Good morning everyone and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Twenty-Eight of The Cursed King. Another fortnight of lockdown flies by, and another chapter is (almost) written. As I reach the climax of the story, I find myself weeding out plot holes everytime I re-read and post these chapters. Keeping all of these plots tightly packed and making sense is not an easy task. Still, I must remind myself this is still being drafted, and your feedback and advice helps me to no end in correcting these issues.
Today’s chapter sees Jerimeh back in the God’s Hall, attempting to make amends to Effei and Nadir for his time away from them, and trying to repair his status as Arkgodson. Whilst this is happening, Jerimeh battles with his old age, but wants nothing more than to spend the remainder of his life doing the right things in his duties as Arkgodson. Thanks for reading and Chapter Twenty-Nine will be posted on March 10th.
“What would you do, brother?” Asher was not doing well to repress his angst. “You started a war over your family, what about mine?”
Jerimeh had wanted this to be a peaceful meeting, but he was weary and his mediation skills waned under the fiery passions of King Aron and his twin brother. The low winter sun poked through the window and occasionally met the eyes of all three men, which only irritated them more.
“You are my family, Asher. You are all I have left in this world. I want to protect you and your family at all costs, but I cannot do that if you are dead. I cannot have you running into Lord Steel’s army. You will be cut down by their swords and crushed beneath their feet. We simply do not have the men to spare.”
“I know Six Castles like I know the hearts of my children. I do not need an army. They need not even know I am there. I just need a band of men, no more than ten, and I will find a way to retrieve them.”
“It is too dangerous. I cannot allow it. Your family or no, Prince Charles’ army is descending on Silver City – we will be under siege within weeks.”
“Which is why I need to go now! Can you not see? What use will I be in strategizing when all my focus will be on keeping my family alive?”
“Your family will not be harmed.”
“You do not know that! How could you know that?”
“Because Lord Steel is a decent man.” The Prince seemed taken aback. King Aron did not speak kind words of any man, woman or child from The Blacklands these days. Even Jerimeh was surprised at Aron’s feelings about Lord Steel. “Lord Steel and I have met many times. We have shared wine and mead and stories. I allowed his son and daughter to hold Edward when he was a baby. Whatever King Aedvard is capable of…Lord Steel is no butcher of women and children…but you…Asher, I tell you he will not be so gentle with you. You are Prince of the Hartlands and the heir to the throne. He will not hesitate to put your head on a pike should he catch you.”
The twins fell silent and slumped back in their chairs scratching their heads. Jerimeh sipped at a goblet of water and approached them. “I think sending men south would be wise.” King Aron shot Jerimeh a look. “Not an army, but some men, perhaps ten is the right number. But certainly not Asher.”
“What are you thinking?” Aron asked him,
“You are right, your grace. Lord Steel is a good man. A pious man too. There would be little chance of him refusing Lady Natalie’s need to pray. A woman of her birth would require an entourage of Godsons and Goddaughters to escort her to the chapel in Hartlake. Perhaps we can use Asher’s knowledge of his castle find a way to get Natalie, Arnulf and Moya away from his eyesight just long enough to get them a head start.”
Jerimeh awoke the next morning in a cold sweat. When he looked in the mirror his face was pale and his eyes were bloodshot. He had dreamed of her again. Nadir’s mother. The same dream that he had been having for months now. All of his unconscious energy went into trying to wake up and he felt more tired than if he hadn’t had slept at all. The last he had heard from Sir Bethan was not good news. There was simply no sighting of her. Across the Twin Kingdoms, there would have been thousands of women matching the description of Nadir’s mother.
All of Sir Bethan’s efforts were in vain, and every single woman he managed to find did not have a lost son half-way across the Kingdom that she was searching for. With King Aron breathing down his neck and with the war going the way that it was, it was clear to Jerimeh that they need to make progress in their search soon or else he would be forced to recall Sir Bethan to help deal with the threat of The Blacklands army. Someone of the Knight’s experience and expertise would be vital in navigating such an onslaught, particularly with Prince Asher being allowed to travel south in an attempt to retrieve his wife and children.
