Good morning everyone and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Thirty-Eight of The Cursed King. I don’t know if it’s the feeling that our summer has already ended or the fact that I am just generally knackered, but I am knackered at the moment. Despite this, I’m still managing to get my words in. Chapter Forty-Six – which I discussed last time – is finished. After I scribbled the last 1100 words last night, I can comfortably say that I am happy with it. Though I have been writing it in my head for years, I am glad to finally have a draft down on paper. And I need to remember that this is just a draft, even though I am posting it here for your enjoyment and for my encouragement, there is still plenty of work to be done on all of these chapters, so thank you for coming with me on the journey.
In today’s chapter, we are back with Jerimeh as he is recognised for his actions over the past few chapters (no spoilers). Despite the moment of occasion and joy, however, the constant threat of The Blacklands army looms large over the city. Jerimeh thus decides to make some decisions and put the pieces in place for whatever future The Hartlands will have. Thank you for reading, and Chapter Thirty-Nine will be posted on August 28th!
The double doors opened to the King’s Hall and Jerimeh walked through them with his head held high. Applause echoed throughout the halls. It was as joyous as it was solemn, but Jerimeh could not help but enjoy it all the same. It had been a long time since he had been recognised in such a way. Not since his own Arkgodson ceremony had he walked through these halls with all eyes on him as the people of the court recognised him. Standing in front of his throne was King Aron, with Prince Asher to his right and Godson Effei to his left. In King Aron’s hands was a cushion, and sat atop it, was a jewelled medallion. It was the King’s Recognition. A symbol of exceptional service to the Kingdom. These awards were rare, and often brought loud celebrations and congratulations, but the atmosphere was heavy. The court had been informed that morning of the approaching army. There was little more that they could do but wait and try to withstand the siege of Prince Charles and his son, Riechard. It was obvious that this played on the mind of the court as Jerimeh walked down the aisle.
Usually, the recipient of the award would kneel down on a cushion whilst the King placed the medallion around the receiver’s neck, but Jerimeh had asked King Aron if he could stand a step or two below the King instead. Aron was not so stuck to tradition that he would not respect an elderly man’s aching joints. Jerimeh turned to face the crowd and Aron placed the cushion in Effei’s hands before lifting the medallion and fastening it around the Arkgodson’s neck. “Thank you, your worship,” Aron whispered to him. It was the most genuine thing that Jerimeh had heard the young King say in months, and could not help but smile at his applause. Jerimeh looked around the Hall and took it all in. It was as if he was in a dream. Even in the situation that the Kingdom and the city were in, even amongst all the horror that might befall them, this was a moment of enjoyment, of relief, of peace.
In King Aron’s chamber after the ceremony, Prince Asher poured a goblet of wine for each of them. This was a meeting so private that not even cupbearers or servants were privy to attend. This too, was a rigid atmosphere, though Prince Asher looked more relaxed than he had in months. He knew his family were safe in Hunter’s Valley with Lord Garrison. It was the only part of the Kingdom left that wasn’t about to be swarmed with Blacklands soldiers, and had largely stood up to the loose battalions that had been sent to try and siege it. Hunter’s Valley was one of the most fiercely protected lands in the Kingdom, with one of the most ruthless Earls in The New World. It would remain safe as long as Lord Garrison was alive.
“You did a fine thing for our family, Jerimeh,” King Aron told him. “As usual, you have proven yourself as loyal as a man can be. Our father is smiling at you with Jivana from paradise, of that, I am sure.”
“Thank you, your worship. For keeping my family safe. Truly, thank you.”
“My only regret is Sir Robert…” Jerimeh said.
“A necessary exchange,” Aron waved his hand dismissively. “A knight for three members of the Royal Family. I would call that a success.”
“Sir Robert is a good man.” Asher interjected. “Loyal to his Kingdom. We will make the necessary arrangements to bring him back to Silver City in due time. Now that my family are safe, we can focus on repelling this impending siege.”
“Your worship, I believe we should hold a sermon for the city at Sir Eiruc’s funeral. A rallying cry before the siege begins. Something uplifting to raise the spirits of the people and to give them hope,” King Aron said. Kings often had a way of phrasing their commands as suggestions.
