As I wake up this morning and post this blog, it seems almost fitting that the title of this chapter reflects the sentiments of people around the world about Chadwick Boseman who died of cancer, aged just 43. I did not actually watch Black Panther until this year, and whilst I am not a huge watcher of Marvel movies (though I do enjoy them when I do), this movie and Boseman’s performance stood out against the others that I have seen. Not only was this a fantastic film with brilliant actors and an engrossing storyline, it was also a cultural cornerstone. Boseman’s charisma, and the ease in which he stepped into the shoes of a King and carried the expectations of such a character was truly exemplary. It is fair to say that Hollywood is a poorer place without him. Rest in Peace, Chadwick Boseman.
NOTES: Good morning everyone, and once again thank you for stopping by to read the next instalment of The Cursed King. 2020 continues to throw curveballs at us all. The R Number of COVID in the UK is now sneaking above 1, which will be bad news for everyone hoping that we will be out of lockdown soon, and even more concerning for those who are vulnerable. I do not think it is a controversial statement to say that the handling of this pandemic in the UK has been absolutelty abysmal, however I will digress for the sake of the chapter!
He is finally here. King Aedvard has arrived in Silver City, as he begins negotiations with his son-in-law in an attempt to bargain for his daughter’s life. The tension in the city is palpable, and no moreseo than in Arkgodson Jerimeh’s heart. The King and the Queen whom he helped guide through their childhoods and into the world of Rule are both in danger, just as he feels as helpless and as weak as he has ever felt in his life. Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy Chapter Thirteen of The Cursed King. Chapter Fourteen will be posted on September 12th!
The view of the city was a tale of contrasts. On every road, in every alley, and throughout every district, there were people crammed against one another, desperate to catch a glimpse of the convoy. Jerimeh was far too high up in his tower to see individuals, but he imagined men barging their way to the front, and women lifting their children above their heads so that they may describe it to them. Yet on this narrow strip of pathway from the western gate to the gates of Harthelm, there was nothing but a line of guards on each side, some on horses, some afoot. The dust kicked up off the litter, inside one, carried King Aedvard. Another of them would surely hold his son, Prince Charles, and his wife, Princess Amelie Byrne, the eldest sister of King Aron and Prince Asher. It had been a few years now since Jerimeh had seen her, but she had always been a driven and reserved woman, and accepted her marriage quickly and gladly when it was presented to her. Jerimeh was excited to see her again, as the last time he saw her was at her wedding ceremony that he performed.
Jerimeh was savouring a few moments of peace whilst his brain absorbed the shouts and screams of his world. Nadir was eagerly looking out of the window, trying to spot his countrymen. He asked if Lord Tigos would be there, but Jerimeh had never even heard of the name before. The man was a Baron, and a minor one at that, apparently only having a small manor and the village of Ashfirth to his name. The Earldom of Bankwater was an important mass of lands on the border between The Blacklands and The Hartlands, but Lord Tigos held only a very small piece of it. Jerimeh did not have the heart to disappoint him, and instead explained he was likely too busy helping the surviving villagers rebuild. What was more likely, Jerimeh knew, was that Lord Tigos was currently in a military camp somewhere along the border, shitting in holes until the time came to battle to the death in a bloody field.
And with that thought, Jerimeh’s peace had been broken. He went to his pocket and pulled out the parchment scrawled in Ancient Antinnan, the one given to the girl who had broken into the dungeons and that Jerimeh had spent months studying. He read it once more, and then read his notes under each symbol, as well as his translation at the bottom. He folded it back up and placed it in his pocket. The retinue had almost made it to the gate, and Jerimeh did not have long until he was due to meet King Aedvard’s men at the God’s Hall for prayer.
“Nadir, make your way to the God’s Hall and assist Effei with whatever he needs. I will have Sir Bethan escort you,”
“Aren’t you coming?”
“I will be there before they arrive. There is something I must do first.”
