Good morning everyone, and thanks for having a gander at Chapter Twenty-Six of The Cursed King. It’s not often that I find myself writing a POV chapter in the same week that I’m posting one, but I have found that it does help organise my thoughts around these chapters. I will finish another chapter tomorrow as we push closer and closer towards this book’s end game. I have found these chapters the most challenging. The challenge is putting your characters in the positions you want them to be in for the final act whilst ensuring that they are developing and growing, and that their actions reflect that growth. Hopefully I will achieve that between now and the Epilogue.
In the meantime, we are back with Nadir in Harthelm. Having been a pawn in the games of the people around him, Nadir is starting to play the game himself. His only hopes of being reunited with his mother relies on him hedging his bets, but with conflicting stories of her whereabouts, it is impossible to know who to trust. I hope you enjoy this chapter, and watch out for Chapter Twenty-Seven on March 13th. Thanks for reading!
Two seagulls screeched above the beach like banshees as they played a tug of war with a length of fish insides. Nadir could not help but become distracted by the irritating creatures. If the Gods created a worse creature than a gull, then I have not seen it, he thought as he handed the note that King Aedvard had written for him over to the sailor. The Sailor was a pink-faced man with brown teeth and one thick eyebrow that stretched from the far corner of each eye. He exhaled deeply as he read the note and a pungent stench of rotten fish filled his nostrils and made him gag.
Thair Spicer did not seem to notice as he stood beside him, shaking. The Merchant had made a fuss at every opportunity since Nadir had released him. The instructions he received were simple. Go to the dungeons, release Thair Spicer, and take him through the underground tunnels to the beach. It took weeks of planning, particularly as the tunnels were tricky to navigate, but Nadir had spent enough time tracking rabbits in the woods in his life to know how to set markers and remember them. After two or three practice runs, he was sure he could do it blindfolded. Nobody knew of the underground tunnels of Harthelm, not even King Aron himself, and when Nadir asked Aedvard how he knew of them, he simply smiled and laughed without giving any further explanation.
Nadir was glad to be of help. Months and months had passed in which he had not heard a single scrap of news about his mother despite Stillius and Jerimeh’s constant reassurances. Within weeks, however, King Aedvard had brought him the greatest news he could have hoped for. Nadir had told him everything about Lord Garrison, about the knight with the long hair and the man on his badge and news soon returned that his mother was alive, and that she had indeed been spotted in Hunter’s Valley. Now they were working on rescuing her to bring her back to Ashfirth where she would meet Nadir. His King had it all planned out, and told him that he would be assured safe passage back to his village for his help. The sense of relief that Nadir felt when he found out that his mother was alive was unlike anything he had ever felt in his life. Every ounce of guilt and fear just fell away from him.
“You will be back with your mother by Spring, Nadir. And I will be back on my throne,” King Aedvard had told him when he handed him the note.
The Sailor looked down at Nadir once he’d finished reading the note. “And are you coming with, lad?”
“No, just him,” Nadir gestured to Spicer.
“Very well then. Come on, tetchy, we better get you across this sea,” the Sailor walked away.
Spicer knelt down in front of Nadir. “I won’t forget this, lad. You have done a fine thing today. A fine thing indeed. One day, you may need to call upon me for help, and on that day, I will be pleased to serve you.”
“I said come on, we haven’t got all day!” The Sailor called.
Thair Spicer ran to catch up with the Sailor and Nadir watched as they took a small canoe out towards the fishing boat about a hundred yards offshore. Nadir tunnelled his way back to the dungeons, and could hear the commotion behind the loose bricks. He put his ear to the wall and listened closely. The other prisoners were jeering and shouting. Nadir peered through a small gap in the bricks and squinted. He watched as Jerimeh surveyed the empty cell. None of the prisoners saw Nadir. He was safely stood in the dark behind the bricks as he removed only enough of them to allow Thair to sneak through.
