Good morning everyone and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Forty-One of The Cursed King. I seem to be posting these earlier and earlier on Saturday mornings because I keep waking up earlier. I’m not sure if it is an age thing or because I’m now used to waking up between 6 – 7 on weekdays, but I don’t mind it. I feel awake and ready to go, which is the main thing. I’m currently looking forward to two weeks off work in the middle of October to go to Ireland with my girlfriend, and so I’m hoping I’ll have plenty of opportunity to sleep in then.
Book-wise, I have almost finished writing Chapter Forty-Eight. I am slowing down with my writing, mainly because I need to spend more time piecing the last few chapters together, but also because there’s no huge necessity to stay well-ahead of this blog now. I should finish Chapter Forty-Eight this week, which means I have four left to write – one of which being the Epilogue – and so I’m able to take my time a little bit more, knowing that this blog won’t catch up to me. Largely, this blog was created to do exactly that – hold me accountable to finish this project. And at that, it has been very successful. It’s just a nice bonus knowing that people are enjoying reading it too.
In today’s chapter, Nadir faces a city in chaos, figures of power in turmoil, and the frantic world of battle and warfare. With one choice left to make, Nadir must finally decide to whom he owes his loyalty and will discover exactly what he is capable of. Thanks for reading and Chapter Forty-Two will be posted on Friday 8th October (you’re getting it a day early because I’m off on holiday on the 9th :D).
Nadir did not awaken until the sun was at its zenith. Usually, he would be awakened before first light by Effei or Jerimeh with a cup of water and a list of instructions for the day. In a panic, Nadir leaped from his bed, worried that his insolence may bring upon him punishment. Even now, when he was desperate to show Jerimeh the extent of his apathy, he could not fight the feeling that he was not in control. As Nadir hurriedly pulled on his hosen and his tunic, he was stirred by the cacophony of voices outside his window. The courtyard of Harthelm was full of activity and, what sounded like, excited voices. Though within a few moments, he realised that this was not the buzz of excitement, but the strained and rushed voices of worry and fear.
When Nadir opened the door of his chamber, he heard even more voices and tiptoed down the steps that led into the God’s Hall office. The room was empty of people, but Nadir could still hear the voices. He creaked open the door to the God’s Hall and saw that it was full. Lords, Ladies and their children spoke frantically with each other whilst Jerimeh and Effei stood at the chancel with Lord Grosvenor, who’s eyes were red and puffy, his son, Sir Danayal, and Sir Trevon Blacksquire. Nadir did not like many of the knights, but Sir Trevon was by far the worst. He had a horrible smell and was always drunk and lurid.
Instead of joining them on the chancel, Nadir decided that whatever commotion was happening in the city, he did not want to be part of it. As he was about to sneak around the side of the God’s Hall, Effei spotted him and rushed over to him eagerly. Nadir faked a smile and greeted him politely.
“Nadir, I must apologise that I did not wake you this morning. A terrible thing has happened. It has taken all of our energy.”
“What is it?” Nadir asked.
“The city walls were breached last night and much of the city’s defences were burned. Moreover, and it pains me to say it, Lord Elden Hardwick was murdered by the intruders and some turncoat City Guards.”
Nadir did not know how to react. Dead, he thought. Nadir could not process all of the information that he had just been given, but he soon realised what it meant. “The army are at our walls?”
Effei nodded gravely. “Yes, we are at our final lines of defence in this war, Nadir.”
Nadir felt sick. He soon realised that this would be the time King Aedvard would expect him to act. There was no other moment than this. He knew that he had to find the King and to make good on his escape from Harthelm. He wondered how he would get to Aedvard, how he would escape this situation, where surely, he would be asked to do a thousand and one tasks for Effei and Jerimeh.
“Nadir, I have been so caught up in all of this that many tasks have gone undone. I need you to tend to the prisoners and bring them their meals from the kitchen. Can you do that?”
Nadir stood stunned. “Yes, Effei. I can do that.”
“It sounds like it is time,” Aedvard whispered, his pupils widening. Nadir did not respond. He had learned that it was always best to wait for Aedvard to ask a question rather than to try and contribute to the conversation. There seemed to be an unspoken rule among those with power that their voices were worth less than the one who ranked above them. It was a concept that irked him, but one that he had no choice but to endure. “You understand that we are not out yet? I am still locked in this cell, and the majority of our armies still have a wall between them and the city. Now is the time for your final task for me, Nadir. Should you wish for this to be your final task, that is.”