The dungeons had been heavily guarded since the attempted break-in, and Jerimeh felt waves of guilt as that he had not visited Lorne since. He had been busy, but he was always busy before, and he always found time to see her. Even Aron did not begrudge him visiting her, but Effei, always helpful, took over his duties of care to the Queen, which only made him feel worse. The dungeons were usually full of volatile and explosive energy, but today the prisoners were solemn and sedate. Even the guards looked bored, and some were even having light-hearted conversations with their prisoners. Jerimeh was accompanied to the dungeons by Sir Jorund, who stopped Jerimeh halfway down the stretch that the led to Lorne’s cell.
“I must warn you, your worship. Her majesty is not looking well, not well at all.” Sir Jorund said, almost as if he enjoyed being the one to tell him.
“Spending months in a dungeon like this…I can’t imagine any of us would, Sir Jorund. Though I thank you for your thought,” Jerimeh dismissed him and continued walking towards the end of the muddy walkway.
When he approached the cell, Lorne had her eyes closed and was sat upright, humming softly. It was a sweet sound, as if it had hypnotised all of the other prisoners into their lull. Her face was pale, but clear, her clothes still dirty, but straightened, and her hair had been washed and managed into a tight bun atop her head. She looked angelic. Jerimeh’s heart grew in his chest, and for a brief moment, he too was taken into her tranquil world. Whatever had befallen her seemed to dissipate with every note that escaped her lips, and all of Jerimeh’s pressing thoughts leaped from his mind and clung to them as they flew away. He felt his eyes close and he took in a deep breath.
“Jerimeh?” The humming stopped and Jerimeh opened his eyes sharply. Lorne smiled at him. “Please excuse me, your worship. I did not know that you were here.”
“Your majesty,” Jerimeh smiled back. “May I enter?”
“I am afraid not…” Jerimeh stopped. “…not my rule,” she whispered and gestured to the gaoler standing beside her cell with a ring of keys at his hip.
“By orders of Prince Asher. No one is allowed in today, not even you, your worship,” the gaoler told him.
“May I at least have a moment alone with the Queen?”
The gaoler shook his head sternly. Jerimeh was disappointed. He had intended to speak to Lorne privately and without interruption, and his time with her was already running short. He was due at the God’s Hall imminently.
“It is okay, Jerimeh. I am well, both in my mind and in my body. I eat when they tell me to eat, I drink when they tell me to drink. Effei has been providing me with sermons personally, and even Prince Asher has been to see me and talk to me. He even brought me stories of his son, Arnulf. He is such a lovely boy, and was always so kind to our Edward. I have even been practicing meditation. Have you tried it? It is truly wonderful. It allows me to release all of my bad thoughts into the air so that I’m left with only good ones. I know you must feel guilty for not coming to see me. You feel that way because you are kind, and gentle, and selfless. You should not feel that way though. You have always done right by me, Jerimeh. And I thank you.”
Jerimeh had never heard so many words fall from Lorne’s lips at once. She had always been careful with her words. Sharp and to the point. Witty and articulate. This was unlike her, yet her face beamed with light, and she seemed at peace. He felt the parchment in his pocket and fiddled with it for a moment.
“You are well? Truly?”
Lorne rose to her feet elegantly and extended her hand through the bars. Jerimeh placed a hand in hers and she lapped her free hand over it and squeezed. She looked him in the eyes. Her deep green eyes, those that he had spent years gazing into and admiring, the eyes of his queen from playful child to powerful monarch, had never changed. He studied them. They were still filled with pain, but now they were calm and restful.
“I am well”, she said. “Now, tell me, what brings you here?”
Jerimeh pulled his other hand from his pocket, empty, he placed his hand over hers in reciprocation. “To apologise for my absence,” he said. “And to see you once again.”
Aron was as focused as Jerimeh had ever seen him. They waited at the chancel of the God’s Hall. Aron wanted Aedvard to walk as far as possible before greeting him, allowing him more time to think. It was Aron’s thinking that the longer Aedvard had to wait to speak to him, the more reasonable he would be. The King’s beard shone in the candle light, his eyes fixed on the heavy oak doors. His personal guard were spread throughout the hall, though Prince Asher was nowhere to be seen.
“Where is the Prince?” Jerimeh asked.
Aron’s eyes did not move from the doors. “He does as we all are doing. He is preparing for King Aedvard.” Jerimeh daren’t move his eyes towards Aron, and instead retained his focus on the doors. He did not reply. Jerimeh had learned recently that if Aron wanted him to know something, he would tell him, and Jerimeh felt too weak to argue. “Your boy…” Aron said. “He trusts you?”