Unable to leave through the dungeons, Nadir took a tunnel that lead back towards the tower that contained King Aedvard’s cell. As he walked through the dank tunnels, he studied the walls, all of which had marks scratched into them that were almost indiscernible. Nadir had become comfortable with reading over the months that Jerimeh and Effei had taught him, but even up close he could not make out these old scribbles, even though he was certain they were written in the Common Tongue. Nadir eventually found his way back to the tower and into Aedvard’s cell. Aedvard was waiting for him, expectantly.
“Well?” The King asked.
“The Sailor has Thair and the note.”
“Good work. I will inform my scouts.”
“Jerimeh knows that Thair is gone. I saw him in the dungeons.”
“Did he see you?”
Nadir shook his head. “I came straight back here,”
“That was smart. You should leave. I imagine they will be here soon.”
“King Aron. I imagine he will be convinced that I am behind this, and that he will be on his way as soon as he finds out to force-feed me a serum that makes me confess,” Aedvard smiled.
“How do you know that?”
“Because he is right, Nadir. I am behind all of this. There is not a footstep throughout this city that I do not know about. There is not an action that I do not see coming. Even the things that must happen to me.”
“Will you tell them about me?”
“Oh no, Nadir. What they will pour down my throat will be nothing more than a delicious, sugary drink. What I will tell them is what I want them to think is the truth.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I trust you, Nadir. I do not lie to the people I trust. I am going to need your help over the coming months, but I will give you more than just your mother. That will be, I assure you. No, I will give you wealth and whatever else you need if you continue to help me.”
“Of course,” Nadir said without hesitation. “You are my King.”
“Good. I need you to bring me more information. About Jerimeh, about Effei, about everyone within the God’s Hall. I need you to get close to them Nadir. They need to trust you completely. Do you understand?” Nadir nodded. “Good. Now go.”
It was Effei that Nadir found in Jerimeh’s office, scribbling away frantically on parchment. Effei did not even look up to see Nadir enter the room as he dropped his quill and cracked his fingers. When he did look up, Nadir was surveying the office. It looked like it had been tidied recently, which was strange. Jerimeh always kept things in what he called ‘organised chaos’, there were usually leather-bound books sticking out of draws and an array of goblets and other clutter, however it looked like Effei had tidied the place top to bottom.
“Nadir. I am sorry, I did not see you.”
“What are you doing?” Nadir asked.
“I am responding to letters from frantic Priors, Abbots, Abbesses, Godsons and Goddaughters all over The Hartlands. As Prince Charles’ army presses forward through the country, there have been more and more raids. Which means more and more people displaced from their homes and seeking refuge anywhere they can. They are happy to do it, but they cannot house and feed them all you see. It would appear we would need to take some.”
“From these letters alone, it would be thousands. They would all need safe passage, but our armies are stretched thin as it is. Prince Asher has sent battalions south to deal with the threat at Six Castles. Only Hartlake is left unconquered, but if that falls, it will give The Blacklands royal hostages, and will cripple us strategically. Oh, Nadir I have no idea what to do here.”
“You should let them in,” Nadir said. “There’s nothing scarier in the world than being without a home.”
Effei smiled the kind of pitying smile adults gave him when he gave his thoughts on something. “That would be the ideal, yes, but there are only so many resources Nadir. And if we do come under siege, it is even more mouths to feed and in winter.”
“They have to come here.”
“You are sweet, Nadir. You have the sort of kindness that only children can possess, and the same clarity of your own vision. It is something that I admire and wish I could draw upon, but alas I do not have your youth.”
“No, I mean they have to come here because of what you just said. You said there are thousands. I imagine at least some of those are fighting men and our armies are stretched. If they are to be fed, clothed and sheltered by the city, then recruit them into the City Watch, as defenders of the walls, blacksmiths to help create weapons. Do not think of them as mouths and hearts, but as hands and brains.” Nadir was echoing words that he heard from Marc the Reeve once. He did not see anyone as a burden, but he saw them all as tools. He would recruit anyone to work for him, even Nadir if Lord Tigos was away.