Jerimeh had thought he might be instructed to speak at the murdered knight’s funeral. He had little hesitation. It saddened him that a man so young had lost his life, and even more so, that he was not convinced that it was not Nadir that did it. Of course, if he was truthful with himself, even if the boy had done it, he was not entirely sure that he would not keep that secret. To lose one young life is tragic, to lose two would be needless. He had never felt more inclined to not involve himself in these politics, and he had reached a point in his life, when even justice did not matter to him. This gave Jerimeh the courage to say what he needed to say to King Aron.
“Your grace, of course I will speak to the people, but I must tell you now that I plan for this to be my final service. It has become undeniable that I am struggling more and more each day to perform my duties. Moreover, I feel I am tired and finding myself uninspired in reaching for the words that once came so naturally to me. This is to say, that I watch Godson Effei with the passion and the energy that I remember once having, though that was many, many years ago, and I think that it might be his time. He has effectively been doing my duties for the past year whilst I have been doing my duty by you, my King, and you, my Prince. Now, with this award you have so graciously given me, I feel as though I have reached the summit of my achievements.”
King Aron smiled regretfully, as if he already knew what was coming. “Say what you mean to say, your worship. Ask me your request, and I will grant it.”
“I wish to retire, your grace. I wish to step down as Arkgodson with dignity and be there to usher in a new era for the church.”
“And your wish is for Godson Effei to replace you?”
“He would be my choice, but I would not think to make a King’s decision for him.”
“Your King agrees. Godson Effei would make a fine Arkgodson, and you have earned your rest. I will find you a suitable chamber in Harthelm, one that befits a man of your rank and service, where you can rest and be on hand in case Effei needs guidance.”
Jerimeh sighed. “Your grace, that is very kind, but…I wish to leave Silver City altogether. My intention is to spend my remaining days on the coast, where I can stand in the water and bathe in the sun.”
Prince Asher could not help but chuckle. “That is a nice dream…that really does sound like paradise, does it not? Perhaps, your grace, if anyone deserves a living paradise, it is our Arkgodson.”
King Aron’s face turned from stone to a smile in a moment. “We do not agree on much, brother, but on this…yes…I very much concur.”
“Thank you, your grace.”
“I appreciate your honesty and your service, Jerimeh. I will be sad to lose you. In the spirit of honesty, I must tell you that I cannot allow you to leave the city again until the siege is over. I need your guidance now more than ever. I have tried to fight this war, and at every turn I have been outthought and outfought by King Aedvard. It hurts me to deeply to say that. The truth is that we have no hope of winning this war now…the best we can do is not lose it. I plan to offer King Aedvard’s freedom in exchange for Prince Charles to end the siege. Lord Steel can keep four of the Six Castles, returning Harthelm at the least. I also expect to lose the Northern Earldoms to Ismann. This is the position we are in in this war.”
Jerimeh nodded solemnly. He wondered how King Eldrian would have handled this situation, and then duly realised that this would never have been a situation King Aron’s father would have found himself in. The Kingdom that Eldrian left thriving was now in ruin, and even Jerimeh at that moment wondered if it would have been different had Prince Asher emerged from the womb first. “If that is your decision, your grace. I believe that even King Aedvard would accept terms of that nature. Whatever you believe him to be, I have known him to be a fair and cautious man who is not a glutton for victory. I believe he will accept these terms. However, what if my judgement is wrong? What if he does not accept?”
Aron’s face changed from an expression of humility and regret to one of deep consideration. “Then if this city is to fall, it will fall with King Aedvard’s severed head watching over it.”
As Jerimeh walked through the grounds of Harthelm towards the God’s Hall, he looked over the city below the high-reaching hill of the castle and took in a deep breath. It had never occurred to Jerimeh in his entire life that he may one day see the fall of Silver City. King Eldrian ruled so well for so long that it seemed an impossibility that any army could break even the borders of The Hartlands, let alone make it all the way to their Capital. The river that flowed through the city seemed almost still and the air was dense and thick with worry. As soon as he entered the God’s Hall, he felt a wave of calm, as if the Gods were opening their arms to him. It was usually Natos’ presence he felt the most – the Angel of Death – always lurking over him and waiting for him in the afterlife. It seemed to him that he had not felt Jivana’s light in years, and yet it was she who he was drawn to this time. It had been many years since he had truly studied her face – her long hair and focused eyes, the haunted look of an Angel tasked with fighting the inevitability of death. A fight that always ended in defeat.