“Nadir?” Jerimeh’s head betrayed him and it span towards Aron, who’s focus remained. “He has no reason not to.”
Aron nodded. “Of course. You had him spy for you.”
Jerimeh felt a lurch in his stomach. Does he already know of Lord Garrison’s words? Did Grosvenor or Talford tell him? “Your grace, I -”
“I know.” Aron interrupted. “You are doing it for me. What did you learn?”
Jerimeh hesitated. “Very little.”
“I want him to carry on. I have a job for him…and for you. The boy needs to believe in you wholeheartedly, and trust you completely. Do you understand?”
“I do,” Jerimeh answered, resigned. “Your grace, I have translated the- ”
Before Jerimeh could form another word, the oak doors burst open with a great thud. First through the door were the City Guard of Silver City who escorted the men to the God’s Hall. It was led by Lord Elden Hardwick, Grandmaster of the City Guard, flanked by two of his most senior Unit Commanders, Sir Denson Leadbitter and the newly appointed Sir Robert Talford. Talford was a tall man with thinning blonde hair, and Leadbitter was of equal height, with a mop of black hair atop his babyface that made him look no more than twenty, though he was easily ten years older than that.
Following the entrance of the Guard, the colours and the emblems of The Blacklands began to appear. Jerimeh did not recognise many of these men, and had expected Aedvard’s loyalist Lords to precede him into the hall. It appeared that all of these men were of the Royal Guard of The Blacklands, dressed from head to toe in their burgundy surcoats with black trims. Medals hung boastfully from their lapels, but Jerimeh had expected older, more experienced guards. It was then that King Aedvard appeared in the doorway. He was shrouded from head to toe in a deep bloodred coat with white fur lining the interior. His beard was white blonde and cut tightly around his jaw, whilst the same colour hair protruded from beneath his black iron crown. His eyes were no more than slits as he studied the hall, and his wrinkled forehead was the result of an almost constantly furrowed brow.
It was then that Jerimeh realised that the king was alone. There was no Prince Charles or his wife, Amelie. There was no Lord Steelmont, or any other of his favoured personnel. The King of the Blacklands had brought less than thirty men in total, most of whom were guards, and the rest would be servants. Jerimeh turned to Aron, who was still focused on his adversary at the other end of the hall. His face had not changed, a trick his father had taught him, to never show anything on his face other than deep thought. Jerimeh knew that Aron was surprised. He had expected a group the size of a small army, but instead he had received King Aedvard and a group of welps. This was no mistake. This was calculated. An insult. A show of contempt. Even Jerimeh felt that Aedvard had underestimated Aron.
The two kings glared at each other from across the hall for a moment. Aedvard began walking forward purposefully. Jerimeh moved towards the pulpit that had been fitted with a large crystal basin that was filled with water. Each man who entered a new God’s Hall for the first time after Vitamara needed to cleanse their spirit. Jerimeh would reach into the basin and hold the water in his hands, each person would then drink a sip from his hands and Jerimeh would wash their face with the remaining water. Effei stood by with a linen towel for each man to dry their face and hands before they greeted King Aron. It was a ritual of respect, but more importantly for the people of The Twin Kingdoms, a symbol of their submission to The Symmetry of Earth, the ancient way by which all people were to live their lives in order to live a life fulfilled and pass on into paradise when their body died.
As the guards came up one by one, Jerimeh could see each man’s face close-up. There was not a man among them over the age of twenty-five, but each one carried himself in a manner that would have made even the impossible to please, Aedvard, content. They approached coolly, quickly and curtly, accepting the ritual before hurriedly moving onto the King. Once they reached the King, their greeting was short and respectful, but fearless. One after the other they sped through until Jerimeh and Aedvard met face to face. Jerimeh had not seen Aedvard for a decade, and he imagined Aedvard looked as old to him as he did to Aedvard. Jerimeh pulled his hands from the water and Aedvard put his face in his palms. As he washed his face, he realised just how alive the man still was, although his wrinkles had increased, his skin still felt taut and thick. His eyebrows were bushy, and his beard was full and lush.
