Witness, Part 2

Editor's Note: Witness was submitted by contributing writer Mauricio Wan. Below is the second part in an original series telling the story of Gavell Norrin, a soldier in Knight Aveline's army and witness to its terrible fate. Read part one here. To read more, visit The Archive. Enjoy!

In the face of grave treachery the knights did fall
Stalwart Valerians paid a grim toll
Funereal glory forgotten under darkest pall
Not least among them could rest their soul

A bleak day broke over the mountain tops, as brightness without sunshine brought a bitter chilled mourning to the winter barren fields. Seasonal stillness gave the dawn a haunted quiet. Here and there small gusts stirred the branches of the wind break and creaked along the weather vanes, briefly troubling that which would remain idle. Yet as soon as a breeze came it was gone again, having fled to another field, another farm, another village besides.

Amidst the anxious daybreak, a lone figure emerged on the horizon, casting a long dark shadow ahead of him as he trudged forward into an unwanted day.

The man at the door was a dismal sight. Unkempt hair and days of sparse growth marred his branded face. Dull eyes seemed to wander leagues and centuries away from the present moment. His clothes were tattered and his armor streaked with mud and weather and worse. Cracked lips split from dry chill gave stuttered utterance to his soft spoken pleas for simple mercy. After some gentle prompting he finally spoke sense and gave name to his pitiable figure.

“Gavell Norrin. Soldier in the army of Knight Aveline.”

A fire was kindled and the lad given a blanket and water and a place to sit while spirits were fetched to restore him. Something delirious sparked in his eyes for a moment as the embers were stoked, before retreating quickly behind glassy simpleness. He took their kindness and their questions with one word answers: yes, no, lost, gone.

“Where are you hailing from, Master Norrin?”


“Monticulus? I reckon it must be mighty hard on folk up there. Haven’t seen traders headed there or back in nigh on three fortnights.”

“There are no traitors!” he barked, and fell stony and silent, tense before the flames. Looks were exchanged and they decided to send the little one to the village to bring the elders out to talk to the boy.

Gray-bearded Hob was the only one who could be roused, and by mid-morning the priest was beginning his interview with the young soldier.

“Goodman Noll here tells me you are one of those brave folks who came here and saved the village some weeks back.”


“We owe you a debt of thanks for that. Dusk provides, but sometimes a good sword arm is welcome. Our blessings, friend.”

The boy stared into the fire, oblivious of praise.

“When we saw you last, you were with quite a company, flying the king’s banner. Did you get separated?”


Old Hob sucked in a breath and braced himself. The lad had seen things; it was clear as morning dew. But it still hurt to ask and the answer was often worse.

“How’d it happen?”

The soldier blinked and was silent, lost in a labyrinth of wordlessness, desperately searching for the voice of his tale. When he returned, it was as if part of him remained behind, perhaps in memory or perhaps lost altogether.

“A thousand went up the mountain, into the city. It was empty, but not dead. Ix—the wizard… a trap. His great beast dashed dozens. They—we—Ser Aveline killed it but in death, the king… He… she killed him, too. And Lark and the stones, the walls, the city turned against us. They—we—I… fell. Fallen.”

He choked on the last syllable and seemed to swallow a lifetime. Regret, fear, anguish so intense it was almost palpable to Hob. The words made no sense but were understood nonetheless.

“Are you saying, lad, that the knight’s army is no more?”

He nodded, barely, as if the mechanics of agreement had separated from his person. A soul untethered, unhinged, flailed inside, detached from vacant eyes, only frothing to the surface for lunatic utterances.

“The black stones—his mad work! Fear the black stones!”

Norrin had Hob by the shirt sleeve, eyes wide with frenzy and a pleading look. He cast a glance to Noll and his wife, who came by and detached the lad from the priest, replacing a pint of mead in his grip where Hob’s arm had been in its stead. About then the little one began to bawl and amidst the wails it was plain that Gavell Norrin shook with his own keening.

“C’mon, lad. Let’s get you to the village. We’ll fix you up. You needn’t worry now, you’re safe.”

* * * 

Bannack was a small village with a decent market day, its stalls and stables locked away in hibernation for the winter. Gavell was put up in the home of the farrier, whose spare rooms were rented out as living quarters during fair days. When he was first removed to the farrier’s place, the goodwives of Bannack made a clucking show of concern and indulgence, hoping to lift his spirits as they mended the body. Gavell Norrin’s sulking silence, however, prevailed. Soon they came to treat him with sad reverence, bringing him food and changing bandages wordlessly, coming and going with the flitting of ghosts in otherwise empty days.

At night things truly came to life. In restless sleep and tossing agonies, the true terrors of his soul revealed themselves. Monstrous beasts haunted him. Not just the wolves and boars and stags they had come to face, or even corrupted Aurleon himself, but other, darker creatures.

He saw townsfolk taken by shades and warped hideously into obsidian clad giants. Trees and fields wilted as they stalked their neighbors. High in a mountain city, blackened stalagmites prostrated themselves before a great void torn in the sky.  Pulsing with strange energy, they opened the scar wider and drew form from it scores of hateful things, jealous spirits thirsty for conquest, angry specters with violent appetites. Faceless though they were, each possessed a countenance more twisted than the last, a secret visage from which Gavell could not turn.

And there were the faces of the dead. They lingered worst of all in his nightmares. Calling for help. Crying out in pain. Moaning for death. Recalling his name in an infinitely echoing chamber. Huddled around a single piece of light in the vast dark, they faded away from him with angry recriminations and stinging disappointment.

“Norrin,” Col Ebbert called to him, “I didn’t realize before, but I knew you.”

His right arm hung lifeless at his side, clinging by threads to the shoulder that once carried it, perhaps held in place more by pauldron than sinew and flesh. Blood continued to flow from the grievous wound, leaving his side slick with dark crimson, a sickening velvet that spread across his body, unimpeded by death.

“I met you once, with your father. My pa and I had come to your keep to plead for protection from bandits. Your father turned us away. We had to take on mercenaries in your stead. Almost as bad as the first lot. Ate up our food and stole up our coin, so that when your father took our land with a false claim we hadn’t money to travel to the king’s court to appeal. Went from being freeholders to drifters. I wasn’t much of a warrior, you know, just took up arms on the promise that the survivors of Aveline’s army, or their inheritors, would get a parcel of land. Fool I was to think we’d win. Not only did I die, but there’s no king to honor the oath to the army.”

Col shook his head wryly, a thin veil of irony barely covering the seething rage of his spirit. The wounded arm dangled at his side precipitously.

“Of course, it’s just my bad luck that my family has to remain destitute in their final days. But I didn’t have to die. It was a Norrin that could have helped. A Norrin that stood by and watched as that thing ripped me apart. A Norrin who failed to uphold his oaths.

“So here I am, bleeding in your dream, in your head. Trapped by you. Trapped in you. You’re there being doted on hand and foot and I’m stuck with this blasted curse. But then again, so are you, mate.  You got his mark. So I’m tied to you and you’re tied to him. You know what that means? No? Why don’t you wake up and find out.”

Gavell woke swimming in sweat pooled sheets. Startled, frenzied, and aching with unquenchable thirst, he found no relief in the retching bile of a broken night. Dawn was peaking over the mountain—a hollow light that started in Monticulus and flooded balefully down the mountain.

It was midday when the cries first erupted. The cobbler had spied a dark form ambling down the east road. Thinking it might be another survivor of Aveline’s ill-fated expedition, he stepped out of his shop to call out hullo to the wounded fellow. Only too late did he realize that it was no mere man who walked down that road, but a fell creature, wrapped in the dark obsidian of Ixiel’s taint. Such was his terror that he died before giving alarm to his neighbors, who found out only too soon how dire their predicament was.

Bannack was a village without warriors. The people of Valerius are a hearty lot—brave, occasionally pious, implacably determined to make their way in a land as inventive in hazard as it is plentiful in bounty. Its commoners have weathered the caprice of rain fall and miserly soils, but against demon corruption they were outmatched. Highway men can be run off with pitchforks and arrows. A marauding war party can be avoided by taking shelter in the forest.

The bear clad in glossy black stone suffered no resistance and offered no release.

Gavell could not determine for some time whether the screams he heard were merely a waking nightmare or the coeval intrusion of danger. It was only in the subsequent silence and futile pleas for mercy that he realized he was captive in the present. A strange mania took him and, rather than flee or hide from the fatal threat he knew all too well, Gavell burst from his lodgings into the Bannack’s market square.

The destruction was thorough and stark in the noontide sun. Breath fled Gavell in fogged pants as he confronted the carnage of steaming wounds and stilled bodies. A callous black shape, grotesque in form, pure malevolence in motion, went from victim to victim with a singular dedication to the macabre task of meticulous slaughter. Feeling a moment at hand, an opportunity for absolution, Gavell took up a sickle from a fallen hand and, with a valorous cry for the Forge-cast Paragons and fallen comrades, charged the degenerate creature.

With a petulant swat of its arm, the corrupted bear knocked Gavell flat on his back. Prone, accepting of fate, he lay with dazed anticipation of closure. The noble end promised at Monticulus--the one which he errantly fled--was at hand. With an exaggerated snarl, the obsidian demon stalked over towards him to deliver the finishing blow. As sightless eyes met the battled shocked vacancy of his own, it demurred with strange reluctance. It found a scent, a recognition, a sniff of disappointment, and refused Gavell’s recumbent surrender. Better prey waited in the west, unmarked, unbeknownst, and unprepared.

Gavell sobbed well after sundown, until sleep finally took him.

