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.”
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.