric, your loyalty moves me.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Now it was Alaric who stole a sidelong glance. He thought he saw a flush on the king’s face. He dared a direct look and knew that the poison would soon finish its work.
“Yes, I am loyal, but not to you, you Christian fool.” Alaric knew he could speak freely now; the poison, a concoction of his own making, would finish the king quickly. Even now Betrand had sunken into a chair, eyes dilated, sweat beading on his royal forehead. “Who better to poison a king than his food taster?
“Now my reward comes. All these months of ingratiating myself into your service, of learning and playing the part. And before that, more months of learning your foul Christian rituals and memorizing your detestable scriptures of your rising god. But now all will be repaid. My lord Glaros will reward me richly when he has taken your kingdom and restored our gods to this land.”
Alaric approached the king’s chair. Towering over the stricken ruler, Alaric—no longer the subservient courtier, now the contemptuous assassin—glared down at him. “Now you will do the tasting, you fool. Tell me, what does death taste like?”
“It tastes … like … life.” Bertrand forced the words out, his lungs failing him. “Eternal life ....”
With his final effort and his final breath, King Bertrand gasped, “I pray … that you may … taste it, too. … Taste now … my forgiveness … offered … in the name ... of Christ.”
Scripture is John 15:13, KVJ
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