* * *

Wretched was the marked man, Goren Navall. Tattered as his rags and bent by his fate, he wandered for years as an outcast of ruinous portent. In the months after the massacre of Monticulus, he knew first pity, then derision, before the aversion of outright fear. Though his whiskers grew wild, there was a blighted spot on his left cheek, a blasted mark that permitted no follicle of hair nor weathering of sun. A pale stain bleached in his skin to embellish the mark it bore-- his seal, his heraldry, his curse.

Navall’s face was tattooed with a curious brand: a black crow swallowing the sun. It was the emblem of the dark magic of Tyrannus. It was the crest of a fallen army. It was the brand of the Coward of Monticulus.

No one knew his name--not his true one--though many monikers, most demeaning, followed in his journeys. It was said that he had been Aveline’s right hand in battle, but had failed to deliver Durendal before Ixiel brought forth the demons. Other legends held that he was the Blue Knight’s standard bearer, a cur who dropped his flag in the face of the enemy causing a great rout of the army. The Harbingers believed him a prophet. Kinder rumors asserted that he was no one special, just a soldier who wavered in the face of his murdered fellows. Most knew him as a spy. Or the traitor who killed Aveline, or Aurleon, or both. It was known that Ixiel’s demon bound aberrations followed closely at his heel, dogging him so that he knew no home, bringing death to those who offered him the mercy of their hearths.

Insofar as he would answer to those brazen enough to ask, the Coward simply preferred "Goren Navall," the nonsense patter of a caitiff who could not bear to bring shame to a family or crest.

So vaunted was his curse that he spawned the creation of bans and prohibitions. The face scarves of the Order of the Cowl were forbidden. Hooded men risked being beaten, even in downpours. As the villages and cities came to rely on Guardians to defend them from Ixiel’s depredations so too did they fear the outsider. Giving shelter to strangers was considered risky at best or betrayal at worst. Anyone, anything unknown became a threat until proven otherwise. The cities and villages of Valerius turned inward upon themselves. Without alliances or trust they were swallowed one by one in the dawning age of Ixiel’s darkness.

It would be kind to assume that in this time the Coward of Monticulus was killed ignominiously for his sins, real or imagined. While true that he suffered much violence at the hands of the people he had pledged to serve, their beatings never seemed to bring him serious harm. Rather, it was those vigilantes who sought to avenge Aveline’s fallen company that met brutal ends.

Opportunistic drunks became trapped in fatal delirium. Stone throwing crowds were beset by plague. Self-righteous hunters found themselves hunted in turn by black clouds that consumed their souls. It would be untrue to call him a favorite of Ixiel, but the dark wizard was a jealous torturer. It was he alone who was permitted to kick Navall across the land, and he preferred to do so indirectly, punishing him with the pain he must behold, forcing him to bear witness to the truth.

And truth? What fickle master that is for a man who no longer owns a name or honor.

A fugitive wandering through a condemned land has little purchase on the credulity of his fellows. A vagrant and a rat catcher, a cursed shadow of a valiant warrior, the dreg ends of courage that glory had failed to quaff, the Coward’s proximity to truth was that of a leper to his terminus—the closer he came, the more it fell apart.

Yet the world had not tilted so far from mercy that he was deprived of all kindness. There was always an audience to be had. Those who dared a comfort, no matter how trivial, endured his tale.

The Blue Knight killed the king. She led her army into a dead city and a great tear in the sky, to a black land within from whence there was no escape. Within she fed on the souls of the fallen, a revenant in her own right becoming fell and wicked in the hungry darkness. Whether the Coward knew this from memory or dream was unknown even to him. Rarely was this tale greeted with anything but dismissal, but curious was the reward for the listeners. While entire towns were slaughtered, it never failed that those who heard the tale were spared that fate, cursed in their own right to become heralds of the Archwizard’s awesome power.

So reduced was the Coward Goren Navall that he became inured to the consequence of his being. Covered in rubbish and spending the night in a burned out mill, he found that the anguished cries of a besieged city no longer deprived him of his sleep. The exhaustion of bearing the wizard’s mark had finally outweighed the suffering it brought. As a city burned under Ixiel’s scourge, the Coward dreamed of another life.

“Who are you?”

A stern faced man loomed over Navall. Wisps of blonde whiskers framed a freckled face, and despite the scowl that hid them, blue eyed kindness stared into his own hazel desperation.

“Where am I?”

“Who are you?” the phantom repeated. They were in a ruined temple of Dawn, one lately sacked in the Succession Wars. Around them lie many corpses from a new war, their armor so freshly smithed that it remained sterling in their annihilation.

“Is this Cord? I haven’t—It’s been… a decade?”

“Who are you?” the soldier demanded, taking a black ichor soaked sword and thrusting in the ground. From within his sundered plackart came an unstanchable flow of blood. Navall shuddered in recollection of an earlier nightmare. Would he ever be free of the echoes of his sins?

The answer lay in the fixed gazed of the dead man. Raising himself up, the Coward grabbed the hilt of the sword.

“I am a soldier. I was your comrade.”

“And who am I?”

“Hann, son of Hannick. Young Lion of Brendunin.”

“Aye, you promised you would never forget that, my friend.”

A rueful smile twisted Navall’s lips as a deeper melancholy clouded his face. Unable to bear this recollection, he cast his gaze downward upon the sword his hand grasped.

“Look at me,” Hann commanded. The Coward obeyed out of fear, despite fear, “You promised you’d never forget. That was more than promising not to forget a name or a place or a battle won. It was promising to remember the deeds that made your friends; that made you. It was promising to remember yourself. Your oath hasn’t forgotten you, Gavell Norrin. Have you forgotten it?”

The Coward nearly choked at the invocation of a dead name, of a lost man.

“A warrior is what he does. Not a reputation, not a misfortune, most certainly not excuses. In all the days I knew ye, you were a warrior. And you promised you would not forget.”

Tears pooled at the corners of his eyes. He began to shake, to whimper, to loathe once more the wretched thing that he would wake to. Blue eyes of sympathy remained level with his and a firm hand put a grip over his own.

“Don’t forget.”

The dawn of a new day was upon the Coward as he woke in the ruined mill. Removing the refuse and rubble under which he had hidden himself, he crossed the river into the smoldering ruins of the once and former city. Ixiel’s destruction of the town was far from complete. Though it was ruined by his beasts, there remained no few survivors, moaning with distress and lamenting their misfortune. Wordlessly, he walked among them, giving water to the thirsty and bandaging the hurt.

By noon the Coward had made it to the western end of town, whereupon he met a man who stood before the burnt out remains of his home. As he had done before, he offered the man his water skin. It was refused petulantly, and greeted with a curse and a spit on the ground.

“Is there nothing that will stop him? Is there no end to his hunger, his cruelty? So many call themselves valiant, recall the tales of provings and battles won, heroes forged, and yet where are the brave souls when you need them?”

The coward looked at the man, at his house, at the vast horizon of homes and shops looted and lost in the fevered madness of demonic cruelty. Taking a sip of his own water, he spoke for the first time since he had awoken.

“There's no one left to rescue us. We must save ourselves.”

The man blinked and looked at him, finally seeing the brand.

“You—your face!”

“Yes,” the Coward nodded. “I’ve known his curse. Worse than most. I’ve seen brave man rally in the face of his danger and the weak cower before his might. I know where I’d rather stand.”

Navall clapped the stranger on his shoulder and offered wishes for good days to come. So it was that the Coward departed the ruined city.

* * * 

She found him in the wilderness not long after. He had walked for days without need of roads or worry for shelter. Having seen how Ixiel would remake the world in his image, she was not entirely shocked by the Coward's state, though he seemed more haggard than most. Yet how could she judge, her own robes soiled with travel and her eyes dulled by the visions of so many souls in turmoil

“Hail,” he said by way of hollow greeting, offering her some water from a skin.

“Well met, traveler. How fare thee?”

The man shrugged. It was as good an answer as anyone could offer.

“I see. And the city of Winnavon?”

The man shook his head, “Not much left, I’m afraid.”

“And the people?”

“There are survivors. There’s hope.”

She looked at the strange man and wondered, “Then why are you leaving?”

He shrugged again.

“I’m not much luck for others. Better to take my chances in the woods and the hills, keep others from getting hurt instead of seeking to hide behind their coattails.”

His green eyes betrayed more than simple desire for hermitage. Grabbing his bearded face with her hand, she pulled back the cloak from his shoulders.

“Let me see your face.”

And there it was, clear as day. A word of binding etched into his face, masked as the horrible seal of the one called Ixiel. She knew at once his troubles, his ill luck, and the hold that dark magicks had over him. She released him from her grasp and looked again into the pained eyes that watched her.

“You poor, wretched creature. Your suffering must be great to bear. My name is Delia. I can help.”

Breathing in deeply, Delia called upon the spirits to guide her hands. Placing her fingers over the mark, she soothed the ache of its curse with a cool touch. The word faded, the skin warmed, and again color filled the stained mien of the reviled wanderer. Exhaling the power she had absorbed from him, she offered a kindly smile.

“I have concealed you from his reach. It won’t last forever. Perhaps a decade or two at most, maybe more if his power diminishes… one can never say exactly. What is your name?”

“Gavell Norrin, soldier of the Knight Aveline. Survivor of Monticulus.”

His chest seemed to ease with the admission of those words, as he once more reclaimed the true name of his self.

“Well then, Gavell. I release you of this curse. May you use the days afforded to you well, and use wisely this second chance.”

Sweeping down onto one knee, the former soldier Norrin bowed his head before her.