Jerimeh’s eyes felt heavy in his head, and his throat was so dry and cracked that his coughing had turned painful, and after a particularly ferocious fit of coughing found flecks of blood appear in his handkerchief. Jerimeh had nursed enough people and seen enough sickness to know what that meant. It was almost his time. This thought did not bother him so much. He felt lucky to have lived such a long life, and could think of many times throughout it where he perhaps wished he had not have lasted so long. Despite this, and despite his trust in Natos and Jivana, he was still afraid. Death was an irrational fear he knew, but it did not change how he felt in his heart and soul. He folded the handkerchief delicately in his hand and placed it in a dresser, buried out of sight underneath the freshly cleaned linens.
Dressed in his finest garments, Jerimeh entered the God’s Hall for the first time in what felt like a week. Effei had been hard at work in Jerimeh’s office whilst Jerimeh served as King Aron’s council. Even whilst the King was still a lad, he had not been so involved in the King’s dealings and so uninvolved in that of the Church, but despite their recent arguments, Jerimeh was genuinely pleased to have someone as competent as Effei in charge as a substitute. It was not only Effei, but Nadir who had stepped up and had been providing the duties of a Godson to prisoners and nobles alike. It seemed that many within Harthelm had taken a shine to the lad, and Jerimeh was not surprised. The boy had a charm about him, a spirit, and a way of speaking that encouraged pride and humour in men and women.
When Jerimeh walked through to the office, Effei was sat focused, scribbling his quill against the parchment. Nadir was sitting on the end of the table, his small frame causing no problems for the oakwood table. It was Nadir who looked up at him first, and as soon as he saw Jerimeh, the boy tugged at Effei’s sleeve and the Godson looked up. “Do you require your office, your worship? I will be finished in just a few moments.”
“No no, please continue. I only wanted…”
Both Effei and Nadir looked up at Jerimeh expectantly. Jerimeh did not know what to say. It was as if they were staring right through them. All he wanted to do was to tell them. To tell Effei that he would likely not see another Spring, that he was going to recommend Effei as the next Arkgodson to King Aron, and that he wanted to send Nadir to the priory to learn how to become a Godson. He wanted to tell them both that he wanted to do this for them. But when he went to open his mouth, the words vanished and he could not bring himself to say them. I’m dying, he thought. I’m dying and there is nothing I can do about it.
“I am sorry.” Jerimeh said instead. “I have not been good enough. I have not been here enough. I have not been enough to either of you. I wanted to thank you. For keeping this place what it needs to be. Moral. Good. A facility of care without the bloody sword of politics hanging over its head.”
Nadir’s eyes flashed with sympathy. It was the expression of a young boy who had not been exposed to adults admitting their guilt or showing their weakness. Effei’s eyes were merciless. The man was tired and clearly not in the mood for pity. The parchments on his desk were stacked so high that he could not see Effei’s mouth move as he replied to him.
“I do not need apologies, your worship. I need your help. I need your influence and your title. I am due to perform all of our sermons this week. Did you know that? All of them. As I have been doing for weeks whilst Nadir performs the duties I was performing before you decided to play advisor to the King. But Nadir cannot give sermons, by Natos, he would do it if I asked, such is his work ethic, and his loyalty, but he is just a boy and had not even picked up a book before he arrived here. We need you here, Jerimeh. As much as you frustrate and anger me, I need your guidance as much as King Aron needs it.”
“You have it, Effei. I promise. My duty is to the Gods. Please know that I have not forgotten that.”
“Good. There is a sermon today. I will need you to lead it. I assume that is why you have come here dressed in your finery. To speak to your congregation?”
Jerimeh had not. He had not given a sermon in weeks. He came to tell the two people he trusted the most that he was soon to walk with Natos. The clothes were for his dignity. But Jerimeh nodded all the same. “Of course, Effei. I would be happy to.”
The God’s Hall was as full as Jerimeh had ever seen it. He remembered when he gave sermons during the wars gone by. It was filled with nobles who wanted nothing more than to be told that Natos and Jivana would protect them whatever happened. Nobles had a way of believing that they would be protected. That they deserved to be protected above all others. It was as if they felt that they had some divine right to Paradise. Jerimeh knew better. One’s luck in life was not the wealth or the luxury that they were born into, but by their opportunities to do right.