“It would be…practical, yes. Perhaps you could help me with these letters. We can talk for a time.”
“Yes, Godson Effei. I would like that.”
A few weeks later, Nadir witnessed the arrival of almost a thousand refugees entering the gates of Silver City. Many of them looked just like the people in his village. They were exhausted, filthy and solemn. From the city walls he could see the queue of people stretch for miles as they marched through the gates, guarded by men of the City Watch. Nadir was only there at the request of Effei, and Effei only because Prince Asher commanded him to oversee what he was doing, to ensure that he could see the countless mouths that would need to be fed. Usually, these refugees were women and children, though there were plenty of men in this crowd too, men who would be fit to hold a sword and fight for the Kingdom should they be required to.
“I should not be here,” Prince Asher said as he watched the procession.
“You must not take it as a slight, my Prince, the King needs you here,” Effei consoled him. Prince Asher and Godson Effei seemed to have bonded since King Aron and Arkgodson Jerimeh reconciled, however even Nadir knew that Effei was not close enough to get away with such a mention of the Prince’s twin brother.
“My brother knows not what he needs. And this,” Asher gestured towards the refugees, “this is folly.”
“We need men. Men for your army.”
“I need knights, I need horses, I need steel. I do not need flesh that knows only how to weald a hoe and a pitchfork. The only things these men have ever put in the ground are potatoes.”
Nadir wanted to say something. About how bravely the peasants and serfs fought in Ashfirth, about the men who were killed by Mark the Reeve and Linn the Miller. They fought with farming tools and they fought well. Nadir knew better than to talk back to the Prince of the Hartlands. It was strange enough that he was even in the man’s presence. Each passing day Nadir became more accustomed to being around important people, but he never felt quite right or comfortable. Like a single sprouting plant growing out of a rock in the middle of the ocean. He felt like sooner or later he would be swallowed by the sea.
“My Prince,” a voice came from behind them. It was Elden Hardwick and Sir Robert Talford, standing by, seemingly awaiting instruction. Sir Robert looked tired. Underneath his eyes were drooping purple sacks, and his face looked warn and wrinkled. Yet even despite how he looked, he was still impressive in his City Guard attire, and stood to attention before Prince Asher, who eyed him suspiciously.
“Sir Robert…anything from your father-in-law?” Prince Asher asked sourly.
Nadir looked at his toes. “Not a word, my Prince. As you know, Mallory and I have guards posted at our door day and night, all of our communications outside are intercepted. I presume you will know of his whereabouts far before I do.”
“Let’s hope so,” Asher replied between gritted teeth. “Come, Effei. I feel the need to pray.”
Prince Asher walked away and was immediately trailed by Effei and Hardwick, leaving Robert and Nadir alone. Robert knelt down in front of him so that he could look into his eyes. There was noise all around them from the parapets, but Robert still spoke to him in a whisper.
“I know your secret, Nadir,” Robert told him. Nadir’s eyes widened, and he could not pull his face into an unphased expression in time. Robert had seen the guilt flash across his nose and his cheeks. “It is okay. It is safe with me.”
Nadir did not know what to say. “We all have secrets, Sir Robert. That is what my mother used to tell me. You are much older than me, so I am sure you have gathered many yourself.” It was Nadir’s voice, but in truth these were King Aedvard’s words that he let loose from his mouth like an arrow. It is not what you know, but what they think you might know that irks them, the King had told him during their long conversations.
Robert frowned slightly, but he did not seem angry. He almost seemed hurt. “Of that you are right. I do not mean to frighten you, Nadir. I only mean to tell you that I am a friend here. We can trust each other, can we not?” Nadir was unsure, but nodded all the same. “Good. Now, do you remember what you told me in the God’s Hall? About the man in the woods with the long hair?” Nadir nodded again. “Well I know the man, and I am afraid to say that your mother is not in Hunter’s Valley, in fact, I do not know where she is.”