“I swear, my lady, that I will not disappoint again.”

Witness, Part 1

Editor's Note: Witness was submitted by contributing writer Mauricio Wan. Below is the first part in an original series telling the story of Gavell Norrin, a soldier in Knight Aveline's army and witness to its terrible fate. To read more, visit The Archive. Enjoy!

In snowy Monticulus swords were drawn,
Valerius met evil in pitched fray,
Yet noble resolve prevailed not by dawn
An army and their honor was betrayed...

“Fortune is not made by crossing Ixiel,” his father warned. “A wizard’s power is not blunted, but avoided. The land will be remade by those who remain. To fight the inevitable is a fool’s errand.”

Gavell Norrin did not heed his father. When the Betrayer reared his head and revealed his true face, Valerius shook with fury. The Kingdom thirsted for justice. A young knight answered the call. In the middle of the bleakest winter in living memory, young Lord Norrin put his sword under the banner of the Knight Aveline.

Four thousand swords were gathered, one of the largest armies under one banner since the wars of succession that cemented King Aurleon’s reign. Their mood was buoyant, almost jubilant. After sixteen years of shadow rule by a wizard, the sword arms of Valerius were united. There would be a return to tradition, a return to honor. Gavell would be a part of it, one small note in the epics that would be sung of their triumph.

Young Norrin was not the only scion to join the march towards the wizard’s stronghold in the east. Nearly all the noble families of Valerius set aside their rivalries and contributed their issue to the cause. Old Norrin himself gave a son and daughter to the kingdom’s service.

“Fools for children,” he bellowed, “I have naught but fools for legacy and early graves to dig.”

His prophesy fell on the deaf ears of his kin. Their hearts would not be bowed by dismal prognostication. Their honor would not yield to his doom saying. So it was that Gavell and his sister followed the blue cloaked warrior into battle.

* * *

Their first test came at an abandoned village on the edge of the eastern valleys. Seeking some respite from their march and shelter from a sudden hail, Aveline brought a small detachment to the village square to see if they might procure supplies and shelter. It was an ambush.

Col Ebbert was the first to draw notice to the beast. The soldiers of Aveline’s guard were so consumed with curiosity at the empty village that they almost missed its approach before it was upon them. Gavell had never seen the like of it before. A large black hulking thing, it gleamed in the light though it was of pure darkness. Arrows clattered off its crystalline hide as it charged forward. A howl, unlike any sound he had ever heard, rent the air as it tore through the Ebbert boy. 

Shouts and clanging steel filled the air for brief moments that lingered eternally in the pit of Gavell Norrin’s stomach. He charged forward because there was no retreat, because his fellows were in the thick of battle, because he had put his name and honor and thus his life in the service of Valerius. In the end it was the sure blade of Durendal that felled the beast.

With staggering disbelief they watched as the blackened corruption molted away to reveal a young buck whose throat had been split by the legendary sword. It was then when they understood the nature of the enemy they faced. All that was good and natural was vulnerable to corruption. Death was the only release from the fate promised by Ixiel.

They buried Col Ebbert and two other men whom Gavell did not know. No trace was found of the villagers. With a grim face, Knight Aveline ordered her soldiers to move on from the tainted place.

At night the soldiers of Aveline’s guard were celebrated as heroes. They caroused some and embellished details of their deeds. They were joyous, for on that day when the mortality of their calling emerged they stared it down with drawn steel and full throated cries. Only Gavell’s sister was cautious, reminding her brother:

“Three men. Barely more than a fawn and it killed three men. Where shall we be when we meet an army of such things?”

In the front, he thought, charging forward under the bugle call of king and country. Where all heroes end up: victorious and revered.

* * *

The march east was drudgery. 

Epics have a way of abridging reality. Heroes battle, find love, are shown favor by the gods above. They do not have twenty mile marches with Old Lark flailing his baton at them, insisting on tight formation at quick step to meet their foe before his power became too great. They did not eat stale biscuits and drink bitter water, go days without meat as the winter game grew perilously thin through harsh season and mystical attrition. They did not carve ruts in the mud to move supply wagons or slit the throats of lamed mules. These things were reserved for soldiers, a hidden Mystery of the martial life that did not spill forth from proud mouths, no matter how deep in their cups or wistful their reverie.

There were other, meaner things about the winter. The terrifying boredom of pickets, the uncertainty of whether the night would bring another beast fouled by Ixiel’s corruption or merely the spotted cowl of indifferent stars. Wind that screamed down from the mountains like a spirit unhinged, undaunted by blanket and cloak, and the lingering chill it left behind. The sound of cold rain on armor. The way bread was never warm. Days of gray sky like a faded canvas, the plodding effacement of marked time, the eroding border between one day and the next.

Fellowship and camaraderie were there, of course, but the dimensions of their bonds were not so neat as to be encompassed by the mere words of the thing. How do you describe the shared scowl when an officer dresses men down over the condition of their equipment? What words encompass the fraternity of secret drinks and petty defiance of war’s strict discipline? Or the tall tales and shared fictions of lovers had, opponents bested, or moments of unlikely wit that were traded to deflect the tedium and fear of a campaign that will never end or one that might end all too quickly.

Comrades indeed, as they laid down together with the soft moans of sundered mortality, in ruins and villages, fields and dales, felled by an enemy that preferred to take them in pairs and triplets, hounding the scouts and foragers and laggards as the army wound its way towards Monticulus. Deep was their bond, which grew every time they walked through a village robbed of its people, ruins too soon replacing the highways and hamlets of a once vibrant land.

Deeper still when they had to force the words.

"No, it doesn’t look so bad."

"No it isn’t so cold or dark as that."

"Yes, we will tell them."

"No, Hann, son of Hannick, we won’t forget."

"Fare thee well in the halls of the departed. With the blood you have spilled here today we will forge our victory tomorrow. The realm is safe guarded by your bravery and honored in your sacrifice."

Empty eyes were closed, drinks spilled, and in dreams the spirits of the fallen returned to give heart or lob accusations. 

Gavell endured fellowship and loss in spades. Grim was the family that buried its dead and returned violence in kind to their foe. Valiant were their feats, noble was their cause, and though terrible price was exacted for their heroics, Aveline’s splendid company stood fast under her lead. Victory after victory was claimed as they plunged into the heart of Ixiel’s perverse country. 

Gavell could never pin the moment when he became hardened to the cause and consequence of their war. Was it incremental, inching vacancy into his eyes and implacable grimace into his drawn lips? Or did it come crashing about his spirits all at once, crystalized in the thrust of an onyx armored boar’s tusk as it pierced the plate of Eda Norrin’s armor and sent his sister into the arms of Dusk? 

A hard thing can bear much, tearless, steeped in hate, singular in desire. Hardness breeds a terrible foe, so long as one does not become brittle, and break.

* * *

In view of the cliff face that bore Monticulus, Gavell felt the surety of their purpose. The objective loomed. Fate promised to be determined by the strength of their arms and the dint of their dedication. For every Gavell that remained an Eda, a Col, and a Hann had been interred under solemn cairns assembled by those who carried on. The thousand that remained under the Blue Knight’s banner itched in anticipation of sated vengeance. 

Black flags hung from the parapets of the fortress city, bearing the crest of a crow, swallowing the sun. They snapped with menace in the high mountain winds. Aveline ordered her army upwards.

Blustery winds mounted as they marched up the silent path. No befouled enemies greeted them, no fire rained down from the skies, no shadows stalked their steps. Unobstructed they marched on the wizard’s stronghold, a city gone silent, a seaside mountain and an impregnable fortress that had withstood the ambition of armies and the predations of nature. When they found the gates unguarded and flung open they could hardly believe themselves. Where the wizard should defend, he instead dared. A detachment of scouts entered and did not return.

Atop her steed the Knight Aveline drew herself in front of her troops. Surrounded by stone faced captains and the stern devotion of the indomitable Lark, she addressed the army.

“So long as I draw breath, I will fight for you, for your families. I ask you, brave champions of Valerius: who will fight with me?”

How many dead? How many freed? How many still yet fought the darkness trying to cast its shroud over the land? Surely here, in the face of this evil, they would triumph, and do so decisively. Gavell dwelled upon his fallen sister and thought: I might give three of myself to any beast to bring the best of you back, and I would give myself thrice more to see this over. He pitched a sharpened sword overhead and cried out for victory.

Thick snow fell, blanketing the day with pregnant silence. Behind a phalanx of great shields they marched cautiously through streets bereft of life. The armored plate of their steady resolve clanked and echoed ominously through the city. Worse yet was the suddenness with which it came to a halt.

Pillars of pure darkness towered over the column. The streets were suddenly filled with monolith after monolith, strange monuments to the evil powers wielded by the Betrayer. They were unsettling in the silence, spurned by even the snow and the light. Amidst the ominous statuary, the Knight Captain urged her men forward still.

What did they find in those streets? A strange black fortress, warm where it should be cold, dark where it should be light. When the wizard finally met their advance it was with a terrible giant, obsidian and faceted with the same corruption that spired out of Monticulus’s cobblestones and the wild beasts that had bore down on them during the long march to the ocean. Larger than anything they had faced before, the beast swept men and women to their deaths with broad swipes of its great arms. 

Knight Aveline plunged forward with her famous weapon drawn, a hail of arrows and bellowing warriors following in her wake. Amidst the cries of the fallen and the enjoinders, good friends! for stout hearts and brave feats, his legs drove him forward. When hurled spears brought the beast down and arrested its assault, Gavell was among the first to rush forward and bury his blade in between its crystal armor.