Even Jerimeh, as Arkgodson of an entire Kingdom, knew that to do right meant many different things. Jerimeh’s position meant that he had been given a hundred thousand opportunities to do right, and yet, he could still only think of a few occasions where he took those opportunities. It was the life of all people. To do right was layered with weight. To do right was only possible when the right thing was also the easy thing. To see a beggar fall in the street and help them up is an easy thing. To put a knife through a gravely injured man’s heart to ease his suffering is hard. Even a right thing can feel wrong. Even something just is not good. Standing before these people. Those who knew him, those who trusted him. Jerimeh knew he could give them a sermon to put them at ease, or one that was right.
“You are all here today for answers,” Jerimeh began. “Of course, answers are what you want. They are all I have ever searched for in times of war. War is not a time for questions. For asking questions require reflections. It requires a person to wonder. To challenge their own reasoning…or perhaps to affirm it. It is wrong really. In times of war, we should always be asking questions. Why now? Why here? Why us? It is important to ask ourselves these questions. Not because, with enough grit and enough tenacity that, we may find the answer to them, but to understand why we are afraid to ask them.
We believe, as those who follow the teachings of The Book of Life and Death, that we are destined for one of two things. More life, or an eternity of peace. And so, war should not worry us. Whether we live or die, we will either live again or live forever. Yet we are desperate to ask. I know that because I have studied the scriptures of our Gods for longer than many of you have been alive. And yet I still ask those questions.
Today, I seek to tell you why you are asking these questions, and to tell you that it is okay that you do.”
After the sermon, Effei came out of the office, his eyes red and the bags heavy underneath his eyes. The man who Jerimeh thought was not capable of ageing looked a decade older, which only made him feel guilty. He knew all too well the weight the Kingdom could bear on one’s soul. Jerimeh had just finished shaking hands with the last of his well-wishers when the Godson approached him.
“How did it feel…being back up there?” Effei asked him.
“Truly?” Jerimeh paused to absorb the feeling again. The sound of his voice as it echoed throughout the hall. The silence between the words. The thoughts that connected the words that fell from his mouth and flowed steadily like a trickling stream. The warm hands that gripped his own as the people said their goodbyes, where there was always one pair of hands that gripped slightly harder and stayed slightly longer, always met with a smile that meant to tell him that his words had found their heart. “It was wonderful.”
“It always is. Even in all of the bustle of this war, taking over your duties, the care, the letters, managing the priories and the monasteries…even doing all of the things that you do not think about doing when you are a still learning to be a Godson, it is this that reminds me of why I do it. Why I wanted to do this and dedicated my life to it in the first place. It is the Gods. It is finding the way to express their will, to articulate the thoughts of beings so grand and powerful that your heart is overwhelmed at the thought of it, and yet in trying, you can feel their strength flowing through your very soul.”
“I could not have said it better myself…I am sorry, Effei. I have neglected you all. Even my Gods, my Angels, but I feel as though I know their words enough to tell you truthfully that if they are ashamed of my behaviour as they should be, it is because I have let down you and Nadir.”
“Nadir knows that you are trying. I remind him of it whenever it is brought up. But he is a boy. A boy from nothing who has never had a thing. Not like the people around him. Even you and I would seem rich to a serf, even though we know better. Then imagine the one thing you do have. The one thing you love above all else stolen from you in an instant. A boy alone in the world, surrounded by people who are kin to the men who stole your mother away.”
“He is angry with me…”
“Rightly so. That is your duty, Arkgodson. You are the only one he trusts in this city. When it comes down to it, you are the only one he can rely upon. And so, you must deal with his anger too.”
“When did you become so wise?”
“Long before I met you, I should imagine.” Effei smiled. “Come, let me make us some tea.”
