Good morning all and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Forty-Six of The Cursed King. It is crazy that I am finally posting this chapter. I think I wrote the first draft of this chapter back in 2017, and had the idea for it long before then – probably a year or two earlier. Whilst I would very much consider this book still in a draft state – and I thank all of you who read it for putting up with the typos etc. – it is nice to finally have a ‘finished’ version of this one to share with you. As we reach the climax and denouement of the story, it reminds me of just how much I have enjoyed thinking about, writing and living in this book.
In today’s chapter, Nadir and Jerimeh tend to the wounded in the God’s Hall as the battle for The Hartlands comes to an end and surrender is near. Now, with the Kingdom’s throat at the teeth of King Aedvard, only the King of the Blacklands can decide their fate. Thanks for reading, and Chapter Forty-Seven will be posted on December 18th.
Nadir felt a sense of solemn irony that the floors and the benches, that he spent so many days painstakingly cleaning until they shone, were now splattered in blood, mud and sick. Jerimeh and Nadir were dressed head to toe in their habits, tending to the sick and wounded, offering fresh water and medicine to whomever they found. Effei was nowhere to be seen, but Nadir imagined that he was in the city, acting as a medic to the army. More and more men fell through the doors, more and more women and children sought refuge from the slaughter. Jerimeh explained to Nadir that the retreat seemed to be in full force, and that soon, there would be respite as the attackers rested and the defenders were given time to tend to their wounded and to grieve their dead.
“This is when they will broker a deal,” Jerimeh told him as he wrapped a bandage around the waist of a soldier who had crusty blood at the corner of his lips and a face as white as snow. Nadir handed Jerimeh a vial of pain relief which Jerimeh tipped into the soldier’s mouth. “I dare say, we may yet survive today should a deal be struck.”
“We could still survive,” Nadir said, thinking about the tunnels. “Or we could just leave.”
Jerimeh smiled as they moved onto the next injury, this was a man who had his hand severed and had blook-soaked fabrics tied around the stump. The Arkgodson looked sorrowful, but the man had lost so much blood, there was not a chance that he could survive. “Give me the strong potion,” Jerimeh said. Nadir pulled the vial from his pocket, it was a thick, indigo liquid, as dark as ink, which Jerimeh allowed to drop onto the man’s tongue, which was so dry that the sludge just sat there. “And water,” he said. Nadir handed Jerimeh the flask and he gave the man a drink, which allowed the sludge to slide down his throat.
“I mean it,” Nadir said. “What is stopping us?”
“Nothing is stopping you, Nadir. You are young and quick. You could scuttle through these tunnels with ease and easily outrun anyone who would try to pursue you. I would be caught before travelling a hundred yards.”
“I could help you. There is no use either of us dying here.”
Jerimeh stopped what he was doing put his hand on Nadir’s shoulder. “It is a nice idea, but it is fanciful. I am going to do my duty here, and then accept my fate, whatever that is. I have been running for years. Now, I just want to stay here. You, however, you should go if that is what you want. You do not need to die here.”
As soon as Jerimeh finished speaking, the doors to the God’s Hall flung open and more wounded men fell to the floor in a heap. There were others tending to them and carrying them on their shoulders. Jerimeh spotted Effei carrying Sir Danayal Grosvenor on one side and his father on the other. Jerimeh and Nadir approached them as they sat the wounded knight up against the wall. His surcoat was stained with blood around his abdomen, and Nadir immediately feared the worse.
Effei spotted Jerimeh, but his look of anger and confusion was immediately taken over by his sense of duty. “Jerimeh, we need alcohol to clean the wound and bandages. As many as you have. Nadir, do you have any water?”
Nadir nodded and poured the water into Sir Danayal’s mouth. “Thank you, lad,” the knight groaned.
As Effei washed out the wound, Sir Danayal grinded his teeth at the sting. Jerimeh cut through the knight’s shirt and began to wrap the bandages around his stomach. Lord Grosvenor winced at the wound and hid his face. It was a grotesque sight. The wound was deep and filtyhy as though someone had swung a mace and his stomach and ripped the flesh as they pulled it back. There was a lot of blood, and Jerimeh was not sure how much a bandage would do to protect such an injury. Regardless, Jerimeh continued to nurse the young knight.
“It’ll be okay, lad. You fought a fantastic fight,” Grosvenor told him and gripped his hand. “Please look after him, Arkgodson,” Grosvenor stared at Jerimeh, who responded with a sharp, solemn nod.
The commotion in the hall reached feverish levels before Nadir noticed that King Aron and Prince Asher had entered the hall. They too looked dishevelled and battle-weary as the crowd moved aside for their royal leaders. Each step King Aron took was met with greater and greater silence until the King reached the chancel and sat on the step with his head in his hands. Prince Asher stood over him and attempted to pull him up, but the King shrugged him off as he dragged his fingers through his beard in agony.
“Get off me!” He roared, drawing the attention of the entire hall. “It is over, don’t you see? Don’t you all see that it is done?” King Aron stood and shouted around the hall.
The scene caused Prince Asher to release his brother and he allowed the King to sink back to the step into his anguish. Asher looked around awkwardly, unsure as to how to act, seemingly out of ideas. He instead decided to leave his brother alone and rushed over to Sir Danayal whose face turned whiter and whiter. Asher crouched down before him and held his hand against his face.
“My word, what a fight you gave out there. I have never seen a man with as much fire. A Knighthood does not do you justice,” Asher told him.