When Aedvard raised his head, he did not smile at him. King Eldrian had always told Jerimeh that Aedvard had a monstrous laugh and a fine sense of humour, but Jerimeh had never seen it. With him, the King of the Blacklands had always been short and abrupt to the point of rudeness and cared not for how his behaviour was received. He ripped the linen from Effei’s hand and scrubbed his face roughly as if he had been covered in dirt, and then held it out for Effei to take back without so much as a look in his direction. Aron’s eyes had not moved from the King since he burst through the doors. Now they were face to face. Aron was the first to extended his hand, and it was immediately accepted by Aedvard, though the shake was brief and dutiful.
“Welcome back to Harthelm, Lord Aedvard.”
“And a fine welcome indeed. I did not expect the entire city to close down for the arrival of such a small consort, Lord Aron.”
Jerimeh had expected at least a few moments of courtesy before barbs began to appear in their conversation, but he felt himself foolish to expect any different. Aedvard was looking for land inside Aron’s mind, in which to make himself comfortable, and Jerimeh felt it would only be a matter of time before he was Lord of it.
“We were wont to expect bigger things for certain, but we are all victims of that. Where is Prince Charles?”
“My son is busy. As am I. Shall we proceed? We have come a long way, but I do not intend to stay any longer than necessary.”
Jerimeh was taken aback. Even by Aedvard’s standards, this was a blunt approach, and extremely disrespectful, but Aron could not bow to him. He needed to be patient and assured, and dictate the pace of the proceedings for him to gain the upper-hand in negotiations.
“I am sure,” Aron gestured gracefully towards the exit that lead to the King’s Hall. “But first, we will be fed in my hall”.
Whether or not Aron intended for the dinner to extend as long as it did, Jerimeh could not say, but the Arkgodson could not help but keep his eyes on Aedvard who appeared more and more agitated as the night went on. It was a private dinner, and it seemed that Aron and Aedvard said little and less the more courses that were served. Many of Aron’s high-ranking Lords were not in attendance, almost as if he had anticipated Aedvard’s own slight. Once the dinner was finished, Aron, Aedvard and Jerimeh retired to the King’s chambers. Despite his agitation, Aedvard was cordial and treated the meeting with respect. He sat where he was asked and did not speak until Aron spoke first, a historical custom introduced by Luther Black and Ivar Hart, the first Kings of The Twin Kingdoms.
“Lord Byrne. I have chosen Arkgodson Jerimeh to mediate and record this meeting for posterity. He has been chosen for his experience and his fairness. Do you agree to this?”
“Arkgodson Jerimeh. Do you know of any reason why you cannot conduct this mediation without bias or prejudice?”
“Very well, let us sit.” Aron sat down, followed by Aedvard and then Jerimeh who sat on the corner of Aron’s large oak desk. Jerimeh noticed immediately that Aedvard was looking over Aron’s head and at the looming portrait of King Eldrian behind him.
“You should take that down,” Aedvard gestured to the painting. “This is the King’s chamber is it not? Where is your painting?”
Aron did not turn around. His eyes had not moved from Aedvard all evening. “Lord Aedvard, I doubt you travelled from Duncath to advise me on my office décor.”
“I travelled to this shit-stained city to see my daughter and to bring her home.”
“Gentlemen…” Jerimeh intervened. “We are all tired and tense. Let us keep to business, shall we?”
“Business? Okay. Lord Aron, with all respect that is due, I propose that you release my daughter from her cell and in return I will not burn your fucking Kingdom to the ground.”
Aron took a moment. Jerimeh was surprised at his decorum, and even moreso at Aedvard’s lack of it. He knew never to underestimate Aedvard, but perhaps Aron had learned more from his father than he had thought.
“I thought it would take a while longer before we started resorting to threats, Lord. Perhaps, if I could counter, I would propose that you leave your armies where they are, and in return, I will be merciful with Queen Lorne. I will have her hanged privately, and not in the public square.”
“You talk of my daughter like she is a common thief. You have known her since she was a child, she is your wife, she is your queen!”
