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.
“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.”