“I just want to leave the city. I want to leave the city and find my mother.”
Aedvard smiled from one side of his mouth only. “Then so be it. You have upheld your end of the bargain, Nadir, and so I will do as I promised. We will make good on our escape from the city together. I, of course, will need to lead my army. What you do from that point onwards is up to you. You may stay and take revenge on those who have wronged you, or you may run as fast as your legs will take you from this place.”
Nadir nodded. “Thank you, my King.”
“I have been informed that the key to this cell is not kept on the gaoler’s person. It is not kept on the ring of keys along with the others. It is loose. I believe this is kept in the gaoler’s cupboard. You will need to gain access to this cupboard and retrieve the key.”
“Who has the key to the gaoler’s cupboard?”
Aedvard sighed. “I do not know. This is our difficulty. As you know, I have men in my employ throughout this city, but not a single one of them has ever taken possession of this key. It will be a guard. One that is trusted totally and completely by King Aron.”
“How do I know who that is?”
“That is up to you to find out, Nadir. You will not be able to do this by asking questions, only by watching and observing. Take advantage of the chaos. Hide in plain sight, but by the time the sun sets tonight, you must have that key in your hands.”
Nadir did not know where to start. He wandered around the busy courtyard looking for anyone that he knew that guarded King Aedvard’s cell. He had only ever known the cell to be opened by King Aron himself, and from what Nadir knew of The King of the Hartlands, he trusted no one. The thought troubled Nadir. How will I ever get close enough to the King to search through his pockets? What if he did not even keep the key on his person? Nadir wrestled with the task in his mind over and over again. The only way out of the city was through the tunnels, and he needed King Aedvard to get him out of the city safely.
The courtyard was still full of people as he walked across the cobbled stone paving that cut through the finely trimmed grass of the courtyard gardens. Nadir had only ever seen such a commotion at weddings and the arrival of King Aedvard at Harthelm all those months ago. Though this time the air of excitement and anticipation had been sapped from the atmosphere and replaced with the dense atmosphere of anxiety and fear. It seemed to Nadir that people always tried to seem busier in times of crisis, as if their one small action would contribute to a greater achievement, and yet all Nadir had seen since he had arrived were nobles and Kings making grand decisions with the swish of a quill that no grand idea of any mere man could do anything to stop.
All of the running around, frantically preparing for the inevitability that stood outside the gates made Nadir realise the significance of what he knew. The knowledge that he held in his grasp that, if he revealed, could save the lives of an entire city. Yet he needed to keep his knowledge tight to himself to save his own life and protect him long beyond what, he hoped, would only be a brief nightmare in the length of his existence. As Nadir drowned out the noise of the chaos that surrounded him, he found that the bodies around him slowed down, their movements were smoother and more observable. He watched their faces twitch and grimace, but mingled within those expressions were the maintained courtesies of their interactions, the smiles of agreement and the laughs in-between strained faces, somewhere between exasperation and fear. Those moments twisted in Nadir’s heart and made his stomach tighten.
All of a sudden, a familiar face was before him. Jerimeh had his hands around his shoulders and had knelt down in front of him. Nadir stood still and watched Jerimeh as the corners of his eyes twitched, perhaps masking the pain that kneeling down to meet his height caused him. What pain does this man endure for my benefit? Nadir wondered as the old man’s words flew past him.
“Can you do this for me?” Jerimeh’s words hit him as Nadir was shaken from his trance.
“Of course,” Nadir said, knowing that even when his superiors asked him a question, it was just a friendly way of delivering their command in the hope that he would not despise them.
“This is an emergency meeting. I will expect everyone will be on edge, so when you are pouring for King Aron, you must make sure to pour for his grace first before anyone, but you must particularly ensure that you do not pour for Prince Asher before him.”
“Understood,” Nadir said, not quite sure what he was doing, though it seemed he had been asked to cupbear for King Aron and Prince Asher at an emergency meeting. Nadir could not quite believe his luck. For all his wondering about how he would get close to King Aron, he did not ever expect to be thrust into a situation where he could sneak a slight hand into the King’s pockets whilst the King was frantically beating his fist on a desk spitting his commands at his vassals.