It was an awkward dinner with Sir Robert and Prince Asher. King Aron had invited Lord Garrison to dine with him. Lord Garrison was one of King Aron’s most trusted Earls, but more importantly, the grizzly Lord had stopped Prince Charles’ army from advancing any farther toward Silver City. Working with the Earls of Snowden, Dawnmount and Eboncrest – the cold north-eastern region of the Hartlands – Lord Garrison had organised their armies to trap Prince Charles’ army in an encampment between Silver City and Hazelfield. The guise of the dinner was to thank Lord Garrison for his service, however Jerimeh had recently seen one of Lord Garrison’s daughters, Lady Apollonia, wandering around Harthelm with the King paying close attention to her. Apollonia was a year older than King Aron and had already been betrothed to two other high-standing young Lords in The Hartlands. Yet both had died. One of flu, and one in the Battle of the Mountain Pass. She was a woman of exceptional beauty, though Jerimeh knew very little else of her. Lord Garrison had left before Sir Robert had even arrived. A guard had hurried in to escort the Earl from the city and back to Hunter’s Valley as the behest of King Aron as news of Prince Charles’ movements reached them.
When Sir Robert Talford did arrive, he said little as he sipped at his wine. He was almost as mute as his wife, but Jerimeh could not blame him. The man’s troubles were a badly kept secret by the noblemen of Silver City. He was tortured and traumatised by the death of his brothers, constantly humiliated by his father and was now dining in the same castle where his father-in-law was imprisoned. Jerimeh could not help but feel guilty about the fact that he was the one who had tracked the poison to Thair Spicer’s estate.
“Is the wine to your liking, Sir Robert?”
“It is palatable.”
Asher chuckled to himself. It was the first time Jerimeh had seen him smile since he found out about his wife and children. “I’m glad something during this war is. The steak is tough though. How I wish to be back home with my own cooks.”
“Blame King Aron for it. They are trained to cook for him, and if he sees even a droplet of blood on his plate then he’ll throw it on the fire,” Jerimeh explained.
“I often wonder if we should let Prince Charles’ army in. He can have my brother’s head on a pike if he brings me a good bloody steak.”
Sir Robert finally smiled. “When you asked me here to chew the fat, I did not think you meant it literally.”
After they had chatted for a time and finished their meal, it was Prince Asher who waved away the servants who sought to pour them more wine and sent them away to eat the leftovers in the kitchens. Prince Asher poured more wine, ensuring that Sir Robert was first to receive it.
“Sir Robert, I have a task for you. A dangerous task that will put you in great danger, but for which I am willing to offer you a fitting reward.”
“I am at your disposal. What is it you would ask of me?”
“I need you to travel south to Hartlake and retrieve my wife and children.”
“My Prince…Hartlake and all of Six Castles belong to Lord Steel. I do not confess to know Hartlake well, but how on earth do you propose we do this?”
“It is far easier to approach Hartlake from the north than the south. It was designed to withstand armies coming from the south and the west, and so its defences on the north-side are weak.”
“Even still, Hartlake Castle is surrounded by wetlands on almost all sides. I still do not understand how Lord Steel even took it in truth.”
“Lord Steel was cunning. He snuck soldiers in posing as servants. I say soldiers. They were martyrs. They survived just long enough to slaughter members of my household which drew the guards inside. Whilst the guards scoured after the rats, the boats began to cross and the castle was surrounded. The castle had a thread-bare guard staff as it was. They had no choice but to give up the castle.”
“The Blacklands have no shortage of men. They will have guards on all sides. How on earth am I supposed to get close enough to your family to retrieve them?”
“The chapel,” Jerimeh answered. “Lady Natalie is a pious woman. She prays several times per day, and at least once per day she demands to travel to the chapel in North Burrow – it is a quaint and quiet chapel within the forest. Very meditative. This forest is across the lake to the North. She will be guarded heavily, but she will be in an easily accessible building away from Lord Steel’s army. It is the best chance you will have or retrieving her and bringing her back to Silver City.”
“And Lord Steel would let her do this? Would allow her out of his sight for the sake of prayer?” Sir Robert asked incredulously.
“She and the children have already been spotted there. Our scouts have been tracking her movements. It seems twice per week she is allowed to take the children to pray at the North Burrow chapel. Lord Steel may not seem like it, but he is incredibly devout in private. Though he is very secretive of this – he worries that men will not fear him if he publicly demonstrates his devotion to the Gods.”