Godson Effei was not in the God’s Hall. The hall itself and the office were empty. What Jerimeh found was a perfectly organised space, free of the litter of parchment, books and spilled ink that Jerimeh had become accustomed to in his years as Arkgodson. Now, the books were aligned neatly on their shelves, parchment was piled together and the ink remained securely in its pot. Even the quills were arranged in order of length and thickness of tip. It felt as though he’d been gone for years. Even as he wandered through the empty rooms, he dragged his finger across the surfaces of chairs and desks and podiums, and there was not a speck of dust on anything. It looks how a God’s Hall should look, he thought. When he walked over to the statue of Jivana, he realised that the metal had been polished to a gleaming shine. Perhaps this was why she drew his attention now, perhaps he had spent so long thinking about the Angel of Death, that he had neglected the Angel of Life.
“Hello, your worship,” a voice echoed around the hall. Jerimeh looked around, but did not see anyone, until he turned to the entrance to the crypt and watched as Nadir hoisted himself up the ladder.
“Nadir…what were you doing down there?” Jerimeh had tried to hide the accusatory nature of his tone, but he had failed. Jerimeh was wary of the boy, but worried for him more than he was afraid of him. All Jerimeh could think of was his ghostly dreams and his mother who gripped him by the throat and screamed at him to find her. The boy would have access to the same magic if he had the means to learn it. It may not have made him fear the boy, but it unsettled him at the very least.
“Cleaning the graves. King Aron comes here at least once a week to see his son. He complained once to Effei that the crypts were ghastly and dusty, so I clean them before he is due to come in.”
“King Aron comes here once a week? For how long?”
“Since I arrived,” Nadir shrugged.
“It is strange…I have never seen him.”
“You’re never here.”
Jerimeh was once perturbed by such insolence. There was something inside him that still twinged when someone of lower birth affronted him, and he always felt guilty for it. What hurt him the most was that the boy was completely right. He had neglected his church and his position.
“Take a seat, Nadir. I think it is time we spoke.” Nadir did what he was told, dusted off his hands and sat on one of the benches facing the chancel. Jerimeh sat as close as he dared to and left a gap of at least a yard between them. “I think it is time for you to leave Harthelm.”
Nadir’s eyes brightened. “You are letting me go?”
“Yes, with conditions. It would be irresponsible for me to let you go out into the world, especially during a war. Particularly with you knowing the intricate details of this castle better than most. Yet, if you stay, I worry that I will not be able to protect you. I want you to stay with The Order of the Ravens and learn from Stillius for a while.”
“So, I am not free to leave? I just have to go somewhere else as a prisoner?”
“You are not a prisoner, Nadir, but you soon might be. Elden Hardwick is convinced that you killed Sir Eiruc. I, myself, am not sure on you either, but I do care for you…and in truth…I cannot truthfully say that I want you to stay here. You want one thing in this world, Nadir. To find your mother. It is apparent that I cannot help you with that, but perhaps if I put you under the protection of someone who can, then that will bring us all some peace.”
Nadir nodded. “If that is what will be.”
Jerimeh looked at the boy’s eyes. They were away from there. Away from him. Nadir had once been present, even if he was itching to get away. Now, he was already gone. He could not help but blame himself for that. He had neglected Nadir as much as he had neglected anyone during the past year. “I am sorry, Nadir. Truly. I promised you something and I failed you. I did not find your mother for you. Alas, I did not do near enough. Even with the war, I should have done my duty by you…by Stillius. I hope you can forgive me one day, but I understand if that is not today.”
Nadir looked at him blankly. “I will go with Stillius as soon as he is here. Is there anything else you wanted to say, your worship, or am I free to leave?”
Jerimeh could not help the sigh that escaped his mouth. “No, Nadir. That was all.”