Nadir was hurried into the chamber by Jerimeh as the Arkgodson took his place by the desk. King Aron had his face pushed into his hands and Prince Asher looked as though he would rather be anywhere else. Jerimeh coughed into a handkerchief and Lord Grosvenor stared at the doorway blankly. Nadir poured the wine into the goblet and surveyed the room cautiously. He noticed King Aron’s surcoat hanging over the back of his chair around the oval desk that took up the centre of the room. As soon as the goblet was placed at Aron’s side, the King picked it up and glugged it like a drunk in a tavern, and slammed it into the table.
“Keep them coming, lad,” King Aron told him.
“Now is not the time to drink,” Asher growled. “We have a city to defend.”
“And nothing to defend it with. The fucking villain has puppets inside and outside of this city, he has rats running around for him to do his bidding. He has been doing it all along. This is why he allowed himself to be imprisoned. He could have been out as soon as he was in if he wanted to. The war is over. We have lost.”
“It is not over. There is still a wall between us and them. Our father kept this city safe his entire life. Not a single King in history has allowed an army through those gates no matter who knocked upon them. We cannot go down in the histories as The Hartlanders who lost The Hartlands. Lord Garrison is sending a force. We just need to keep them out until they arrive.”
“A force, he says, what kind of force? They have over eight-thousand men…will Lord Garrison send his force to be crushed outside our walls? What for? It is easier to negotiate with a large army at your disposal.”
“Lord Garrison has always been loyal to our father and to us.”
“Because it was worth his while, brother. What use is loyalty when there is a sword at your throat? He will do what serves his interests. There is no one coming to save us, so allow me to drink until they carve their way through our city and take this castle.”
“You cannot mean that…you cannot mean to disgrace our father!”
“Our father is dead…with the Gods in Paradise or reborn as the son or daughter of one of these cunts at our gate. Perhaps his soul is even in a vessel of a Blacklander…perhaps he is outside these walls right now…wouldn’t that be a grand joke of the Gods.”
“King Aron, please,” Jerimeh pleaded.
“Enough!” Lord Grosvenor rose from his seat. “You are supposed to be King. You have had men question your ability to lead all your life. Now, when the time comes to show that you can be the leader they need, you drink and cry and quit. Prince Asher is right, you do disgrace your father, and you disgrace all of us who have remained loyal to you throughout this blasted war. You should have accepted Lady Isabel as a wife. You should never have executed your Queen. You have failed, your grace. Failed. A great man died last night. A loyal man who would have laid down his life in battle for you. Instead, he was gutted by men who thought were his own. If you want the respect of the people in this room, if you want to die with some fucking dignity, then you will take your sword, armour up and lead your men to defend the people of this city. If you do not, then even if you somehow survive this siege, I will not follow you.”
“Out! Everybody out!” King Aron roared.
Asher sprung from his chair and stormed from the room alongside Lord Grosvenor. Nadir looked at Jerimeh for approval and the Arkgodson nodded to approve his leave. Whilst Nadir was frustrated that he could not get his hands close to the King’s pockets, he was also relived that he no longer needed to. To be caught would mean joining Aedvard in a jail cell, and he began to wonder if he could find another way to escape the city without King Aedvard’s help. As he walked down the staircase, Grosvenor and Asher were talking in whispers in the oriel that overlooked the city. Nadir made sure not to make eye contact with either of them as he walked past them, and managed to get by without them noticing him.
When he reached the bottom of the stairs, Nadir bumped into someone and fell backwards onto the step. He heard a man chuckle to himself, and when he looked up, he saw the grizzled face of Sir Trevon hovering over him. Nadir sprung to his feet and stood defiantly before the Knight. “You should be more careful, lad,” the drunkard slurred. Sir Trevon always stunk of alcohol, but today the stench was so strong that Nadir could feel it in the back of his throat. Without saying a word, Nadir side stepped him and exited the tower. “Oi! I was talking to you, come back here!” Sir Trevon yelled after him. Nadir stopped in his tracks and the Knight caught up to him.
“What is it?” Nadir growled impatiently, eager to figure out his next move without the lecherous drunk bothering him and making him feel uncomfortable.
“You talk to me like that? A landed Knight and member of the Royal Guard. You lowborn welp, you should know your place…you think because you spent time with these Godsons that it makes you better than me? I could cut you where you stand, boy.”