“She murdered my son!” Aron thundered. “She took a knife to his throat and killed him. Your daughter. Your blood. Your treasonous bitch offspring slay a four-year-old boy in his bed, and you come to me and threaten me for my mercy? If it were anyone else, I would have had her pulled apart by horses, she has had enough kindness from me.”
Jerimeh let them settle. If he had continued for longer, he may have interrupted, but in that one outburst, Aron had lost the control that he had worked so hard that day to attain. Aedvard did not speak. He waited. There was no need for him to speak first, and he knew that if he did, it would be a weakness.
“It is sometimes good to diffuse the tension early in these meetings. We have addressed the Skaerman in the room. Now, may we speak of proposals? The reason we are all here is that none of us want to see this descend into war. Both of our Kingdoms have prospered over the past decade, and the work that Lord Aedvard and Lord Eldrian did to ensure peace should not be taken in vain,” Jerimeh said. “Agreed?”
“Agreed,” both Kings muttered.
“King Aedvard. Your proposal.”
“Let us be clear. This peace is based on marriage alliances, without that thin thread, it will break. My son is still married to your sister and happily so. Amelie Hartlin is mother to my grandson Riechard, and it would be an insult to my family to use her as a pawn in this, and so I will not do it. I have another daughter, Annabel, she is of age and is a true beauty. She was betrothed to Lord Steelmont’s son, but Lord Victor understands the precarious situation that we are in and has already agreed to step aside. In return, Lorne will return home to Duncath where she shall be given to the church. She will not marry, have no children and will never be entitled to any lands or wealth whether they be Hartlin or Byrne. You will have your justice, you will have your queen, and I will have my daughter.”
“My father told me a lot about you before he died. It is true, he grew to care for you as a friend. He would tell me how, in the years building up to the peace, you became truly pleasant. That you would bounce us on your knee when we were children and how you would pat us on the head when we made something for you, and tell us to run along. Do you remember doing that?”
Aedvard remained cautious, but he nodded.
“Yet here I sit. Now your equal, in the presence of my father and my teacher, and you still seek to pat me on the head and tell me to run along. Here is my proposal, Lord Aedvard. I hang your daughter for regicide privately. You accept her punishment as true justice, and then you sit in your castle and rule your land whilst I rule mine. That is my proposal.”
Aedvard rose from his seat.
“You complain I treat you as a child, and then you go on to behave like one. It is a shame. My proposal was a fair one, and now it has dissipated like a prayer in the wind. I am sorry, Jerimeh, but it appears as if the boy’s lust for war cannot be satisfied, and my patience has worn thin, and so, I will be blunt. Lord Aron. If you hang my daughter, my armies will be at your gate within the month. Your city will be ashes by Winter. Release her now, and I will spare your Kingdom bloodshed.”
Jerimeh could no longer contain himself. “Your grace, please heed King Aedvard’s words. We must avoid-”
“Enough!” Aron barked. “Your emotions have betrayed you both. I will no longer allow mine to betray me as well. Jerimeh, please escort Lord Aedvard to his chambers. For the love my father had for you, you are welcome in this city until you are rested-enough to leave, but leave, you will, by the 1st of Autumn in two days’ time.”
“Even one night in this place is too much to stomach. We will be gone by noon tomorrow.”
Jerimeh said nothing out of respect for his King. He had already said too much. King Aedvard did not acknowledge King Aron as he left the room, and when he did leave, they sat in silence and let the conversation fall over them like rain. Aedvard had always been a polite man, if not also brief and curt, but he was a seasoned and ruthless leader. Aron was smart and cunning, but he had always wondered whether his men would trust him in war, and whether his arrogance would lead him astray. Jerimeh fiddled with the parchment in his pocket. He needed to tell Aron the contents, but now was not the time. He needed to wait until the morning, when the King could think clearly again.
Jerimeh was awakened early the following day by a knock at his chamber door. On the other side of it was Godson Effei, still in his bed robes and holding a lantern. At his side was Nadir, fully-dressed, head to toe in black garments from tunic to hose. The boy looked silly in the light, but would have been near invisible in the darkness.
“Prince Asher has sent for us. We are to meet him at the King’s Hall,” Effei explained.
