Duke Horace Andragon Oakfir, awaited word, pacing the hexagonal chambers of his study, a half-mile away in Castle Cranok. The Duke was done up spectacularly, in his finest dress armor, shining silver and gold with scarlet enamel done in fine patterns on his breastplate, gauntlets and greaves. Attached to his armor was a fine, heavy cloak, red as blood, with the house Emblem, the Crane in white relief trimmed with golden thread. The armor was heavy, though not nearly as heavy as that worn for battle, and the Duke had a fine sheen of sweat over his nervous features.
In his fourth decade, the Duke had the features of a young man, a swift and ready smile, with an endemic aristocratic smirk. He had an athletic build, close cropped light brown hair, and slightly watery, poorly focused eyes. He always seemed to be on the verge of making a joke, usually ill-timed, and usually at someone’s expense. Despite these frailties, the Duke had made a legend of himself as an Andrayan hero of epic proportions. Songs abounded about the valiant deeds of the Ermine Prince. The songs ranged the gamut, funny jocular tales where the hero ended up in a pool of mud, and heroic jaunts through dragon caves. Prince Warren had won serious battles during the Succession, but the Ermine Prince, Duke Oakfir, had won the peasantry with songs, cheap wine, and endless promises. An attendant filled a jug of ale, and handed it off to the Duke’s gauntleted hand.
The Duke’s study was an odd place, as it was not used for much study. In fact, in the last few years, the Duke had rarely seen the inside of it at all. Mounted on the walls were the heads of slain beasts, and the battered shields of slain enemies. The walls were cluttered with such momentos, and a servant was hurriedly making room upon the wall above his desk for one more. That would be the place of honor, the Duke thought feverishly. Though the Duke was strong, an able fighter certainly, and known across the land for his determination, many, in fact most, of the trophies in his study were gifts, or gained from the victories of fellows and subordinates. Not this trophy, he muttered to himself, this trophy would be the feather in his cap, the medal of honor, and he would have gained it all by himself. With the help of the Creanin, he heard a whisper.
The Duke turned around, cuffing a servant with his gauntlet in outrage. Almost immediately he realized his error. He mumbled an apology to the downed servant, and motioned to another to help the stricken servant. Minds playin’ tricks, he thought, fair enough, it’s a big night. The Duke was right, of course. Tonight would be the night he would be crowned King of Andrayor. It had been a long bloody road to get here, and he was sure that it was only the beginning of the flow of blood. The Duke did feel sorrow over that, if only people would listen to him. I’m right, I know I am, he thought, a whimsical half-smile touching his features. No one could know what he knew, not now certainly, but soon. Soon, they would all understand, because Horace had been promised.
His father was the first to break the news, King Horace I, who would hence be known as the Paendragon, was an old man now, not yet senile, but his tall frame was stooped with age, and the ceremonial armor he wore had been hollowed out by his armorers, such that a table knife correctly placed, could penetrate the fancy plate mail. King Horace, still had the grace of a man who had once ruled supreme over the land, and he entered the study with a practiced gentility.
Duke Oakfir looked at him eagerly, a child waiting for a gift from his father.
“My boy,” the old King spoke, his voice cracking, “My boy, you are King.” Despite, their armor, the two embraced immediately, and the Duke Oakfir’s strong arms crushed the old man to him.
In spite of himself he couldn’t believe it. The campaign had been a close one, and Warren had won many important battles, and though the people chanted “Oakfir” in every village, cries of “Warren” and “The Eagle” had taken in many of the larger towns and cities. The Duke sincerely believed that he was a man of the people, raised by the peasantry, raised for one purpose, as promised by God, to be King. So it was for this reason, that almost immediately, his wonder wore off. And the air around the new King, condensed, turning into an invisible cloak of newfound royalty, surrounding him. He breathed it in, and became more royal with every breath. His father, released from his crushing grip, sighed and smiled.
“That’s King to you, father. You may address me as your majesty,” his smile had an impish cast, and it was mirrored on his father’s face, older and sadder. Horace the Elder sized up his eldest son, and took a deep breath, preparing to speak carefully, in his reedy voice.
Horace the Elder seemed about to respond when another figure strode into the chamber in flowing violet robes with close cropped hair. Great gold chains hung wrapped around his neck, amulets and mystical tokens hung from compartments and pockets in his robe, such that as he moved into the room, the sorcerer jingled and clinked.
Oakfir released his father immediately, forgetting him in his haste to embrace the robed man. They met with crash, as the ornate mail of the new King clanged heavily against the chains and other implements of power hanging about the person of the sorcerer. He was older than the young King, but had a boyish gleam in his eye, which despite his black beard and mustaches gave him the impression of a boy about to do some mischief. The two were a pair, and they embraced like boys.
“How bout it, you crazy magician! We did it! We did it! We made me King! Did you get to see the look on old Warren’s face? Were you there? How did that old bag Hintrose take it?”
This barrage of questions made the sorcerer smile, and though he did not answer the King’s questions, his enthusiastic gesticulating had their chosen effect.