As it was with the first, so it was with the last. The wizard’s final champion was bested by Aveline and her enchanted blade. As Durendal finished the behemoth, all that remained was their bowed and broken king.

“Stand guard!” Lark cried. Gavell Norrin found himself bent on one knee, barely supported by the trembling sword in his hand. Before he could steady himself the knight was upon her king and the very ground beneath them rose up in violence against Valerius’ defenders. 

He did not see the wizard appear. He barely perceived the spikes that impaled the master strategist Lark. Had the king just risen? Did the Knight Aveline just run him through? Laughter and chanting reverberated off the impossible dimensions of the hellish void in a haunting mixture of nauseating defeat. 

Feet carried their master without his sure consent. Gavell did not know he was walking backwards, or that he had grabbed a great shield from a fallen comrade. Something rose from the floor about him and he smashed it away. Something reached out in the darkness and he cut at it with his sword. While his fellows stood unsteadily or rushed forward towards their captain, Gavell Norrin found himself ever compelled outward towards the light. As he fled, the darkness consumed everything, even the screams of his dying brethren.

* * *

A wrathful blizzard had taken hold by the time Gavell emerged from the void. Driving whiteness, punctuated only by great black obelisks, blotted out the sky. The shield was too heavy to carry, leaving only an outstretched arm vainly guarding his face from the storm. Unsure legs carried him as he staggered throughout the maze of a city, Monticulus, the great necropolis of Valerian freedom.

Gavell Norrin was surely not the only one to escape the fate of his fellows, but he walked alone that night. Delirious with fear, he wasn’t even truly sure he had escaped anything. Who could say they were free of that great darkness and the desolation of the massacre? Who could be free of the specter of the fallen, their blood spilt in vain? In the forest of corrupted beasts and uncertain direction, who could say that he did not wish for death, having discovered too late that survival is a worse fate, for a slave must live with his defeat long after his fellows have purchased release?

And was it relief that soothed his features when the archwizard fell upon him in the snow filled gloom of the mountainside? No one can truly know, not even the man himself, what lay in his heart.

“Norrin’s boy? Yes, yes... I see it in your features, the look of dumb surrender. How terrible it wasn’t so nearly as profitable for you as it was for your father.”

Gavell braced himself against a tree, his brain numbed by cold, his tongue quieted by sorrow.

“You father wasn’t much one for banter either. He was little more than a thief, you know, stealing lands with false titles and trumped up claims, but he was quiet. Subtlety suited him, but does little favor to a proud warrior.”

Norrin stared blankly at the wizard. What a curious figure he cut, tattered and emaciated, so sunken of features he appeared ghoulish in the night. And yet how terribly awesome as well, free from the cold and the snow, walking hither and thine among the dark places as if they were no more dangerous than a summer’s meadow. 

The wind picked up and branches swayed under its duress. For Gavell it might be said that something of his senses returned; if not quite the courage that had drove him into the cursed city, then at least the understanding that this would be his last chance to acquit himself with any valor. It was a beautiful thing, at least, to die young and in the name of something bigger than oneself. And if no one was there to witness it, how much more precious it would be.

“I think not,” Ixiel retorted as the blade came up, shattering it into dozens of pieces that cut deeply into the wounded man. With a pitiful yelp, Gavell cried out and slumped into the snow.

“Do your worst,” his voice cracked with defiance.

“Indeed,” the wizard answered, walking close. “Indeed, my worst shall be visited upon you, Gavell Norrin. For what is the worth of victory if it goes unreported? What value has fear if it does not spread fast from the lips of those who know it intimately?”

Ixiel placed a hand on Norrin’s cheek. The smell of burnt flesh and clamor of curdling howl were brief counterpoints to the storm that swallowed the young man’s pain almost as quickly as it emerged.

“They say a man with scars can be quite charming, Gavell. I’m not sure they suit you, but with time anything becomes respectable, I suppose. At least everyone will know under whom you served and by whom you were defeated. That kind of pedigree makes you remarkable, if nothing else.”

“What..?” Norrin managed, barely able to open his tear filled eyes.

“Neither hunger nor cold shall you know, yet no fullness or comfort shall be yours. Forever may you walk, but shelter be you denied. In fear you have gained life and in fear you will keep it. For I now hold claim over your soul, Gavell Norrin, and command you to breathe, to live, to suffer, and to cower from here to all the ends of this earth for the rest of your days. That is my gift and my curse to you. Bear it well, for this boon is all that you will ever own in this world.”

Ixiel did not linger to listen to his anguish, did not revel in his despair. For men of ambition have ever larger aims and grander pleasures than the petty destruction of tragedy’s bit players. But the life of a pawn is a harrowing one indeed, especially if their life is discarded and sacrifice refused.

Origin of Evil, Part 5

Editor's Note: This entry was submitted by contributing writer Mauricio Wan. It is the fifth in a series exploring the origins of A Knight Adrift's antagonist, Archwizard Ixiel. To read previous entries, visit The Archive. Enjoy!

Ixiel the Noble. Ixiel the Bastard. What songs do they sing of thee? What dirges clamor from the carrion calls, what is echoed in the ruins' quietude? What melodies resound in silenced dreams? What rattles in the bone yard's heaps?

Politics wearied Ixiel.

Fights in the council grew more rancorous by the day. In equal measure increased their pettiness. Valerius wallowed in a mire of its great lords' making, each man increasing food levies on the peasants, extracting coin from the merchants, and laying claim to disputed land in order to ensure his interests were met before their boy king was of age. It was greed. It was gluttony.

Ixiel had to fulfill their desires.

His job as regent was to be agent of the king, a king who barely had whiskers and whose voice was prone to crack during lengthy decrees. His first and primary goal was to ensure that this adolescent remained king, the price of which was forging unsavory alliances. If the young scion of some baron needed his gambling bets paid, Ixiel supplied the purse. If a corrupt and wealthy gentleman sought title, Ixiel discovered his noble lineage. If a social climber sought to marry a better, Ixiel arranged terms suitable for the father that brought both parties into the king's fold.

There were other, darker things too. Appetites that reviled him. Yet for king and country, what was he but a servant?

His toil was not without casualties.

Roland's most loyal men were reassigned to far outposts, often attacked and killed by bandits en route. The nurse was compromised by rumors from the servants and sent away from the castle. Even sweet, loyal Vreni was not immune from the intrigue, having eaten an apple whose effects ensured she would never wake again. Ixiel could not replace his apprentice, finding no Walkers to relinquishing the cowl in favor of court politics.

The allies of the King were not without their fortune, of course. Gerwald took ill with fever shortly after his abortive coup. He did not die but he never walked again. Wybert was given lands in the restive north, which occupied him with asserting his control as lord there. One by one the implacable enemies of the crown were subdued or removed from power by the might of Valerius' warriors. Control over kingdom was consolidated by the council. But that did not mean the King ruled alone, if at all.

No, it was the council that thought itself the crown that ruled the throne. Five callous fools and dimwits sought to carve out personal visions of self service to the detriment of all else. Geldon, Lord of the Harvest, fattened himself first before the defenders of the king, reselling the tithed food back to its producers at a profit. Dordell, Lord of the Hunt, took private rent off access to game in the king's reserves. Balth, Master Clerk, increased his estates through minor decrees beneath the attention of the king. Esdard, Lord of the Coin, lightened every purse before it made it to the coffers while Norrin, Lord of the Scales, found ways to exempt his interests from the king's law. The only things between them and the utter anarchic dysfunction of the kingdom was the increasingly frayed alliance between Ixiel, Regent, and Roland, Knight Commander of the Armies.

Roland for his part was unsettled with the archwizard's maneuvers. The one time ally of convenience was prone to obstruction, seeking to resolve every grievance with steel when coin might do, or agitating to expel lords from the council for their unsavory predation. Ixiel was sympathetic, but also practical. The knight was losing the forest through the trees, confusing goals with means. Worse yet, he was trying to force a wedge between king and regent. Roland was too valuable to eliminate, too powerful to expel, but he demanded time consuming management lest his energies become destructive.

The others were challenging in their own right, but, with appetite their only ambition, they were, at least, predictable. Geldon and Norrin were blood enemies united only by their desire to use intrigues of the council to condemn the other to death for treason. Balth was a profligate spendthrift with only two constants—the need for money and fear of being in Esdard's debts. The Lord of Coin was forever mesmerized by the things that money could not buy and Dordell could never retire his riding spurs when another trophy might be had.

Fools. Fools to be slaughtered were the knives of their murderers not stayed by the hands of a strong archwizard.

Little did they expect that they might have to curb their wantonness before the stern gaze of a strong king. After all, it was Aren's own sloth that had allowed them to prosper. Had they their will, Valerius would never see a strong king again. But indeed a strong king was rising. Aurleon was being forged in the hearth of learning and tempered in the furnace of old ways.

* * *

The years were not without their kindness. There were pockets of peace. Though Roland's office was under continuous challenge and his most loyal knights often felled through cowardly acts, no great threat to the king emerged that was not blunted by his shield and pruned by mighty Durendall. Aurleon was generally beloved, in a genuine way, perceived by his subjects to be above the corruption of the council. He embodied the hope for the leader that Aren was not. The dream of a united Valerius prevailed.

For Ixiel this peace was experience both vicariously and in close proximity. To see his sovereign worshiped from afar gave him hope that his young ward might take full grasp of the state that Aren had nearly dissolved before the jackals of the council tore it to pieces. To see the young king excel in his studies gave him confidence that the lad was more than just promise.