When they arrived, King Aron was nowhere to be seen. Prince Asher was with Sir Trevon and Sir Bethan by the empty throne. The throne was placed between two pillars and was adorned with golden hearts that were placed inside the niches of the throne. On each side of the throne’s back were depictions of Natos and Jivana reaching for each other. Jerimeh had always admired its beauty and iconography, though even as a child, he had never wished to sit in it. It would overwhelm most who did. The only man he ever saw truly worthy of its grandeur was King Eldrian. As Jerimeh, Effei and Nadir approached, Prince Asher saw them and immediately approached the three generations of men.
“We do not have much time, and so I will be brief. King Aedvard’s guard are plotting to break Queen Lorne out of her cell and escape the city by dawn. I have organised a trap. Lorne has been safely transferred to a secret location. Jerimeh, you and Effei will wait at the God’s Hall. The guards will ask for your permission to visit the crypt in private to pray for the dead. You will allow them entry. From there, they will take the tunnel that will lead them towards the dungeons. These tunnels are tight and hard to manoeuvre through for a grown man, but would be easy for a child. Nadir will wait for them to arrive in the dungeons and sprint back to the God’s Hall, where you will lock your end of the tunnel, leaving them trapped. Then, Sir Bethan and his men will arrest them and lock them in the cells. Is that clear?”
Jerimeh took a moment. It was a good plan, but he felt something strange stir within him. An uncertainty that he could not quite put his finger on.
“How do you know they are going to break in?” Jerimeh asked flatly.
Asher locked eyes with the Arkgodson. “I have leaked information to King Aedvard that the dungeons will be unguarded for an hour before dawn. The source is a man he trusts and believes to be passing him information from inside Silver City, but the man’s loyalties lie with The Hartlands.” Jerimeh knew better than to ask the name of this man, but he did not like the fact that the King’s brother held such a powerful weapon in his grasp. A weapon like a double-agent was volatile, and its power was held only in the belief of its true loyalty. No one could truly know its real intentions. “Can you follow these instructions?”
Jerimeh looked at Nadir, who looked nervous but determined and eager. Effei grasped the boy’s shoulder affectionately and smiled across at Effei.
“The men will be arrested, and they will be given a fair trial?”
“Yes,” Asher confirmed.
“And the Queen?”
Asher waited a moment. “Your worship, you know that is not my decision to make.”
Nadir stayed with Prince Asher at the King’s Hall whilst Jerimeh and Effei took their positions in the God’s Hall. It irked Jerimeh that the tunnel from the crypt was being used in this way. The first Arkgodson of The Hartlands was Arkgodson Thomas who built the link from the crypt to the dungeons secretly to allow monks to treat sick prisoners during the reign of King Daven II. King Daven ordered prisoners to be sent directly from their trial to the dungeons, refused medical treatment and gave them only enough food and water to keep them from death. Thomas’ monks would sneak through in the dead of night to feed, wash and treat the sufferers. Eventually, King Daven found out and Thomas was beheaded. The monks revolted in disgust, however, and fearing for their souls, the Earls and Dukes of The Hartlands forcibly removed the King from his chambers and put him on trial. Daven too was beheaded. Now though, these tunnels were being used for the King to trap his enemies and start a war with a rival Kingdom. It did not sit well with him, and he prayed to Thomas and Natos to guide his soul.
As Jerimeh began to pray, there was a knock at the doors of the God’s Hall. Effei opened the door, and the first guard stepped in tentatively. Every time Jerimeh saw these men, they looked younger to him. Not just in their faces, but in their posture, movements and their uncertainty. Every step they took was a question, and every glance hoped for an answer. There were just five in total, and Jerimeh rose from his pew and met the first guard at the altar.
“How can I help you, son?”
The guard looked on nervously. “We are here to pray.”
Jerimeh extended his arms wide. “Then pray.”
“For the dead,” he continued.
Jerimeh lead the guards to the crypts, with Effei following behind them. To Jerimeh, these men looked no more than teens, but to a ten-year-old boy like Nadir, they would look grown and unforgiving. Before allowing them to enter, Jerimeh removed the lid from a barrel that was filled with water. This was for cleansing the hands after a visit to the dusty crypts.
“Your weapons,” Jerimeh said.
“Swords, daggers, anything that can cause harm must be placed in the barrel before entering.”