“My King, we have taken the day! Everything went exactly according to plan the Magistrae interceded at the last minute, and banished the Prince for the “safety of the government and the well being of the country.” Without the support of the Council, Warren’s troops were forced to flee.”
“That’s phenomenal Khaddy! I knew we’d do it! That’s what faith is you know, real faith.”
Horace the Elder, cleared his throat, his graying countenance quick to dissemble. “High Magician Khadash, was it a complete rout? Is the capitol completely secure?”
Khadash turned toward the Elder and regarded him gravely, “Ah my Lord, you are keen to see as ever.” Forgetting the new King for a minute, the tall magician, swirled his violet robes dramatically, “The city is not yet ours, nor, in truth the Keep. Right now, the men of the Crane, the Kraken, and Steel of Steelrook are sweeping the castle for liegemen to the Duke. Voravian fears that loyalists to Queen Hintrose might take make some last ditch effort to free her from captivity.”
Oakfir interrupted peevishly, “well then we’ll flush them out. We won’t let a single inch of that castle go unsearched,” his voice began to rise, “we’ll find them all, root them out, hunt them down, turn that dusty old fortress inside out!”
Again, Horace the Elder made a little tick in his throat. His son faltered and stopped. “And what has Captain Eldrak done with those he has taken captive?”
And again, the dashing sorcerer regarded the old King gravely, but with a trace of guile in his dark eyes. Without answering the question, Khadash spoke carefully, “Those who have yielded, caught unawares, or disarmed have been removed to the west gallery. As Lords Voravian, Clinnkray, Ginnplain and you yourself agreed.”
The old man stared hard at the young enchanter as if attempting to light the mysterious depths of his black eyes. Oakfir, seeing his father silenced, asserted himself.
“What time is it Khaddy? I’ve been cooped up in here all night, and it’s driving me crazy!”
“It was necessary your highness. You understand that. You couldn’t be involved in the taking of the succession.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know all that. But I want out. Now. It’s time this city saw what a real King looked like!
“Horace,” said the Elder of house Crane, “I think you should stay here in Cranok until we receive word that the city is subdued.”
“Your father may be right,” said the unctuous magician, “a stray arrow from a balcony, or third-story window and your majesty might be the shortest lived King in the history of Andrayor!”
“Dammit Khaddy not you too! What good is being King if you can’t do what you want when you want it!”
The door to the study had opened again, and a sudden chill gusted into the room, guttering the torches spaced evenly on the walls. Two more men swept into the room, both were armed. The room seemed to drop in temperature almost immediately.
“Close the damn door! I swear to God it’s it cold in here, you’re letting the heat out! Get your butt in here and give me a progress report.”
Clinky, or Lord Clinnkray was by far the oldest man in the room, but his countenance and his bearing were square and bluff, his eyes cruel and cold. His skin was pale and in some places pocked. His hair receding and ending back into his heavy shoulder guard. His eyes, deeply set in his large skull burned with something worse than zeal, and his breath stank of old hatred. He was in full armor, and his plate mail coated in black email glowed with an unearthly non-light. Embossed on the front of it was a human skull, inlaid in ivory, and accented with the horns of ram, done in mother of pearl. Attached to his side, where a sword would have hung was a long great mace of black iron. It bore the signs of recent use.
Following him was a man of middle years. He was not in heavy plate, but wore the heavy dark green robes and mail of a Temple Guard. His eyes were low lidded and watery, but his skin was pink and prone to being flushed. His skin hung from his chin in loose wads, and his robes bulged slightly. A sword was belted to his side, but it was cinched in its scabbard for riding.
Khadash nodded to the two, and exchanged an almost imperceptible glance with the middle-aged new comer. He stepped back within the study, allowing the two men into the room. “Lords Clinnkray, Voravian, welcome.”
“What is the King still doing here?” Clinnkray grated. He had been a fearful campaigner in his earlier years, and had been known as the Beast of RedClay. He was so old though that none but the eldest castellans and graybeards could remember the days of his youth. So eventually the RedClay had been lost to meaning, since the Lord himself never spoke of his past. Now he was simply known as the Beast.
“Yes, Clinnkray!” Oakfir crowed jubilantly. “That’s what I’m talking about. Let’s go out there and break some heads. I don’t want to miss all the fighting.”
“His highness didn’t seem to mind missing most of it.”
Horace the Elder interposed on behalf of his son, “Clinnkray,” he said coolly, “in just a few hours, young Oakfir here will be anointed your King. It might do to start paying him your respect.”
The moment lengthened until the new King broke into a sunny grin, “Oh come on Clinky, don’t be such a downer. Today is a day for celebration! Right boys? Now let’s get out of here and clean house! Here boy,” he gestured to his page, “fetch Captain Eldrak. Tell him to ready my honor guard.” The boy, a sandy-haired lordling of a wealthy family, scurried out of the chamber. His footsteps could be heard slapping down the stone hall.