Nadir felt his heart sink. He glared at Robert. No, he thought, no she is in Hunter’s Valley, she has been seen there. “You are wrong. He is lying.”
“Nadir, you must trust me. I know when a man is lying. I have seen a thousand men tell ten thousand lies, and Sir Eiruc is not doing that. He tells me that he dreams of her, that she is always there when he falls asleep.”
“He feels guilty then. That is what happens. It does not mean he is telling the truth.” Nadir was desperate to tell Sir Robert that his mother had been found, but he could not reveal that. It seemed that the knight already knew too much.
“Perhaps not, but maybe something to think on?” Sir Robert stood up and put his hand on Nadir’s shoulder. “I have something for you. Mallory is at our home; she will give it to you whenever you are ready to collect it.”
“What is it?”
“A gift. From my father-in-law.”
Nadir could not help but feel guilty as he stood outside of Thair Spicer’s home. After all, it was he who alerted Jerimeh to his presence. It was all necessary. As he surveyed the house, he realised he should not feel guilty. He was as much as pawn in the games of these rich knights, merchants and kings as they were to him. All he wanted was his mother back. What they wanted was far more grandiose. Soon after he knocked on the door, Mallory Talford opened it slightly and peered through the gap, but when she saw him, she gave him a smile. It was a sad smile. She opened the door fully and allowed Nadir through. At the table, he sipped at the tea cautiously, well-aware of the Spicer’s connections to poisonous beverages, but ever-trusting of Mallory.
It was the first time since he was in the woods alone that he had heard the sound of silence. Harthelm was busy with activity and the streets of Silver City was constantly awash with people shouting over each other. It was refreshing to be in the presence of someone who did not feel the need to speak. The tea was delicious. Mingled with the boiled water was a mix of cinnamon and honey that warmed the blood that coursed through his veins. Savouring the silence, he watched as Mallory sat opposite him.
“I will try not to bother you for long, Lady Talford. It is just that Sir Robert sent me here for something. I…I don’t know what it is exactly, but he told me it was from your father.”
Mallory took a sip of her tea. “You are no bother, Nadir. In fact, you are quite the joy. Let me just find it for you”
Nadir was shocked. He had travelled with Mallory from Hillhold to Silver City, and he did not hear her voice once. It was a heavenly sound. Sweet and soothing as if her voice was tiptoeing gently across the softest velvet carpet. Nadir snapped out of his trance as Mallory came back with a silver box. He had seen some wonderful craftmanship in the God’s Hall, but this was as stunning a piece of art he’d seen since he had arrived. The box was around fifteen inches long and flicked the outside light of its surface as it bounced against the stone. The silver was engraved in a language he did not understand, but soon he recognised that some of these were the same symbols that he saw walking through the tunnels in Harthelm.
When he opened the box, a dagger glistened even more brightly than the silver box, as if the blade was made of glass. As he inspected it closer, he realised that it was a material he had never seen before, but it had an edge so sharp that he was afraid to even hold it in his hands. The handle was made of black bone that curved at the end into a point. The strange language continued on the handle.
“It is beautiful.”
“It is yours. My father insisted.”
“You have seen him?”
Mallory shook her head. “We cannot communicate directly. We send each other letters and packages through a third party.”
“He is safe?”
“For now, yes. Thanks to you.”
Nadir felt a sense of pride in his gift, but he still could not help but feel shame in the fact that he had betrayed Jerimeh’s trust in following Aedvard’s orders. He reminded himself sharply that it was all for his mother’s safety.
“Why are you talking to me?” Nadir enquired, not unkindly.
