The sound of hoofbeats roused the castle guard from its late-night lethargy as two horses came thundering up the path. At the gate, the riders halted their steeds. One of the men hallooed the walls, a low echoing sound.
“Who goes?” came a voice from atop the wall, thick with drowsiness.
“The rightful king!” Orteg started to bleat, a kick from the wizard silencing him at the last moment.
“We have a message for the council,” called Zavier, his voice low. “Let us enter, in the name of the kingdom!”
“You have not told me yet who goes, sir,” returned the wall guard. Murmuring voices behind him told of numerous others. “And none enter here without at least that. I’ll ask you again, what your names be.”
Orteg saw Zavier sigh before throwing back his cloak and producing a long staff of polished wood, shining but very dark. Zavier slammed the butt of the staff into the ground beside his horse, sending a tremor through the ground to which only his horse seemed immune. All the men atop the wall went to their knees, fighting to stay upright. Orteg felt as though he had consumed some of the southern ditch liquor which made the drinker go blind and dumb.
“You have twice asked and twice been refused,” Zavier roared, his patience at end. “You will regret pursuing this line of questioning and you are advised to desist and withdraw after opening the gate to allow our passage. This you will do, now.”
The power Zavier had summoned retreated, allowing the guards atop the wall to clamber to their feet. One of them dropped below the wall, and in a moment the gate began to grate open. Zavier stepped forward, muttering, “Honestly!” Orteg followed, attempting to look in every direction at once.
The wizard strode through the courtyard, nearly deserted at this hour, taking one of the doorways with no hesitation. Orteg followed as they turned down a long corridor with many doors opening to each side. Again, with no hesitation, Zavier made for the large door at the far end of the corridor.
Barris started as the door slammed open. A tall figure in a black robe strode in, a small man with an ugly face scuttling in his wake. The tall figure marched up to the council table without a pause and threw back his hood. His long dark hair flew around his face.
“Council members,” the man said, his voice projecting. “I am come to inform you that the time of your rule is at an end. I have the rightful heir to the throne beside me.”
The council was silent, furtive glances darting back and forth between them all. Agathas looked at Barris, her eyes afraid. His were cool as he addressed the wizard.
“Your authority is not recognized, wizard. You come before this council with no papers, no identification and only an unsubstantiated claim that this cringing cur–” he gestured to Orteg, “is the rightful king of Dandoich. Either provide evidence or be thrown from the castle walls for your impertinence.”
“You need not believe the word of the wizard Zavier, when you can see what he speaks is true!” retorted Zavier, the shining staff sliding from its place beneath his robe. Zavier rapped it twice on the chamber floor and spun in a circle, the staff before him.
Immediately the room was drowned in darkness. Before the council members could do more than give a surprised yelp, light blazed into the room in a brilliant flash. They saw Orteg, a tiny baby but unmistakably the same, being born to the Washburn family, saw the tuppence the king provided every month, the loose lips of the father sealing the family’s fate, the child being raised with only part of the truth, resenting the crown he was to inherit, being confronted at the tavern by Zavier…
The room was plunged once more into darkness, then bathed in its natural light as Zavier ended the spell and returned everyone to the present.
“Kneel in the presence of your king,” Zavier commanded, his voice hard. “Unless you feel you have a claim to the throne, this man is your lord and master. Hail, Orteg, King of Dandoich!”
Zavier dropped to one knee before Orteg and bowed his head, the picture of subservience. One by one, the council members rose from their seats and dropped to their knees before Orteg, who had never felt so uncomfortable in his life. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Barris and Agathas sinking slowly to their knees, their faces carefully neutral.
“Er…” Orteg said, raising a hand. “Thank you, all. I’ll be wanting to keep you all on as advisers, of course, since I don’t know the first thing about running a kingdom…”
“Your Majesty!” Barris said, his voice fruity as he struggled to rise his bulk to his feet, Agathas doing likewise beside him. “Let me be the first to welcome you to the castle, and to many years of a fruitful reign of peace and prosperity. And may I just say…”
Barris droned on for a while before Zavier was able to get a word in edgewise and shepherded the new king away from his would-be advisers. The moment the door was shut behind Orteg and the wizard, the smile fell from Barris’ face like a landslide. The council members looked at him, fearful.
“Tell no one of this meeting,” Barris said, his voice low. “Back to your quarters, all of you. Someone send the captain of the guard to me.”
The captain of the guard had been in charge of the castle guards and the dungeons since before Barris had been old enough to know his own name. When Barris first saw the captain, he was a gnarled, wizened old man who somehow radiated a terrible strength. Now, decades later, the captain of the guard who appeared before him looked exactly the same as the one he remembered from his youth.
“Sir, I have need of your unique skillset,” Barris said, offering the man a goblet of fine wine. “I would have your assistance, and your silence.”
The man took the goblet, looking at Barris with no expression. Slowly, he raised the goblet to his lips and took a sip. Barris held his breath.
The man let the silence drag out a few more moments before extending a hand, palm upward. “I am waiting.”
Barris let escape a sigh of relief, then began speaking.