Upon the steps of the King’s Hall, Jerimeh stood beside his King draped in a black sash over his white robes. King Aron stood behind him with Prince Asher. As Jerimeh looked over the court, he could see the people lining the streets at the bottom of the hill, looking up at the castle and trying to see the service. The first speech was outside. It was coming towards the end of winter, and though it was cold, the sky was clear and the sun was beaming down upon them. King Aron had decided to hold the first service outside for both the Gods and for the city. The private service would continue in the God’s Hall, where Eiruc’s coffin would be lowered into the crypt. It would not stay there of course. Only members of the Royal Family were permitted to be buried in the crypt, but out of respect for Eiruc’s birth and due to the fact that nothing could come in or out of the city, Aron arranged for him to stay beneath the God’s Hall until it was possible to move him back to Hunter’s Valley. Lord Garrison was not even at the service, and not a word had been heard from him since his son’s death.
At one point in his life, Jerimeh ached at the thought of death. Particularly those who had died young like Sir Eiruc, but the more he lived, the more he realised that death was more pain for the living than for the dead. The dead began their new lives or were ushered into paradise. The living did not have that new hope. All the living had was the memories of their own suffering and their own failures. Jerimeh could not help but be mournful in such a situation, and wondered how on earth he would inspire hope in the people who waited on his soothing words, when in truth, he hadn’t a clue what he would say to them to ease their pain.
“I will not tell you lies. I will not hide from you the reality that lay beyond the walls of this city. I will not tell you that the Gods are on our side, and I will not tell you what I am sure you all want to hear…that we have a plan to repel the invaders and reclaim our lost land. We are not standing here today for these reasons. We are standing out here in the winter sun to honour Sir Eiruc Garrison. A member of the Brothership, a Knight of the Realm whilst still in his teenage years, and one of the finest warriors The Hartlands has ever produced. I did not spend much time with Sir Eiruc. He was not a man who spent much time in our God’s Hall, far too busy men at his age are on the battlefield or in taverns, at tournies and courting young women. I do not fault him that one bit. Sometimes it is not a terrible thing for a man not to enter the God’s Hall. Those who do are usually searching for something, either within themselves or outside of their experience. That I did not know Sir Eiruc as well as I may have liked, is not necessarily a bad thing. I prefer to think of him as a man who knew himself, and who had his own relationship with the Gods that did not require guidance from myself. There is always tragedy when a young man dies, not least a man who had earned such distinction at such a young age. Yet there is always hope. The same is true for all people. Sir Eiruc is either about to walk with Natos into paradise, his soul free from his vessel, or he will be born again, a child of this world, somewhere where Jivana is guiding him through his life as best she can. Today, then, we will celebrate Sir Eiruc. We will celebrate his life whilst we mourn his loss. We will raise glasses to his honour and we will support each other in our grief. Today, we will forget about what lay beyond these walls and focus on supporting those within them. We will band together as we have always done. Hartlanders united in their strength and their hope and their love.”
After the service, Jerimeh shook the hands and kissed the heads of the Lords and Ladies of the court. When the crowd had begun to disperse as food was served to the guests, Elden Hardwick and Lord Grosvenor approached him. The two men were almost always side by side. It seemed to Jerimeh that they spent more time with each other than their own wives. Hardwick was still as stone-faced as he was when he last saw him. The man was clearly angry with Jerimeh for protecting Nadir, but even if Jerimeh did suspect the boy, he had no real evidence that he had anything to do with it. Nadir had a motive, but he had even more of a motive not to get caught and hanged in the city square. Grosvenor was much more cordial, as he always was. No matter what situation happened around him, the Earl was always the most pleasant man in the room and utterly flawless in his interaction.
“Your worship, thank you for your wonderful speech. I have not spoken to a man or woman in this hall who has not raved about it. How lucky we are to have an Arkgodson of your poise in these trying times,” Grosvenor told him.