As archwizard it was Ixiel's place to tutor to the young king. For most lords or sons of lords, such tutelage would be circumscribed by the needs of office—a grasp of histories, literacy enough to read the old strategists opine upon feats of arms, some astrology so as not to be beholden to petty soothsayers, and geography enough to understand what was his and what was possible. Valerius was a great continent surrounded on all sides by a vast desert of salted water. Within it was all potential for strength—fertile lands, hearty people, industrious minds and the will to forge the steel that protected man from the wilderness. Outside was the empty promise of salvation in the lands beyond the waves. The first lesson of leadership was to invest in the strengths one had—not to hope for salvation from beyond the horizon. It was a lesson the king grasped well.

Yet Aurleon was no mere prince or noble bratling. The boy had a gift. The same gift that had rescued anonymous peasants and spirit whispering orphans from mediocrity for centuries. In the study late at night, long after the boy had tired of the ceremonies of state and the affairs of king in waiting, Ixiel would set aside the epics of his forebears and teach him the way things were from the beginning, when man and demon were forged in fire and magicks.

Aurleon excelled in the Fifth Art. Starting from a tender age he was conjuring small manipulations of the elements--catching writing quills on the wind, turning drops of rain upwards--simple magicks that would take most years to master. The king's command was intuitive, allowing him to leap towards the end of lessons where before him the willful and precocious Isidore had spent months learning how to focus the proper energies.

Ixiel was more than impressed. He researched for weeks the omens and astral alignments that surrounded the boy king's birth. No great signs. No auspicious blessings. The boy was simply touched by magic.

Teaching him how to make use of this gift brought Ixiel no small joy. It was refuge from darkness of council, the loggerheads with Roland, the demands of state. The widening of Aurleon's eyes recalled his own when Kerlan might show him some artifact of the old times, or when Xiomendes would pay him small praise for a feat accomplished. It was strange to feel so fulfilled. Not that he was entirely unfamiliar--he could see it when Xiomendes had taken him underwing or when Roland drilled his adoptive daughter in the martial arts--but he had never once thought such satisfaction would be allowed to him. Old dreams he had thought forgotten, of a time when Isadore and Delia might have walked different roads, returned to him and their indulgence was less painful. The road had become less lonely.

Under the moon of the Autumnal Equinox he took Aurleon up to his observatory to watch the Harvest Moon. He had told the boy king that it held great significance in the Fifth Art, which wasn't entirely true, but when one excites a child with the wonder of learning, an embellishment can't be said to be a lie. And the moon itself was not without symbolism. It was Aurleon's last month as boy king. By the rising of the next moon he would be a man in his own right. Once the red moon returned again the next year, it would be time to reap what they had sown together.

"Here, my lord," Ixiel said, extending nonchalantly to the king a set of polished beads well worn by time, "An early gift for your naming day."

"What are they, teacher?"

"Focus stones. Old magic. Casters used to wear them to augment their bonds to veil and void. They've been... well used. Take them. They'll prove useful."

The king took them in hand with awe in his eyes. Thanks too, though formality and station forbid base groveling of a king before his lesser.

"Where did you get them?"

"They were given to me, by a friend, when I came of age. Consider it a tradition. One day you should give them in turn to a worthy successor."

The king nodded and put them around his neck. And so the first gift Ixiel had been given was in turn the first he gave. The years had been hard, the work trying. At times he had a clear window into the savage brutality that all men wear underneath their silks and mail suits. Yet there was a peace too.

It will not last.

* * *

A sunny day does not last forever.
Darkness will soon follow.

The wise couplet is often on the lips of an old peasant, for they have seen a summer's bounty eaten by the winter's hunger with no spring promise on the horizon. Another wisdom goes 'what is true in the village square is true in the King's court.' The sunny day did not last, and much of its memory was lost in the year long night.

Aurleon's first year as king without regent was tumultuous. The semblance of peace that Ixiel and Roland had woven through negotiation and might unraveled quickly. The first challenge of Rite to Authority came on the night of the King's naming day. The claimant was a social climber, known only by the coat tails he rode, and not known by any for his feat of arms. It did not prevent him from wounding Aurleon gravely in a week's time on the field before succumbing to the king. Though victorious, the king's first challenge went disastrously, and it would not be his last.

While Aurleon struggled to mend the vipers who were his councilors lost no time in their own machinations. Geldon was boldest and most forward of those who would dare, raising an army to back his claim to the throne. The bald faced insult to the king's generosity did more damage to Aurleon than the obscure knight's blade. The insurrection deprived the crown of a powerful ally and obliged Knight Commander Roland to meet the usurper in a long and bloody campaign along Valerius' eastern valleys. Only Lord Norrin could be seen to express any grim pleasure at the defection, as he was finally able to sentence his rival to a traitor's death.

Not long after Geldon's betrayal came that of Balth. The Master Clerk had accumulated for himself an impressively vast estate in the remote regions of the West. With the distraction of the King's wounds and Roland's march against Geldon, he slipped out of the Royal Palace and fled back to his own lands where he declared for himself an independent principality. This new treachery further robbed the kingdom of loyal retainers and forced Roland to split his army into two hosts--an eastern division under the Knight Commander's direction and a western division under the command of the recently raised Knight Aveline. By the end of spring's thaw Valerius was in utter turmoil and the king's allies were divided and overwhelmed.

For the people of Valerius, the situation seemed especially dire. The Lord of the Harvest made war upon the kingdom's most fertile lands. Balth's desertion took with it important fisheries. The promise of Aurleon could no longer hold up without strong demonstration of his leadership. It was decided that upon the King's recovery he would first join Roland in the east to end the rebellion and then the remaining host would reinforce Aveline to bring the erstwhile Master Clerk to heel. Instead the king was again waylaid by importune challenge to his birth rite and the subsequent duel prevented his taking of the field until the early summer.

Rather than some anonymous pretender, the second challenge to Aurleon was of a far more harrowing nature. An unknown scion of the late king Aren by one of his wife's ladies in waiting emerged to claim the mantle that was denied him by the laws of inheritance. His name was Leowald. Three years older than the king himself, the illegitimate princeling was a sturdy lad of reasonable nature and impeccable honor. Secreted away by his mother's family and raised in obscurity and relative privilege, once informed of his origins he had originally declined to vie for kingship in favor of his younger brother. However, upon seeing Aurleon's flailing rule and at the urging of his surrogate family he made public his existence and insisted upon his claim. Ixiel led frantic last minute negotiations to see if the lad might be assuaged by some prominent appointment in support of the King but in the end it was determined that practical matters would be deferred in favor of traditional arbitration. Aruleon would be forced to strike down the last of his immediate kin.

The duel was hard fought by both men. Though both lacked the finesse of veteran warriors each acquitted himself with honor towards the legacy of his blood. Leowald was the larger of two and stronger by some measure, but in the end it was the cunning tutelage of Roland's drilling that determined the match. Aurleon struck a mortal blow against his brother and the duel was conceded. There was some hope that Leowald may recover and again Ixiel sought to broker a reconciliation, but in the night of the second day, Aren's first son passed from this world. Despite the privation of war time, the King opted to mark his brother's death with the full honor of a departed prince.

Though again victorious, Aurleon did not emerge from his second duel unscathed. A lucky blow at the King's grieves nearly lamed a leg and he was again confined to bed until his body mended. While his body would heal, other wounds that cut deeper did not auger well for full recovery.

During this time Ixiel again resumed his duties of regent, handling routine decisions while deferring larger concerns until the King could entertain him at his daily audience. On a particularly trying day, after ordering the execution of those speculating on food prices and being forced to digest the news of defeats in the field, the young King's frustration finally broke through ten years of stoic and unflagging dedication to the loneliness of royal station and addressed his tutor with unprecedented candor.

"You promised me a kingdom. For ten years you held it vouchsafed, bound together by so many tenuous threads, compromises and alliances you promised it was better that I did not know, in order to protect my integrity. For ten years I waited, the people waited, and on the tenth naming day since the death of my father you passed on to me a kingdom, archwizard. And from the first moment it was mine to rule it has only disintegrated."

Ixiel did not know how to address the King's frankness and waited some long breaths before responding.

"The Kingdom is still yours, highness. That some refuse to submit to the authority of the crown you can no more be responsible for their maleficence than you can for the caprice of drought or the mines that no longer yield ore."

The king looked at the wizard with dull eyes drained of youthful vigor. More than anything else, the boy was tired.

"Responsible, no. But upon whom does it fall to put it all back together?"

"The people will rally to you, lord."

"Rally to me?" Aurleon laughed bitterly, the first expression of such cynicism that the wizard had seen from the lad, "Not one week ago I laid my closest living kin, struck down by my own hand, into the gilded mausoleum of my forebears. My uncle sought me dead while I was a child. My cousin still plots from the obscure lands to which he has been banished. Two of my closest advisors are now in open rebellion against my rule. Even as I sit here, near maimed by my brother's blade, I must watch my back for the remaining three, for the gods alone can fathom their designs upon my kingdom. If I cannot depend on those who are closest to me, who are bound to me by blood, then how can I begin to trust people who bear allegiance to nothing more than a name? The accidental parentage of a dead man who no longer rules?"

Aurleon's questions struck Ixiel deeply. He put away his papers and walked towards the outward facing window. The afternoon sun retreated to the west. Night would soon be upon them, with its uncertainties, its questions, the terrible idleness with which men have more than time enough to remember their defeats and mistakes, to relive their regrets with time left to agonize over what could have been done differently. Ixiel knew these times well and would like as not know them better still. To have to share that with a boy that he had practically raised himself... Yet it was also true that day would come again.