Mallory laughed slightly. “My father is obsessed with the idea of becoming a Lord. Social climbing to him is what life is about. It is what gives him purpose in his life. I have been around these people all of my life for this reason, and yet, I have never been one of them. Once, when I was a young girl, my father took me to the Old World on a beautiful cargo ship. It was grander than anything I had ever seen. He had it painted with depictions of wild animals. It was strange to paint a cargo ship, but my father told me that he did it because it meant something to him. It was the first ship he ever owned. From bow to stern this ship was packed with his stock. At the time, I thought my father was the richest man in the world. We arrived at the port city of Protoc, and were invited to stay at the stately manor of the Grand Judge, who was effectively the Ruler of Protoc.
I was always quiet, but I was nervous that I would say something silly, and so he told me to only speak when I was spoken to, and to only answer questions I knew the answer to. I felt much better and we went to the home of the Grand Judge. Now the Judge also had several daughters. I never had any sisters, and so I was excited that I would finally have other girls to play with. They asked me lots of questions. Where I was from, why was I there, and then one of the girls, who was the Judge’s eldest daughter, Caitana, asked me if I was noble.
I did not know how to answer, and so I said that I did not know. The girls laughed and then she asked me another question. She asked me if I was high born. I told them again that I didn’t know what they meant. They laughed again and Caitana said, “if you don’t know, then you definitely aren’t.” From that point on, they treated me differently. They would race each other to decide who had to be on my team, and then whoever lost was mocked. They would ask me why I was here, and if my father worked for the Judge, and told me that I would end up marrying an alley-dweller. I tried to tell them constantly that my father was rich. I told them that he was a successful merchant and a respected man, and that he would find a suitable match for me, but nothing I said to them made any difference. There were no combination of words that I could put together to make them look at me any differently than they did.
As I got older, the signs that people looked at us differently became more subtle, but they were still there. It was in their brags, their gossips, their smirks and their comments. It was not overt mockery, but it was there. So one day I decided that I would not speak to them at all. I would not give them my answers, I would not inspire their insipid conversation, I would give them nothing at all. You are not like these people, Nadir. You are like me. The way you speak, your intonations and your tones are innocent and free of pomp and snobbery, and so I delight in speaking to you.”
“I delight in speaking to you too,” Nadir told her. “Please thank your father for the gift. Though I am not much a warrior, I’m afraid it will not be put to much use.”
“Give it time.” Mallory said. “Come back soon. It is not often I get to speak so freely.”
Mallory and Nadir walked together to the door.
“Can you not speak to Sir Robert?”
Mallory really did laugh this time, as if he had told a brilliant joke. “At first, I did not speak to Robert because of the reasons I’ve told you, but now, it has been so very long that we have found a way of communicating without our words. I feel like our bond is beyond them, and that now, if we did begin to speak, it would almost be a shame. I imagine that seems quite silly.”
“I can’t say it makes much sense to me.”
“Well, perhaps one day it will. Goodbye, Nadir. Hide the dagger beneath your hosen otherwise you might be mistaken for a miniature assassin.” Nadir tucked the blade into his sock and pulled his hosen over the top. “Much better.”
When Nadir returned to the God’s Hall, he was shocked to find Jerimeh there. Jerimeh had not been around the God’s Hall for weeks, spending much of his time with King Aron as an adviser. Jerimeh was berating Effei at the chancel. Nadir had never seen him so angry, and whilst he tried to sneak through, the door slammed shut behind him drawing their attention.
“And you,” Jerimeh stormed over as if all of the aches and pains in his legs had disappeared, hidden beneath his rage. “Who do you think you are involving yourself in these affairs? Thousands of people through our city gates and not a single one of them has been questioned. We do not know where these people are from or who they serve, we do not know if they are fit to fight, nor where they will sleep. What use will they be against the advancing Blacklands army? Did either of you think about any of this?”
“Of course we did!” Effei shouted. “Do not blame the boy, your worship, it was my decision.”
“It was not your decision to make, Effei. This is my job. My duty.”