Sir Trevon stumbled forward. Nadir decided to walk away, he had never known the Knight to be sober, but this was by far the drunkest he had ever seen him. The Knight followed him into the side alley between the tower and the King’s Hall, but soon after Nadir heard a thud on the ground. He turned around to see that Sir Trevon had fallen to the floor. Nadir approached the Knight cautiously and nudged him with the tip of his shoe. The Knight snored loudly, fast asleep. It was then that Nadir looked at the Knight’s surcoat and saw a bulge in one of the pockets. He knelt down and carefully rummaged in the pockets. He pulled out a set of keys that looked like the ones on the gaoler’s ring…then as he dug into the parallel pocket, he pulled out a larger key, on its own and much shinier, as though it had only been used sparingly. With a start, Nadir looked around him and quickly tucked the key away safely into his hosen.
Whilst sprinting to the dungeon, where Nadir would take the tunnels back towards Aedvard, he realised just how weak his legs had become. He never had the chance to run in Harthelm, never had the opportunity to chase anything faster than he was. He felt sluggish and tired far quicker than he did before, but the focus of his mind kept him going. I could be out of this city by tonight, he realised. When he reached the dungeons, he quickly endured the jeering and the begging that came from the cells on either side of him, whilst it was easy to ignore the comments, it was harder to ignore the hands that grabbed for him and to stay out of reach of both sides required walking a very narrow tightrope through the centre of the walkway. When he reached the cell that once held both Queen Lorne and Thair Spicer, he let himself in and then locked it again behind him. He removed the bricks in the correct order than formed a gap just large enough to crawl through, and revelled in the silence that came after he replaced the last brick and blocked the rest of the light out.
Nadir could navigate these tunnels blind for the time he had spent scuttling through them in absolute darkness, and before he entered the room that kept King Aedvard, Nadir pressed his ear to the wall to ensure there was no noise. He gave the signal to Aedvard by knocking three times, each a second apart on the brick. Aedvard coughed loudly, which was Nadir’s signal to enter safely. Once he did, he held up the ring of keys triumphantly and smiled. Aedvard’s usually stoic demeanour was briefly interrupted by a wry smile of his own. “You are a clever, clever young man,” the King told him.
“Lucky,” Nadir corrected him. “Extremely lucky.”
“It does not matter; you have the keys to your freedom in your hands. Do you know which one is for the gaoler’s cupboard?”
“I don’t think we’ll need it,” Nadir said, holding up the shiny key.
Aedvard’s eyes became wide and his pupils dilated. “By the Gods, lad. Well, what are you waiting for? Open the door and let’s get out of here!”
As soon as Nadir turned the key in the lock and heard the click, King Aedvard immediately pushed through the door, almost knocking Nadir to the floor. His eyes darted towards the wall. “You know your way by heart?”
“Yes, my King,” Nadir replied.
“You can take me to the beach? We need to go to the beach,” Aedvard said, excitedly.
“I know the way. Just be careful at the end of the tunnel, there is a steep drop off onto the rocks below. Do you think you can climb?”
Aedvard smiled. “I can manage.” Nadir nodded and turned towards the wall. “Nadir,” Aedvard said and the boy turned around. “You have done a great thing today. I will not forget it. Thank you.”
Nadir was shocked at how easy it had been to break Aedvard free from his cell. It had occurred to him that the guarding of the King had grown increasingly lax in the recent months, but Nadir did not have time to think about that. For all he knew, this was all a trap of which he was going to be caught in the middle. Aedvard navigated the tunnels far better than Thair Spicer did. He also complained less than the merchant. Aedvard did not say much at first, but as the first etchings of natural light began to shine through from the crack in the cliffs before them, the King was retrospective.
“You are an incredible young man, Nadir. I truly mean it. To do such things, such brave, brave things. It shows the courage that you possess. It shows the love and the loyalty you have for your mother.”
“We are almost there,” Nadir told him, leading ahead. “Just be careful when we get to the edge.”
“Such care and consideration for others. My word, is there no end to your virtues, lad?”
“I’d say there’s about fifty yards ahead of us until the cliffs. It will get slippery. When the tide is in, the waves reach all the way up and crash against the rocks. Then moss grows which makes the rocks dangerous.”
“And so smart…who taught you that…Jerimeh, I presume?”
“My mother taught me that. She used to live on the coast. She knows a lot about beaches and the ocean.”
“I suspect it will not be long before you are with her. Not long at all.”
“I hope so.”
“You do not need to hope…I will make sure of it.”