"Not all of your close advisors have abandoned their loyalty to the crown, my liege," he said turning to the king as he languished in his bandages, "There are those who fight for you tireless, even at this very moment, against all that would do you harm."

A wan smile came to the boy's lips.

"I appreciate all that you and the Knight Commander have done on my behalf, Ixiel. For all you do. But I cannot hold the kingdom you have delivered. I cannot make it whole."

The wizard approached his king. Looking over him he fought hard to suppress the fatherly tenderness that swelled within him. For at the end of the day, as much as he saw Aurleon as his own he also knew that the boy did not belong to him. He belonged to his people. And whether or not he would accept the mantle of that terrible responsibility it was no less true that the archwizard was nothing but an enchanted servant to the crown. A servant could offer protection, unyielding loyalty, the highest degree of his own meager skill, but there were some things that he could not bear for his lord and master. The overwhelming weight of carrying a kingdom on one's shoulders... the boy was right. It was too much for any one man. Yet so it was that it fell to him anyway. Whereas before him his father and grandfather and generations of men and women struggled to bring the unwieldy mass of land and people and hardship to bear, so too was his destiny laid out before him. Ixiel might soften the blows the king would suffer, yet they were his to endure alone.

"My lordship, I cannot promise you an easy path. Were it mine to grant... no, it is as you say. It is a tremendous burden for one so young and so abandoned. Yet you are not alone on this journey. All I ask is that you place your faith in us, my lord. Roland will prevail in the field as he always has. I will protect you in the court and on the council. All that is required, Aurleon, is that you forever keep within you the strength to be king. If you can promise me that you will be strong no matter the adversity, that you will not shrink from your duty as you have not shrunk from it since the day you took up your father's crown, then I swear to you by my life and all that is dear that you will have a kingdom, strong and united and loyal. Trust me in this--trust yourself in this, and I swear to you that I will not let you down."

The king nodded but gave his reply no voice. Ixiel bowed his head before his king and retired from the room. The affairs of state were concluded for the day. The troubles of the next would remain in waiting for the sun to rise again.

You ask him to trust you, but can you trust him?

The third challenge to Aurleon's rule came from a captain returned recently from the field. The man was a warrior of no little prestige, and though his name would be struck from the official histories of Aurleon's rule for his treacherous audacity, he was well known for prominent victories against Balth's insurrection. Clouds of deep gray obscured the sun on the day they met in the proving ground and the wind whipped about the solemn banners and the grim crowd like the herald of a forthcoming storm. The king's challenger stepped into the dueling ground. His armor was well polished but bore the chinks and dents of many battles fought. Conversely, the king’s regal armaments shone brightly despite the lack of sun, and their newness gleamed like untested alloys. The king's opponents so far had been an unfortunate opportunist and an aggrieved brother. He had yet to face a battle tested warrior. The crowd stirred with gloomy predictions of his failure.

The captain bowed deeply before the king he sought to undo. Aurleon returned the honor with an all but imperceptible nod. They faced off with hardly a movement while the weather around them continued to deteriorate. Darkness began to deepen in the clouds and the wind grew into a proper gale that cut through the woolen raiment of the witnesses. Rain gathered and fell off the armor with tense plinks as it struck their pauldrons and helmets. Finally the challenger, feeling affronted by the callow youth who would not engage him, charged forth for his right by combat. Aurleon deflected his blow and executed a rapid counterstroke towards the man's neck. Thus his final challenger was struck down by a single blow. King Aurleon left the next day with the royal guard to join Roland in the field against Geldon. So it would be that he assumed his position at the head of the kingdom.

While Aurleon cemented his rule in the field, Ixiel managed the affairs of state with a deft hand. Bringing the council to heel in time of war while the King was at the front was a must. Balth and Geldon were replaced loyalists to Aurleon, who owed their station to the king's dispensations. Otherwise insipid men, their trustworthiness was beyond reproach.

As for the remaining counsellors, Dordell was the first to lose his post after he was mortally wounded in a boar hunt. The men who brought him back told wild tales of his demise, claiming that his spear shattered on an onyx lacquered hide and that once the creature was sure of his wounds that it fled immediately into the wood rather than visit its rage upon his dogs and companions. Esdard's own misfortune was of a far more mundane nature. Upon discovering evidence of his infidelity, his wife's kin confronted the man during a lover's quarrel and pitched him and his mistress from the windows of their apartments. Claiming their rights to preserve the honor to their name under trial by combat, Ixiel chose to imprison the errant retainers until the king returned to settle the matter.

Lord Norrin, having seen the political defeat of his rival and now facing a council stacked completely of loyalists to the current king opted to relinquish his position as Lord of the Scales. Retiring to a manner in the relatively peaceful south, he sent both a son and daughter into the service of the king, as well as generous levy of retainers and ample coin to pay for their outfitting.

With the council subdued and the king's enemies purged from positions of influence, Ixiel found a free hand to manage the kingdom. His first act was to order the razing of all fortified castles not held by the king in order to forestall future rebellions. Secondly he replaced all local tax collectors with those in the employ of the royal house and raised taxes on all rare spices in order to increase the flow of coin from the nobility to the kingdom's coffers. The regent also had coin cast of silver to increase the monies to pay for the king's armies. These acts of council did little to ingratiate the archwizard to the nobles of Valerius, but stretched as they were between rebellion or loyalty to the king, few had a free hand or meaningful voice to oppose him. To offset his unpopularity with the lords of Valerius, Ixiel gave boons to the peasant class, funding tutors to rural villages, lowering the tithe on wheat harvests, and lessening restrictions on hunting in the king's preserves during times of hunger and want.

As Ixiel rose in prominence as minister for his king, so too did the burden of his office. A loyal council meant a dull one, and without personalities to oppose his fiats resentment grew even among his allies. More still it became clear that almost all the primary functions of government passed through Ixiel's hands before that of the king's. No decision was made without his comment and approval. Ixiel's name grew to be a dark word among the court and in many corners rumors rose of his influence and preternatural charisma. It was openly wondered whether or not he charmed his allies, or even the king himself, and many speculated on his ultimate designs.

Yet though Ixiel was not beloved, the tide of fortune in Valerius seemed to turn the king's way. In the late summer the rebellion was broken in the open field. Crafty Roland engineered a rout as feint, drawing the eager Geldon away from the bulk of his troops and in direct conflict with the king's retinue. Once in the field, Aurleon sought out his former Master of the Harvest and defeated him in single combat, cementing the king's reputation as an able warrior and leader in battle. On the eastern front, young Aveline's success was only held in check by the advance of the newly victorious king, for it was decided that Aurleon and Aurleon alone would accept the surrender of Balth. By late autumn, almost to the date of the king's seventeenth naming day Valerius was officially united under his rule. Returning once more to the castle he had left as a grim and challenged lad, he was proclaimed with much fanfare as king of all men.

But what is man but a crafty animal, who keeps his bared teeth hidden behind smiles and his claws restrained behind his back? They will eat your princeling soon enough. Your enemies wait with the patience of a spider, the cunning of a lion, and the venom of a snake. It has been one hand that has saved this noble lamb from the slaughter. How can you stay a thousand bared daggers forever?

Ixiel once more relinquished the duties of state to his king, though he was never far from the throne, where upon he could be counted upon to offer sage advice when some complicated issue might arise. Though intrigue among those who would be the king's favorite in court continued, Valerius enjoyed another year of peace before any serious challenge emerged.

It was in the late throes of winter when a messenger came with news of the death of Wybert, son of Gerwald. A barbarian clan in the north, styling itself as a noble house, had defeated the king's cousin in battle and mounted the defiled remains of his kin on the castle they had claimed from him. While peace was prosperous for Valerius, a new campaign to the north might devastate the fragile calm of the kingdom. Aurleon summoned his archwizard and proposed that he might be sent on a mission to the barbarians in order to broker weregild for the death of the king's kin and the surrender of the castle. Ixiel accepted, but he was troubled by this course of action. Might it not be some feint to draw him away from the king so that a traitor might strike? He approached the king with his concerns the night before his departure.

"You wished to speak to me, Ixiel?"

"Yes, your highness. I am worried for the mission you have given me."

The king looked at the wizard with a puzzled look.

"What troubles you, wizard? You are clearly the most able to handle this insurrection.”

“Indeed, my lord, though it is only through your name that I have any power at all.”

The king grimaced at the remark. After all, what was his rule but a name he was born to and a war he must always be ready to fight in order to secure that burden? Weary were his eyes and gaunt his face. Anxiety over his kingdom thinned him, made him pale, and vulnerable to all who would pretend to be his friend.

“Then what is it, Ixiel?"

“I should be gone very far away to handle delicate negotiations. Like as not, they may drag on for some time…”

“You fear to leave my side, archwizard?”

“Your highness is most capable, but—“

“You fear some plot may arise in your absence,” the king intuited, “Worry not, Ixiel. I have the faith of Roland and a worthy corps of retainers. We have flushed out the vipers from this court, and will continue to do so as they dare to raise their heads."

The archwizard demurred.

“Roland is most worthy, my king, but with Durendall at his side he sees every problem as an enemy that might be cut down. There are other approaches that your highness might not be apprised of were an issue to arise.”

The king nodded at this.

“And what do you propose, archwizard?”

Ixiel’s smile was slight and ingratiating. Once more he would be allowed to play the teacher.

“Have I ever told you about the ritual of binding?”

“For enchanting weapons?”