Sir Robert took another sip of wine and considered their explanation. “And what reward would you consider fitting? No doubt this puts me in grave danger. Should I get caught, I will be lucky to be ransomed – no doubt they would make an example of me by sliding my head onto a pole. If I succeed in this duty, what will I receive in return? You have already promised me an Earldom, Prince. What more could you possibly offer?”
“I have discussed this at length with King Aron, and whilst he is not happy about it, he understands that it is either you or I that will go to North Burrow to rescue my family, and he is adamant to keep me here, and so he has agreed. We will offer Thair Spicer immunity should he return to Silver City and provide us with information relating to Prince Edward’s death. We do not believe he did it, but we do believe he knows about it. All he would need to do is return to Harthelm and tell us what he knows, then he will be free to go. To live his life as a free man.”
“You are foolish if you think that my father-in-law will return here. I have said my piece. Thair Spicer is not perfect, but he is no murderer. But you do not want to hear that. Do what you will with Thair Spicer, allow him this opportunity or no, it makes no matter to me, nor to him I should imagine. I will go to Hartlake. Not because of what you have done for me or for what you have offered. I will go because I know what it feels like to be without my wife and child. I know the heart-wrenching fear of thinking that you might lose them. And I know the horror, the unrelenting, soul-ending pain of being without them. I have known pious men who worshipped the Gods like no other. I have seen these same men slaughter without care. I know it is your duty as Arkgodson to believe in the good of man, your worship, but your compassion makes you naïve. I will do this deed, and I will do it asking no more of either of you than this meal.”
Sir Robert left soon after. Jerimeh and Asher sat drinking the remaining wine whilst resting in Asher’s plush velvet chairs that sank almost to the floor. Jerimeh knew that he would need to ask Asher for an embarrassing lift up to his feet once he was ready to leave, but it was worth it. The wine had relaxed him. It was as if all of his worries had begun to dissipate. It was as though death would be at this point be a sweet release. If only I could drift off to sleep here and not have to wake up again, he dreamed. But then a lurch in his throat caused him to cough harshly. It was an immediate deep cough, urgent and spluttering, so hard that he pulled the muscles in his back. Asher rushed to his side and place a handkerchief to his mouth and patted his back as gently as he could. After a minute or so of relentless coughing, Jerimeh slowly stopped and took deep breaths in and out.
“Your worship, are you okay? Would you like me to fetch Master Torvic?”
“No, no,” Jerimeh panted. “That will not be necessary.” Jerimeh dropped the handkerchief on the floor and caught one more cough in his hands. As he pulled them away, he saw that droplets of blood coated his fingertips. He looked up and saw Asher staring at the bloody rag on the floor.
“Jerimeh?” Asher said, his voice filled with all of the innocence of the child that he was ten years prior.
“It’s okay, my Prince. It’s okay.” All of the bravado left the man. All that remained was the boy. The boy wrapped his arms around Jerimeh’s neck as the realisation came over him. The boy buried his head into his shoulder as Jerimeh comforted him with his embrace. There was no Arkgodson in that room and no Prince. Just an old man and a boy, confronting the pain of death. “You must not tell your brother. He cannot know.”
“I would never.” Asher pulled away. “You should not be so involved. You should be resting and given the best care.”
Jerimeh laughed. “I would be an awful patient. What would I do? Lay in my bed whilst people wished me their best and gave me their prayers? No, Prince, that is not me. I will find a far better use of myself in my final weeks.”
“My brother needs all the help he can get,” Asher said. “I fear for my brother’s sanity more and more each day. It is as if the armies are taking territory in his mind as well as his Kingdom.”
“I have learned that I am far from helpful here. No matter what I say or do, my advice is ignored, my concerns are thrown out. There is one way I can be useful though.”
“What do you mean, your worship?”
“Your Lady Wife would never allow herself to be stolen into the night by a band of gruff swordsmen. She would only go with someone she could trust. Natalie knows me, she trusts me, and what’s more, Lord Steel would never harm me if I were caught. I will travel with Sir Robert to Hartlake, and I will help bring your family home.”