Grosvenor’s Earldom of Greenfields had also scarcely been touched by the war. Laying in the central Hartlands between Hillhold to the north west, Silver City to the north east, Hunter’s Valley in the south west and Battlestorm in the south east, Greenfields was protected and had always been. Laying on some of the most arable land outside of the Earldom of Agria, the Earldom was the richest in the Kingdom. It was so well protected that most of Grosvenor’s army spent almost all their time at one of the four surrounding castles, including Lord Grosvenor himself. Danayal Grosvenor was also in attendance, though he was already occupying the wine table and talking the ears off anyone who tried to get themselves a goblet.
“Agreed,” Hardwick followed-up curtly. “A fine speech.” Hardwick looked around him and leaned in close to Jerimeh. “A word, your worship?” It did not take Jerimeh more than a moment to gauge the severity of Hardwick’s tone and he led them towards the chancel and into his office. Jerimeh shut the door behind him as soon as the three men were alone there.
“No one can hear us here, we are alone,” Jerimeh told them.
“There have been rumours,” Grosvenor started, his voice was now stern and grave. “A foreign invasion across The Settler’s Sea.”
“An invasion from The Old World?”
“Angarians so we hear. A fleet of around two-hundred ships are lined up at ports along Antinna.”
“How did you hear about this?”
Hardwick lowered his head and drank. “They tried to recruit us.”
“The Hartlands is on the brink of destruction. They offered us a way out…to bring them the Kingdom, and in exchange we would keep our Earldoms,” Grosvenor explained.
“Who tried to recruit you? What on earth is this?”
“Thair Spicer, your worship. Thair Spicer has been funding their army for years, weeding himself through their organisation. There is not a man, woman or child among the Angarians who does not owe that slimy merchant a great debt. He thought he had us too, but we turned him down.”
“Why are you telling me this? We must take this straight to King Aron.”
Hardwick and Grosvenor glanced at each other, concerned. “King Aron is…rash and hot-headed at the best of times, your worship. Meaning no disrespect, he is still reeling from so many betrayals. If he knows that we have been approached, he will soon suspect everyone at court.”
“As he should!” Jerimeh interjected.
“Aye…perhaps. But we will find a lot more out if we keep this to ourselves. Besides, it would be a distraction if he knew. Within days the city will be under siege. We need to plan our defence of this city. Perhaps a foreign invasion might even end this petty war. I cannot imagine The Blacklands will want their shores invaded by these Angarians.”
“Why tell me this? Why tell me this if you did not intend to tell our King? Now you ask me to keep this secret from him.”
“Because he trusts you. You must guide him through this time, but someone close to him who wishes only to protect the Kingdom must know. I am sorry, Jerimeh, but the only man for that job is you,” Grosvenor told him.
Jerimeh sat alone in his chamber long into the evening that night. He looked across the city and towards the shore where he half expected a hoard of ships to be approaching in the distance. There was something oddly peaceful about a city before a siege or a town before a battle. The night air was soft and crisp, a dreamy silence seemed to engulf the atmosphere as if the entire city had been evacuated. Jerimeh had known many nights like this, but in none of those nights had he felt so relaxed. It was as if he was finally letting go – of what – he did not know, but of something. Perhaps it is hope, he thought as he ran his wrinkled fingertips across the coarse stone of the window ledge. The fire breathed heavily in the corner of his chamber, and brought a great amount of light to the darkness outside. Clouds had converged in the sky to block the beauty of the Great Galla from shining upon them. It was almost as if the Gods had shut themselves off from the city, not wanting to see what was to happen to it before long.
After some moments of contemplation, Jerimeh allowed his mind to wander so deep into his soul that he found his wife and his children. A life that was so long ago, it felt like it belonged to somebody else, as if they were another man’s memories that he was encroaching on. Then he thought of the Angarians. The ultra-religious cultists who kidnapped his son and had likely raised him as one of their own. Jerimeh had no knowledge of what became of his son. Most of him did not want to know. It would have upset him equally if he had been made King and was leading the invasion of The Twin Kingdom as much as if he would have become destitute and hopeless. Either way, he would not know him. Would not know how to help him. He would be a man grown now. Grown without the influence of his father. Grown with the memories of his childhood drained from his head. There was nothing that Jerimeh could do now. It was too late. Everything now, for Jerimeh, was too late. He did not even have time to save his King, or his city, or the people within it. He only had time to do one more piece of good in his world.