“It’s more than that,” the wizard replied, recalling the old scrolls that Kerlan had conferred upon him, “It allows the bearer to create a link with most anything, anyone.”

“Are you saying we could use this?”

“If your highness would consent,” the wizard began, “We could share a sigil between us. It would ensure that we would be allowed to communicate, though the physical distance between us might be vast. You would never be deprived of my counsel, though of course it would be forever available to you regardless of your decision in this matter.”

“A sigil? A physical mark upon me?”

Ixiel looked at Aurleon in the eyes. The last couple years had made a man of him, but there was still a child there that needed to be helped, needed to be taught, needed to be guided.

“You would find it most discreet, my lord. Simply a tattoo of enchanted nature.”

The king looked dubious. Ixiel looked once more into his eyes, then bowed his head and held out his hands.

“Of course, your highness should not feel obligated to take a measure so drastic. Surely between Roland and the council there is sufficient support here to ensure that you remain unchallenged in your rightful rule.”

“Wait, archwizard. Perhaps your suggestion could prove… useful.”

Ixiel smiled.

Once the binding was completed the wizard prepared to make an immediate departure to the north. Much alleviated of his own worries, he could embark upon his mission without delay. As he turned to leave the king’s apartments, Aurleon stopped him.

“Tell me, wizard, how many more rebellions must we put down before this kingdom remains whole?”

Truly, how long must I wait?

“Do I still have your trust, highness?”

King Aurleon smiled. A rare sight indeed.

“Of course, Ixiel. As you have since the day that you stood with Roland at my side.”

“Then take this promise to heart, my lord. There is but one way to bind a people together truly and I shall ensure that you have it. A kingdom and a people bound to your name. Be strong as you ever have and these trials will end.”

With that, the wizard left the winter residence and rode off into the bitter cold night.

“I’ll tell you what, wizard, I’ll not brook any disrespect from you or your boy king. You saw has become of his cousin as it hangs from the parapets of this hear fortress. My fortress. I will give you terms and you will take them back to your king to accept them or else the fury of Clan Robern will fall upon ye.”

Flan of Robern sat across from Ixiel with a mixture of pompous posturing and smug regard. He was a grizzled warrior, dressed in his ‘royal’ bear skins like the primitive chieftain he was. How self-satisfied he was. A dozen retainers stood at his side, axes and clubs ready to bear, arrayed as they were in the former regalia of the fallen defenders of the castle. Facing only a slight man of avian features who had shorn from his head all hair, they must have reveled in their false sense of power. Idly Ixiel wondered if he was not unlike the unknown savage who had fathered him in the reckless thrill of his pillaging. Beyond that thought he hardly paid the man any mind. His thoughts, as it were, lay elsewhere.

Step lightly, Great Knight.

Roland had made his move. Imagining that the wizard was removed from the king’s side he was seeking to exert his own insidious influence. No matter now, the king was bonded to his servant. The Knight Commander would have to be removed as soon as he returned to the royal court. That was a matter of course. However, the betrayal cut deep.

Everywhere, everyone is against you. They will betray your or else they will fail you. I am the only way to peace… the whisper was all the more active. It grew in strength with each great wisdom it shared. He pushed it out of his thoughts just long enough to return to the other conversation in which he was engaged.

“Surely, Flan of Robern, you have little to fear from me alone. But my king, the true king of Valerius, will not be extorted. If you have terms you may speak them, but know this: you will relinquish this fortress to me.”

The chieftain and his warriors laughed. Oh yes, true Valerians they were, feeling that only a man who was armed to the teeth and stained with the blood of his fallen enemies was worthy of respect.

You do not need them. You don’t need anyone.

A dark tide swelled within the shores of Ixiel’s thoughts. It shut out the rest of the room, even his connection to his king. It was a something great and deep, a unity of shadow from which there could be no distinction. Only a subtle absoluteness before which he must submit.

“… Your ‘king’ will refer to me as the Red King of the North. You will pay tribute of a hundred bushels of grain and bars of gold equal to my weight. Further, you will send me a bride every year, a fair lass, of course, and young too. Only then will I stay my horde. Otherwise—“

Ixiel stood abruptly. He glared at the grizzled fool before him with a dark gaze that looked out from beyond the soul. The room grew quiet and all looked at one another but no one dared a word. Finally, the wizard smiled.

“An interesting proposition, Flan of Robern. However, allow me to make a counterproposal. There will be no such thing as the Red King of the North. You and your bandits will die here tonight. If you apologize for sullying the name of the King of Valerius and dishonoring the remains of his cousin, I will permit you a swift death. As for the rest of you: I will be needing two volunteers. I can promise you eternal servitude in a great cause. After some time, you may even forget the life you once led and find a purpose that approximates peace.”

“Why you--!” Flan of Robern leapt to his feet and took out his war hammer.

“This is a one-time offer, Flan. If you attempt violence, I shall have to view that as a refusal of my terms. As for the rest of you—who would live forever to do my bidding? You won’t make me pick, will you?”

Grimly, the assembled warriors made ready their weapons. They would prove themselves once more.

“Very well then,” Ixiel sighed. With one hand outstretched he pointed his palm towards the barbarian king and with the force of a powerful wind thrust him back into his chair, “Please, sit. I want you to watch this so you have some anticipation of the great pain you shall face.”

The door to the room slammed shut. From the other side they could perceive the screams of the men who stood guard there. Two long, vaporous black clouds leaked into the room. Light from the flickering flames seemed to be sucked into their umbra, where it would die.

“Take the biggest ones. Dispose of the rest.”

With a battle cry, Flan’s retainers rushed forward. It was all over very quickly. Remaining on either side of the barbarian lord was two glistening monstrosities, perversions of men wrapped in black crystalline shells.

“Please, show the leader of the Red Bear clan what happens to those who oppose the king of Valerius.”

Bathed in screams that night, Ixiel became a monster. For, if a kingdom is to unite it must first be given a common cause. That cause cannot be ‘peace’ and it cannot be ‘freedom.’ These are but the results of a noble struggle. Rather, that cause must be so great and its danger so grievous that men will forget their claims of property and power, their greed and their gluttony, and instead stand shoulder to shoulder with their steel and wits bared against the promise of utter oblivion. Ixiel surrendered himself to that promise. He became what men loathed in order for his king to become the leader he must. As his shadows sang slaughter and he stalked the hallways soaked in the blood of fools and bandits, he vowed to master all that is evil in order that good may triumph.

Fool. Tyrannus suffers no master.


Origin of Evil, Part 4

Editor's Note: This entry was submitted by contributing writer Mauricio Wan. It is the fourth in a series exploring the origins of A Knight Adrift's antagonist, Archwizard Ixiel. To read previous entries, visit The Archive. Enjoy!

Ixiel the Loyal. Ixiel the Corrupt. What songs do they sing of thee? What epics recited in the lonely night's caterwauls, what is sobbed in the downward torrents of heaven's tears? What do they chant in graveside requiems? What remains among the charred fire’s ash?

Aren was a fool.

Ixiel reminded himself of this fact as he stormed through the castle fortress, late night urgency calling him from his studies. The King was a fool, lost in wine and women and the lazy dissipation of those who acquire power despite their flaws, whose only achievement in later life was the appointment of a young and somewhat impertinent Archwizard. In days past, he had been renowned for his sword arm and defended his throne in single combat against a rebellious brother and two cousins. But if any remnant of that man remained upon his death, Ixiel had not seen it.

Aren was useful. He was a tool through which great works could be accomplished.

Ixiel dismissed the voice with a flick of his hand. “Vreni. The wine?”

His apprentice looked up at him. She was good and loyal, if not overly smart, and about the only person Ixiel could say he trusted. “I added the sleeping powder, the guard should be fast asleep.”

“Good. Go to the barracks. Remember as I taught you. Make sure the doors are not breached.” Vreni bowed and scurried off, shrouded and mouse-like, disappearing down a stairwell. Hand-picked by Aren’s brother, Gerwald, the guards could not be trusted. It was better if they were removed from the fight.

Killing them is the only way to be free of their treachery.

Ixiel had no time for the voice’s second guessing. As he rounded a corner he nearly crashed into a liveried servant whose frantic pace was slowed only by the weight of the stolen silverware he carried in his arms.

“Where's the chief steward?” Ixiel demanded, grabbing the man by the collar. Goblets and candlesticks clattered to the floor.

“He—he—he fled. Some hours after sunset.”

“Is there no man still loyal to his king?” Ixiel fretted aloud with a hint of sneering sarcasm as he flung the servant to the floor.

The Archwizard met Great Knight Roland in the hall outside of the throne room.

“What do you want, sorcerer?” he asked brusquely.

“I stand with the King, Knight.”

Roland snorted at the suggestion, but Ixiel let it pass with a look of stoic indifference. Behind the King's most trusted warrior, he found but three retainers who had not forgotten their charge.

“Only four?”

“With you, wizard, we are five.”

“And our enemy?” Ixiel asked.

“The guards at the gate permitted Gerwald and a dozen of his men into the grounds. Along with the palace guard he could-”

“They are… occupied. Vreni has seen to it.”

Roland gave him a long, steady look, but did not voice any objection. “Unfortunate for them.”

“And what of the King?”

“He waits with his nurse on the throne.”

“It would not do to leave him alone. Few as we are, he should know that there are men still loyal to him.”

“Aye,” Roland agreed with uncharacteristic acquiescence. He nodded to his men, who then opened the door.