“You failed in your duty. You have been failing in your duty for weeks. Your duty is a duty of care to the people. To protect them. To love them. Your duty is not to advise on matters of war, it is to ensure the King does not forget his duty to peace.”
“How can you say that? My influence with King Aron is what helps keeps this city and its people safe. You think I enjoy this? You think I enjoy advising on how we kill more of them than they kill of ours? All life is sacred, but I am the Arkgodson of The Hartlands. I have to prioritise in times of war. It is what I did when King Eldrian ruled and it is what I will do now.”
“King Eldrian. The great King Eldrian the wonderful. The Hartlands and The Blacklands have been at war for hundreds of years, and Eldrian and Aedvard presided over the bloodiest wars of them all. Yet they finally call a peace, and they are praised as life-savers, as peace-bringers. The only reason they called peace was because they realised that they could not best each other. It would have killed them both and ended both of their reigns. They called a truce to protect themselves. It was not for the people. It was because the people were so sick of war on both sides, they were close to revolt. I was there on the ground. I was there nursing the injured and caring for the sick. There were rebellions ten-thousand strong across both armies ready to stage a coup and take both their heads. Oh, they both tried to keep it quiet, but the tremors still ring. I was in the fields, Jerimeh. You may not have heard their cries through these thick stone walls, but I did. I let those people through our gates to prevent violence, not to cause it. If you kept those people out, they would only grow resentful, they would only cause more bloodshed. At least within our walls, they are protected, at least it shows that we care, even if, as you have proven today, that those who are supposed to protect them do not.”
Effei turned away and strode towards his chambers.
“I did not dismiss you. Where are you going?”
“To pray, your worship. To pray for this Kingdom. This city. For you. I suggest you do the same.”
When Effei was gone, Nadir was left alone with Jerimeh. He wanted nothing more than to run after Effei, but he could not bring himself to leave the old man alone on his own. Despite everything, Nadir felt sympathy for him. It seemed that every step the man took was agony, and the two people closest to him were either angry at him or directly betraying him.
“Would you like some tea, your worship?”
Jerimeh slumped into his chair, planted his skinny elbow upon his desk and rested his forehead on his open palm. Nadir took boiled some water on the stove and filled a cup before mixing in some cinnamon and honey. He poured one for himself and brought them over to the table. Jerimeh thanked him and took a sip. His eyebrows raised.
“Is that honey and cinnamon?”
“That is a calming brew. Do you know that? It is what monks make to help weary and traumatised soldiers sleep after a battle.”
“I just thought it would taste good.”
“Well it does. Thank you, Nadir.”
“Your worship…have you heard anything from Sir Bethan? Has he found my mother? Is she in Hunter’s Valley?”
Jerimeh took a long sip of the scalding hot tea before answering. “He has sent a letter. It is hard to go by description alone, you see. He has seen women he suspects may be her, but nothing for sure. I would rather be honest with you than give you false hope.”
“I understand,” Nadir lied. He could not understand how King Aedvard’s scouts had already found his mother and were working on bringing her home, and Sir Bethan could not identify her? He had spent more time with Jerimeh and Stillius who both had people searching, and yet there was no news. It angered him that Jerimeh would lie to him. He wondered if Sir Bethan was even searching for her at all.
All of a sudden there was a crashing sound that came from the great oak doors of the God’s Hall. Nadir sprang to his feet and ran into the hall to see Prince Asher stood frozen in the aisle, soaking wet from the rain that was pouring from the sky as if the Gods themselves were in the midst of carving out a new ocean on top of the city. Soon after, Jerimeh came up behind Nadir and went to Prince Asher, cautiously putting an arm around him. Prince Asher lost all of his regal composure and fell to his knees.
“They have them,” Asher groaned.
“Who? Who is they? Who do they have?” Jerimeh pressed.
“My son, Arnulf, my wife, Elen…they have been taken as hostages by Lord Steel’s army. Hartlake has been taken.”