Effei came to his chamber first thing in the morning. Jerimeh had not slept, but had instead spent the night watching the light slowly return to the world for the dawn. By the time Effei had arrived, there was already a cup of tea waiting for him, and Jerimeh was fully dressed and immaculate, as if he’d had the most restful night’s sleep of his life. Despite that, Jerimeh’s cough had resumed. There was a fire filled with discarded handkerchiefs. It was as if he felt that the fire would destroy his affliction, and at the very least, banish the thoughts from his mind for a time. He could feel Natos’ hand on his shoulder, and whilst that brought him some degree of comfort, it also caused him the greatest terror he had ever known. It was as though he was standing on the edge of a cliff waiting to be pushed. Though he knew that he would be dead long before he realised, it was the thought of tipping over that caused his fear.
When Effei arrived, Jerimeh felt the same indignation he had felt from the Godson for the past few months. The tension between them had continued to grow, and the air was thicker between them than it had ever been. Effei was not great at civility. He took things personally. He took perceived slights deep into his heart and soul, and only his astute professionalism stopped him from speaking his mind to his superior. Jerimeh poured Effei’s cup first and the two sat opposite each other in silence for a few moments.
“Thank you for coming.”
“You are the Arkgodson of The Hartlands. It would be remiss for me to refuse your invitation.”
“Speak to me as a friend, please Effei. Not as a rank.”
“It has been hard for me, you know? I have had to make decisions beyond my rank. Without the moniker of Arkgodson, there is a limit to the influence I can exert. I have needed you. In this past year, we have needed you more than we ever have, and you were not there. I understand of course, even if Nadir does not, but understanding does not make us whole.”
Jerimeh could not help but smile. He too would have felt the same as Effei had the roles been reversed, and he was old enough to not deny it. “You are right, it does not, but perhaps I can make this right. Effei, my word what a man you have become. What a fantastic servant you have been to this realm, to the church, to our Gods…to me. In truth, I should have called you to my chamber over a year ago to do this, before all this madness began.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I wanted to tell you in person that I have decided to step down from the role of Arkgodson, and I have recommended you, Godson Effei, to King Aron as my replacement.”
All of the anger flushed from Effei’s face in one moment. All of the repressed rage and anger, frustration and stress were replaced with elation and a swelling under the Godson’s eyes. “You will make me Arkgodson?” Effei mumbled.
“King Aron holds the final choice, but I cannot see any reason why he would not select you. You are the only man for this role. You will be in charge of selecting a Godson to assist you, and you will need to find a replacement for Nadir too, of course, but these decisions will be your own.”
“I do not know what to say.”
“You have been doing my duties for close to a year without the title. This will just make it official.”
Godson Effei dropped to his knees, held Jerimeh’s hands in his own and kissed his knuckles. “Thank you, your worship. Truly…thank you.”
“It is okay…now on your feet. It should not be for an Arkgodson to be thanking a man as privileged as I. You should do as I have not done throughout these years. You should be washing the feet of the poorest in our city, not kissing the rings of the richest. That was my mistake, Effei. I urge you not to repeat it.”
Effei nodded. “What will you do now?”
“After the war, you will have your ceremony and I will go back to Jivanos. I will work in the priory there and spend whatever time I have left helping those who need me.”
“You will live for another ten years,” Effei smiled. “I know it.”
Effei suddenly lost his focus and was staring out of the oriel and across the horizon. He leaned out of the window and gawked stupidly. Jerimeh looked over his shoulder and the silence between the two resumed. The tension returned. This, however, was a wholly new tension. A long line of tiny figures approached through the trees in the distance and towards the main gates of Silver City. A horn blew, signalling the approach of The Blacklands army. The commotion began. Though the city had been prepared, now was the time for action. Jerimeh turned Effei around, put his hands on his shoulders and looked him in the eye. “We must be at the God’s Hall. You, and I, and Nadir. All of us. We must pray for this city and must offer comfort to all those who seek it.”
“It is a shame, isn’t it? That this is all we can do for our people now.”
“Perhaps, but do it we must.”