The main guard looked incredulous. “There is no custom, none at all, that dictates that. I have been to many of the crypts in The Blacklands -”
“But you are not in The Blacklands now,” Jerimeh argued. “You can always come back tomorrow without them.”
The guard looked around at his other men. “Very well,” he said through gritted teeth.
They all dropped their weaponry in the barrel one by one and crouched through the tight gap into the entrance of the crypt. Jerimeh and Effei listened in as they felt their way around the walls to find the tunnel. Eventually they found the right gap, even tighter than the one they just entered and their voices disappeared.
“Effei, go into the crypt and listen for Nadir. You must escort him safely back to us in case any of them reach us here.”
“Of course, your worship,” Effei went.
“Effei,” Jerimeh called him back. He pulled a dagger from the barrel and placed the handle in his palm. “Just in case.” Effei looked surprised, but took the dagger from him and made his way cautiously into the crypt.
Jerimeh waited anxiously by the door and wondered how on earth he would keep five trained guards from knocking down the door and killing all three of them, even without their weapons, they were still dangerous. And what if they caught Nadir? Using the boy as bait made him feel sick. What paradise could possibly accept a man who used a child in this way? Let alone an Arkgodson. Was he not supposed to be above this? The questions haunted him among so many other ills he had done.
After a few moments, he heard something. It was a shout. A panicked cry. A realisation. Then hurried footsteps, almost at a run, and an echo. “Hurry! Hurry!” Jerimeh heared Effei shout through the tunnel. Then there was a scream and an anguished cry. Then a thud. And another. Each followed by a groan. The footsteps slowed down, now they were louder, clearer, closer. Then he heard Nadir crying without an echo. He manoeuvred through the gap and lowered himself onto the dusty stone. “Jerimeh! Jerimeh!” Effei shouted.
He limped into the crypts. Surrounding them on all sides in the circular pit were the tombs of dead ancestors of the royal line. In the middle lay a circular stone bench with Nadir spread across it, blood staining the stone by his left arm. Jerimeh ripped off his sash and was relieved to find that it was a wound of the flesh. He wrapped it tightly around Nadir’s arm and tied it off at the end. Nadir’s sobs faded as he winced and yelped in pain.
“I am sorry, dear boy. I am sorry,” he said as he checked him for other wounds.
“Your worship,” Effei called, startled.
Jerimeh pulled his eyes away from Nadir and watched as a guard dragged himself through the tunnel and into the crypt. His mouth was filled with blood and he had a crossbow bolt in his back, and a gash in his neck that he covered with his free hand. It was the same guard he spoke with, his face looked even younger now that his eyes begged them for help. Effei looked at Jerimeh hopelessly. Jerimeh rushed over to the guard and pulled the bolt out of his back before rolling him on his back. The guard looked up at him, his teeth stained orange. The boy held out his hand. Jerimeh held it and he man squeezed.
Effei rushed over and placed it beside him. Jerimeh picked it up and placed the point at the man’s throat before looking at him. The guard shook his head frantically, and so Jerimeh lowered it and placed the point over his heart. The guard relaxed into the ground and placed his hand over the handle before releasing it. Jerimeh got to his knees as gently as he could, looked into the man’s eyes and whispered the words.
“Natos be with you.”
Jerimeh pushed the dagger into his heart with as much force as his body would allow. The guard choked and gurgled for a second, but drifted calmly to sleep within moments as his soul vanished from his eyes. Jerimeh yanked the dagger from his heart before flinging it across the floor. He pushed himself to the floor, everything aching, every muscle and bone crying out in anguish. Then, another noise approached the tunnel, lumbering footsteps that crashed heavily as they landed on the stone. The crossbow came into view first, and then the figure of Sir Trevon Blacksquire, his face dirty and dusty, his boots covered in filth from the dungeons. He looked down at the guard on the floor, and placed his crossbow on the ground, then saw the bloodied dagger by his feet. Sir Trevon looked up at Jerimeh, and gave him a wry smile.
“If you like, I’ll take credit for this one too.”