They had reached the edge of the tunnels that looked over at the jagged rocks below them. The tide was out and the rocks were bone dry from the hot sun, yet they still twinkled in the light, each pointed tip of stone twinkling like the edge of the sharpest dagger. It was then that Nadir was aware of the dagger that he had strapped to his leg. The dagger that was a gift from Thair Spicer that he kept with him at all times. Just in case. King Aedvard stood over Nadir, even with the months spent locked in a cell with little to eat and drink and no form of exercise, he was an imposing figure. Tall and broad and with the roughness only men of a certain age could exude. A callousness of the hands and of the mind, a deep understanding of the world and the way it works. All of this oozed from the King of the Blacklands as his brow furrowed and his mouth tightened. “I want you to know, lad. That you would have been a fine man, but…you are no more to me than a loose end.”
Nadir had nowhere to move. Behind him were the jagged rocks, which he thought he could easily climb faster than the King, but beyond them was his army, waiting to sack the city with their battering rams pressed up against the city gates. In front of him, was the King of the Blacklands, twice his size and strength and experience. In that moment, Nadir lost all of his resolve. Faced with his own mortality, he felt his eyes begin to well up. He was crying, and he was humiliated that he had allowed himself to cry in the face of death. After all that had happened, after all he had endured, how dare he cry now? How dare his body betray him? Then, he felt himself kneel down. Am I going to beg for my life? He thought.
“For the love of the Gods, have some dignity,” Aedvard growled. Nadir sniffled and bawled, and all of this came so naturally to him, to the point where his wails echoed through the halls. Nadir had no control over any of this anymore. His body acted on its own accord as a fire shot through him. “Shut up! Shut up!” Aedvard went to grip him by the scruff of the neck, but Nadir slipped between his legs, and his hosen rode up enough for him to pull out the dagger from its holder. Without a moment’s hesitation, Nadir swiped the blade across Aedvard’s calf muscle. The blade was so sharp that it did not take more than a moment before the blood began to flow down the back of his ankle. The King let out a roar, like a wounded lion, louder than any of Nadir’s wailing cries. The King had dropped to his knee and nursed the wound as much as he could. It was not fatal, Nadir knew that much, but now he had the chance to kill the King that intended to kill him.
But as he stood over the wounded King, his blood on his hand and his dagger, he did not. Nadir turned away. The King yelled after him, demanding his help, but Nadir blocked him out, and soon he was through the tunnels, sprinting as fast as his legs would carry him. He breezed past Aedvard’s empty cell and kept going and going all the way to the end. When he finally reached the ladder that would lift him up and out into the city, Nadir paused for a breath and then screamed as loudly as he could, not caring who might hear him. After a few moments of catching his breath and wiping away his tears, he looked down at his hands and looked at the bloody dagger coated in the King’s blood. Nadir felt sick, but knew that he did not have long. He pulled himself up the ladder and removed the thin steel covering by pushing it up out of its slot.
When Nadir peered over the edge, he was back in Bankwater the night that it was raided by Sir Eiruc Garrison. All around the trees was chaos, there were horses rushing past like shadows, the orange glow of fire all around the city, bodies falling into the river. Nadir did not need to move a step farther to know that the army had broken through into the city. Eight thousand men thirsty for blood and plunder, ready to cut down anyone they saw. And I have just given them back their King, Nadir thought. Each scream pierced his mind like the deafening screech of the banshee. The thud of hooves across the ground pulling at his insides and making him wretch. And then he heard the words that made him crawl back into the hole. The tortured cries of a child as it screamed for his mother. “Mama!” the boy screamed. “Mama!” And then another thunderous clattering of hooves stampeded across the dirt, and the sound was gone. Darkness had taken the city, the stars blocked out by the billowing smoke of naked flames licking at buildings and trees and people.
Nadir sat with his arms around his knees and rocked back and forth, crying into his habit, not realising that he was still wearing the clothes of the Godsons, the clothes that had been given to him by Jerimeh, by the city that he had sold to a man that had tried to murder him. Then, as it so often did, Nadir’s terror and sadness turned into anger. He looked down at the bloodied blade again and gripped it tight in his hands, his tears cooling on his cheeks. Nadir swallowed and squeezed the handle until he felt his own blood drip from his skin. All of the worry within him, all of the horror, all of the pain turned to fire in his blood. He could not escape. He could not leave the city. All he could do was go back to Harthelm. Go back, and face his fate.