Again, Khadash attempted to intercede, “but my King—”the Baron Voravian unctuously slid between them.
“Your Majesty, I have long dreamed of the day when I could address you as such. As you know I have spoken to the multitudes, I have lived among them, and this is what they say: they say that you’re the king of their heart, the one that really does it for them. Now you have that now, and you can keep that, by doing exactly what you’re proposing,” Voravian spoke in quick, clipped sentences, his eyes beady and focused, “now you want to go out there and fight, and you’re going to, and I support that. But let’s keep that multitude in mind, shall we? They’re your supporters, so if you’re going to do this, then by all means, let’s do it right.”
The bejeweled Horace the Younger, looked up quickly, a slow smile coming to his face. He listened intently to his most trusted advisor.
“So you want to go out there and bust some heads right?” It occurred to no one that the newcomers must have been listening at the door. “Well, here’s what we’re going to do. I have it on good authority that in two hours a young knight is going to try to assassinate the old queen.”
“No!” Oakfir gasped, the lives of royalty were almost always sacrosanct, and Queen Hintrose would make an excellent hostage. Of course, had the circumstances been different, he would have gladly ordered for the headsman. As Duke of the House Crane, Oakfir had personally called for the Headsman more times then any of his Duchy’s predecessors.
“Believe it, your Majesty, these traitors would stoop to any low, stop at nothing to see you laid low, to see Prince Warren on the throne.”
“Who can say, your Majesty, these men have no faith, no reason either, for that matter. Perhaps they seek to cast an aspersion on your character, maybe they mean to blame her death on you. Maybe they think she’s a danger to their Prince, maybe they believe that she sided with you in your rightful bid for the throne. It matters not, my liege, it could be any of those reasons, or none of them. What matters now is that we must stop it.”
“My God!” Oakfir swore, “you’re damn right! What do we do?”
Voravian had the King in his thrall, his lips pursed in a semi-smile. Off to the side, Clinnkray smiled maliciously. His smile was even more ghastly than his frown, his teeth yellowing often altogether missing.
“Word is this young knight will be leading his cabal out from the Merchant quarter, crossing the Central Green, and heading to the Circuit Royale to recruit more followers before—”
“I thought the Merchant quarter had been subdued,” said Khadash softly.
Voravian looked at him swiftly, his lips pursing uncertainly. “Ah, indeed sir, but my informant has presented very compelling evidence. Besides, we would not wish to risk our new King in the very heat of a pitched battle!”
“Like Hell!” Oakfir protested.
“Enough talk,” Clinnkray interrupted. The Beast spat on the floor of Oakfir’s study; his spittle was flecked with blood. “If this man who would be King approves, then let us squash this madness at once.”
“Well, I am King, Clinky, God damn it, you will respect me!”
“You have not been crowned yet Oakfir,”
“Now father, he can’t treat me like this, you tell him—you tell him that I’m king now. Khadesh, little help?”
It was Voravian who came to Oakfir’s aid. He made as if to place his hand on the Baron’s armored shoulder, then withdrew it. The hostility in the old man’s glare was so pronounced it made the pudgy man step back a pace. Instead, Voravian flicked his hand upward, casually, then rolling his hand languorously around he interceded, “My liege, you must consider your new Kingdom. You must be the fair and gentle ruler, who removed a missing King, and his inept Prince from power. If you came to the rescue, say after the rebellion is put down, and are seen to bestow mercy on this troubled knight. Might that not cement the people to you?”
Oakfir paused a long while. His heavy brow knit in thought. Clinnkray grimaced and swore.
“And should this rebellion of his go totally unpunished?”
“Not at all. There are many dubious honors we could bestow on such a knight.”
Clinnkray’s bony face split into a nasty smirk, “Lord of the Latrines,” he grumbled.
Oakfir brightened, considering. Voravian continued, “my King we must strike now. If you give the order, my lords Clinnkray and Ginnplain, can see to the destruction—the counterattack and put it down. There will be time for justice later.”
A knock sounded on the heavy study door. It was Captain Eldrak, returning with the former Duke’s guard. The meeting was over. Oakfir and Khadesh left the room, Oakfir sweeping ahead grandly and ostentatiously grabbing his bejeweled sword by the hilt.
Voravian exchanged a long look with Clinnkray, and glanced at Horace the Elder. He smiled slyly at the former King, and followed Oakfir out of the room. Clinnkray stayed behind for a moment.
The old King and Clinnkray stared at each other for a time. The fire crackled loudly. Finally, the older man spoke, “things will be different this time around, won’t they?”
Clinnkray’s eyes glinted, reflecting the flames, “there will be much blood,” his voice, a grating rasp, sounded almost eager.
Horace I, who had seemed a frail man a moment earlier, a warrior out of his prime and deconditioned, hardened for a moment. Clinnkray could see the King as he had been years ago, a duelist and warrior of many battles. The old King looked deep into the pitted and pocked face of his Minister of War and said, “It better not be his.”
The Beasts only answer was an unblinking stare and a wide, creeping grin.