A six-year-old boy sat on the throne, shaken and confused. He was framed by a throne many sizes too large for him, feet dangling a foot above the ground. A crown sat in his lap rather than on his head. The long night had turned the once happy countenance of the boy into the wearied stare of a small man. His nurse glanced up from where she had been whispering lullabies and sweet stories and seemed to understand immediately that the boy's protectors were too few. The grim look of acceptance passed quickly and a soft expression more soothing took its place.

“Look, my lord. Great Knight Roland arrives.”

“Fear not, my king,” Roland boomed. His echoed loudly off torchlit stone walls. “Where few warriors stand after many flee, victory is but assured.”

Ixiel bowed formally before taking his place at the boy king's left side.

“We are at your service, my king.”

“Shall we bar the door?” one of the men asked, little more than a squire himself, of russet colored hair and few whiskers.

“Nay. They would sooner burn us out than surrender so easily. Nor do we hide from them. We will face the traitors and force them to dare meet eyes with us,” Roland commanded.

They were not long in waiting. Gerwald and his son charged into the room surrounded by his retinue, taking bold strides as if the keep were already his to command. A look of surprise wilted his fierce mask but for a second—no doubt he was confused as to how the king's guard had not already subdued a small child and his few supporters—though ruthless arrogance returned with doubled conviction.

“Stand aside, Roland, my quarrel is not with ye,” late Aren's youngest brother spoke. Fitting it was that he would seek to avoid coming to blows now, having laid low the last king with poisoned spirits.

“My sword arm stands for the king. It does not yield to pretenders.”

“'Tis your grave!” Wybert proclaimed boldly.

“Come boy, let us see who is destined for the coffin when you are not shielded by eleven better men.”

Gerwald stepped forward, his words were low and sharp like an assassin's dagger.

“We will cut you down, Roland.”

“So you say,” the Great Knight countered, unsheathing his sword and taking bold steps forward. Durendal, legendary in its own right, seemed to hum with the anticipation of combat. The conspirators retreated a step for each he took towards them. The other three prepared for a fight, their stiff bearing of fidelity giving way to a feline looseness akin to prowling lions. The boy king looked up at Ixiel, who was still dressed in preternatural calmness.

“Worry not, young Aurleon, brave men take up your cause. Our righteousness is your shield, our loyalty your sword.”

“Hold your blade, Roland,” Gerwald warned, “This is not your fight. I lay down challenge to the king under the Rite of Authority. He cannot rule by your prowess, but by his alone!”

“You snake,” Roland scoffed, “You low dog. You would challenge a six year old boy to single combat?”

“Boy? There sits no boy. You and your puppet sorcerer have contrived to make him a king. Thus he is a man by the law of the land and he is not above challenge from a worthy heir to the crown.”

Roland did not yield.

“I swear I will strike you dead before you engage in such mockery of our customs.”

“'Tis you who have turned the old ways into a farce, Roland.”

Ixiel looked at the boy. He wore his office with quiet dignity and a stoicism far beyond what any mere child could muster. Indeed, it was kingly dignity. Beneath his face was fear, anxiety, the confusion of one who does not understand the whys and wherefores of the world but is willing to submit to them nonetheless because that is what his station called for. Yes, this child is brave, resolute, already a man of great character though his body would take years to grow into sturdy frame of his soul. More importantly, he had aptitude. Ixiel gave him a friendly wink.

Give me strength, old friend, Ixiel prayed, I need you now, Kerlan.

“Come now,” Ixiel said, walking forward with a step so light it was as if he floated. Underneath his cloak, a dark crystal began to glow, “Gerwald of Dunmarch, would you really sully your honor over such trivial interpretations?”

“I warn ye, witch, back from me or I will have your head.” Gerwald growled as he drew his sword.

“A would be king so brave he would challenge a child to combat shrinks before an unarmed man?” Ixiel mocked, “Surely, the taverns will be awash with tales of your bravery.”

“How dare you!”

“Keep barking,” Ixiel laughed though the blackness filling his eyes and sternness of his face betrayed his seriousness, “Like any dog unsettled. In the end, you will roll over and submit.”

“Back, I say!”

Ixiel cocked his head at the usurper.

Make him bow to you.

“Kneel before your king.”

Gerwald's sword hand trembled. His knees began to buckle.

“Kneel and swear fealty before your rightful lord.”

In his soul, Ixiel stood at the shores of a great dark lake. From beneath their still waters resonated power old and deep. As he drew from it a portion greater than he had before, he could sense an ancient hunger that was equal, if not greater, than the thirst he was about to quench.

Gerwald fell to his knees.  Presenting his sword before him on two uplifted hands, he bowed his head.

“I, Gerwald of Dunmarch, brother of Aren, King, and son of Leogriff the Valiant, do hereby pledge my sword to King Aurleon, rightful ruler of Valerius.”

A dozen men gasped in unison. Roland looked askance at Ixiel and hissed.

“Fool, what are you doing? You cannot settle this with magics!”

“I settle nothing,” Ixiel responded placidly, “The Lord of Dunmarch has merely had a change of heart.”

“Hellfire take you,” Wybert cried, “We will not surrender to you!”

“Surrender?” Ixiel asked, fixing his gaze upon the presumptuous warrior. “Have you no respect for your vows? Do you presume yourself a better man than your father?”

Wybert bowed his head and shook it curtly. Unsheathing his sword, he made himself prostrate on his knees before the king.

“I, Wybert, son of Gerwald of Dunmarch, cousin to the king, do also hereby pledge my sword to King Aurleon, rightful heir of Aren, King.”

Confused stares were exchanged by the standing retinue. An awkward air filled the room. Roland's soldiers shot amazed looks towards their master, whose face had become a dyspeptic grimace. The tension was broken by one of Gerwald's men, taking a knee behind his master.

“You have my sword,” he pledged.

“And mine,” said another.

“My shield for Aurleon.”

“Long live Aurleon.”

Before a minute was out they were all pledged to Aurleon, the boy king. Ixiel stood over them, arms at his side, looking down on them as one might toys that cluttered a playroom.

“Praiseworthy is your loyalty, Lord Gerwald, when friends of the king are ever few in these dark hours. Go forth and spread the word. Aurleon is High King of Valerius, by his right and his uncle's sword.”

A bitter frown warped Gerwald's face and tears pooled at the corner of his eyes.

“So be it. Long live the king,” he proclaimed. Sheathing his sword he stood and walked out through his obeisant men, who followed him quietly out the door. Only Wybert was so brazen as to cast a murderous look back at the king before he left. Even then it was a hollow gesture. In few moments the men mounted their horses and left the keep with its ruler still on his throne.

“You should take rest, Aurleon,” Ixiel advised, returning most - but not all - of the dark water to the lake. “You are safe for today.”

Roland's face was stern but betrayed nothing beyond loyalty. He nodded to his men who escorted the king and his nurse to the royal bed chambers. Once they were alone in the throne room, Roland turned on Ixiel.

“What have you done? What menace have you wrought?”

“He is but a boy, Roland. Are you so cruelly beholden to tradition that you would see him cut down before he can even wield a sword?”

“Cruel? Your trickery has bought us but one night. What happens when Gerwald returns with his own magics?”

“He will not return.” The Archwizard traced the throne's arm with his fingertips.

“And of the council?” Roland challenged.

“Worry not of the council,” Ixiel dismissed. “I will convene them in the morning. They will be brought to heel and made to understand that such backwards custom cannot be perpetrated on a child. He will be of age in a decade. Let the pretenders seek to challenge him when he may defend himself as is proper and fitting of a king.”

“Proper and fitting?” Roland seethed. “You pompous simpleton. And what happens for ten years while the kingdom roils under the rule of a boy installed by illegitimate means? Do you think there will be no challenges? No rebellion?”

“You will leave the court to me, Roland,” Ixiel said softly. “For that is the will of Aren. I will protect the lad from the intrigues of courtiers and teach him the ways of a ruler. You will protect him on the field. They will respect him for his deed. That boy was born to kingship. The lords and serfs of the land alike will come to see it.”

“Defend him in the field? And with whose blood shall I do that? And how much shall I spill before he is respected?”

“And what would you have done, Roland? Sent the boy to his doom to preserve the honor of an orphan and the uncle who saw to it that the king choked his last breath writhing in agony? All in the name of averting rebellion, which you and I both know is inevitable. You would willingly let the noble lamb to slaughter? Would you be so callous if it were Aveline in his stead?”

The Great Knight did not respond, but instead grabbed Ixiel by the throat and thrust the smaller man against the stone wall. Roland's eyes were wide with fury. Ixiel did not avert his narrow gaze.

“Keep the girl out of your slitherings, serpent. I'll not have you demean the child with your forked tongue.”

Ixiel's face remained tranquil though the breath was squeezed from him.

“Do not be simple, Knight,” Ixiel rasped. “We are unified in cause if not in means. I am not your enemy, nor that of the child or King. I know my place.”

Roland remembered himself and released Ixiel. The wizard massaged his neck. It was sure to bruise. Roland turned from the man and marched solemnly toward the chamber's exit.

“So arrogant you are,” Ixiel continued. Roland stopped but did not turn to face him. “How many campaigns did you lead for Aren? How many kingdoms subdued? Did you pay no mind to the fields that you burned? Do you not recall the farmers who starved as their meager stores were levied for your armies? Aurleon is a good child. He will be a better man and King than his father and maybe even bring peace to the land. For that, Great Knight, what cost is too steep?”

Roland did not answer as he left the room.

He cannot be trusted. He will seek to betray you, the shadows whispered.

“He will not,” Ixiel responded. He allowed himself a small grin of triumph. “I have him in the two things most precious to him. His daughter and his king.”