Arthur Poundchurch truly had a way with children that Torvic could not match. Jerimeh had always been more comfortable sharing his ailments with Torvic, who could himself understand more personally the aches of age. Poundchurch was a protégé, however, and was adept and keeping the sobs of the younger patients at bay. By the time Nadir’s arm was bandaged, he was smiling again, though clearly still shaking from his ordeal. Sir Trevon was a keen shot, but it was dark in the tunnel, and two of his bolts missed his intended target. One scraped Nadir’s arm, leaving a deep cut that would no doubt scar, but luckily, would do little else. The other bolt scraped the neck of the guard Jerimeh had killed. His name was Andrew Lowemouth, the third son of a minor Baron whose paltry lands bordered on the sovereign state of Filos. The boy was not even a knight, and not yet a month over the age of eighteen. The thought made Jerimeh sick.
He could not bare to look at Nadir, and all he wanted to do was to grovel and apologise to the boy for putting him in such danger. Instead, he left and made his way to the God’s Hall to pray. It was all he could think to do. Five young men murdered, and as he had heard afterwards, the remaining ten guards had been arrested. Taken from their beds and forced into the dungeons where Asher had promised the remaining five would also be locked. Aron had approved of the action. He knew Aedvard would not send his most valuable men for such a risky task. Jerimeh began to question everything. Aron’s morality, Aedvard’s mind, and now, Asher’s motivations. The words that Nadir told him were stuck in his head. Jerimeh no longer knew what to think or feel or who to trust.
All he wanted to do was to visit Lorne in her cell. Of all of the madness that surrounded him, now it seemed that she was the only one who was in her right mind. Jerimeh walked solemnly towards the God’s Hall, when he noticed the lanterns burning in the windows of the King’s Hall. The stained glass that depicted the battle of Natos and Jivana lit up the tiny mosaic tiles of a thousand colours from the inside. He could hear echoes of shouts. As quickly as he could, Jerimeh rushed towards the building. Outside, Sir Bethan and Sir Jorund stood guard and blocked his way.
“By the King’s orders, Jerimeh. We cannot allow you to pass,” Sir Jorund explained deadeyed.
A wave of anger flushed over Jerimeh, and before he knew it, he had his hand around the knight’s throat. Sir Bethan grabbed the hilt of his sword.
“Go on then…kill me right here on the steps of King Aron’s own hall. Explain to him why my blood drapes the stone he played on as a boy. Either do this, or you will let me pass!” He released Jorund’s throat instantly. Neither man seemed aggrieved, and looked pitiful. Is this what I am reduced to? He thought. Pity? They stood aside, and Jerimeh pushed open the door slowly.
There were two huge torches either side of the platform that burned an agonisingly bright orange flame, but there was no throne. Only gallows. Only one noose. Only one neck caught in the rope. Aedvard was on his knees, chains around his wrists and Sir Trevon’s sword hovering over his neck. Then he saw Effei at the side of the woman whose neck was wrapped in the rope, reading her a passage from The Book of Life and Death. The woman looked at Jerimeh. Her eyes were solemn until they caught his own. A freezing chill ran through him as though he’d been gutted with a sharp blade of ice. He wanted to scream, but his voice was dry and cracked. The desperation he felt was not mirrored in Lorne’s stare. She was calm. Then there was a moment where nothing happened. Aron had spoken, but Jerimeh did not hear the words, did not know what they meant.
Then Aron cut the rope. Lorne’s body dropped and dangled, then contorted and spasmed, but her eyes and her face remained static. As still as a field in summer, as if no wind could move her, as if she had been here a thousand times before and would be there a thousand times again. Jerimeh choked a dry sob, he could feel his eyes filling with water, his skin itched, and all he wanted was to yell curses, but his body would not allow him. Aedvard did not struggle. He did not scream. All he did was stare at his daughter as her body twitched and her face turned purple and blue in the piercing orange light. Jerimeh had fallen to his knees, and felt Sir Bethan and Sir Jorund try to lift him to his feet. His body refused. No, he thought. Let me stay here, you cannot force me to move. Jerimeh put his hand in his pocket and felt the parchment again, and scrunched it up in his fist. King Aron looked over the hall, and met Jerimeh’s glare. Aron’s was a face of stone. A face he had once seen upon Aron’s father, the same face that forced Aedvard into peace. It was a face that was ready for a war.