Sir Danayal did not allow himself to cry, though he was clearly moved by Prince Asher’s words. It was clear to Nadir that Sir Danayal knew that he was going to die. Jerimeh whispered some comforting words into the knight’s ear and Lord Grosvenor told his son of his pride. A small crowd of the wounded and sick had gathered around them, offering their praise and their kind words to Sir Danayal. Before long, Sir Danayal Grosvenor drifted to sleep for the last time. There were tears all around him, many recognising what he had done for the city, and how he had helped the people escape into Harthelm. Lord Grosvenor could not hide his anguish as he clutched his son and held him to his chest. Jerimeh and Effei ushered the small crowd back and Prince Asher took off his own royal surcoat and draped it over the young Knight’s face to allow the boy dignity and privacy in his death.
Nadir continued to tend to those around him, eager not to intrude on such a private moment, yet in his heart, he felt guilty for what he had done. If it was not for him, King Aedvard would still be in his cell, and perhaps the battle would have fizzled out. Perhaps, Sir Danayal may even still be alive. He could not help but hide his head in his satchel and dig around for medicine for the sick, he wondered how many people he would need to help to make up for what he had done. After some time, Jerimeh re-joined him and they continued to help those in need, but before Nadir could thank him, King Aron was standing at the doors of the God’s Hall and had called everyone’s attention.
“It appears…” King Aron said as he surveyed the hall and all of the eyes were upon him. “It appears that we only have one course of action open to us. I…I have always tried to be as much like my father as I could. I did not mean for any of this to happen…I did not mean for so many of us to die. Now that I stand here before you, in what will surely be my last act as King, I feel it my duty to tell you that I plan to negotiate a surrender with King Aedvard.”
There were murmurs amongst the crowd, but it seemed that the overwhelming feeling was relief. Even though there was fear and uncertainty, the smallfolk just wanted it to be over, and the soldiers could not fight anymore. “I will come with you, brother,” Prince Asher said. King Aron simply nodded his approval, unable to bring any more words to his lips. The King turned to the doors and opened them to step out into the courtyard. Nadir turned to Jerimeh.
“What does this mean…to negotiate a surrender?” Nadir asked.
“It means that he is going to try and spare as many lives as he can, but make no doubt, that his life will not be one of them.”
King Aron sat on his throne in the King’s Hall surveying those who remained with him. Lord Grosvenor, fresh from his son’s death, stared at the paintings on the stained glass, but gave no indication he was admiring the workings of the glaziers. Godson Effei was close by Prince Asher’s side, who waited patiently at the doors for the messenger to return. Jerimeh sat by the King’s side, a chair provided for him so that he could give council and take the weight from his aching legs. Nadir, feeling as though he should not be there, as though he should not be anywhere close to Harthelm, stood patiently before King Aron. Though Jerimeh had told Nadir to stay in the God’s Hall, King Aron insisted that he remain in plain sight, lest he escape and plot against them again. Nadir obliged, but not before Aron reminded him that he would be hanged at the first opportunity should he have his way. Though whether that would be the case would be down to King Aedvard. Even Nadir knew that, by this point, any threats delivered to him from the mouth of King Aron were to be taken with a fair handful of salt. Moreover, there was not an ounce of hope that Aron would retain the moniker of King either. Nadir accepted the words, knowing that he would likely be put to death, but that it was unlikely to be King Aron who made that decision.
Before long, a messenger did arrive for Prince Asher. The prince immediately delivered the note to his brother and the group gathered around eagerly to hear what King Aedvard had written back, all except Lord Grosvenor, who remained silent, his eyes fixed to the glass. King Aron read the words and nodded, as though he has predicted every letter that appeared on the parchment.
“Aedvard will talk to us at sundown. He will come alone,” King Aron said.
“Alone?” Asher said incredulously. “Why on earth would he do that?”
“Don’t you see, brother? He mocks us. He knows we do not have a card left in our deck to play. What use would it be to attempt to capture him when his army is outside our gates? What good would it do to kill him? Aedvard knows we are done.”
Even Nadir felt sympathy for King Aron in that moment. The grief in his voice as it cracked on the word done made Nadir realised that this was all over. There was no escape for any of them now, and nowhere else for them to go. The Hartlands had lost the war, and King Aron’s resignation speech had confirmed that. Nadir looked at Jerimeh who have him no more than a blank stare. It was mildly apologetic, but mostly a look which said no more than: This is it for the both of us.
Whilst they waited until sundown for Aedvard to arrive, Jerimeh and Nadir prayed with each other to Natos. Nadir’s mother had always told him to pray to Jivana. Children should not pray to the Angel of Death, she used to say, but Nadir rarely prayed then. He only did so when he was told to, or when he felt particularly sad or guilty about something. Since he found himself lost in the woods and then lost in Harthelm, Nadir prayed every day. Not always to Jivana, because he did not know whether or not his mother was still alive. He did not like to think of it, but he always prayed to Natos too, just to be safe.
Lord Grosvenor watched them as they prayed, but by the time Nadir and Jerimeh raised their heads, he had gone. The Earl of Greenfields had not said a word since his son’s death, and King Aron had allowed him leave to go back to his son in the God’s Hall. Whilst Lord Grosvenor was solemn, Godson Effei was agitated. He would not leave Prince Asher alone, constantly pulling him aside and trying to speak to him about one thing or another, whilst the Prince seemed to want nothing more than to be rid of the priest. Jerimeh had not spoken to Effei. Though they healed the soldiers together in the God’s Hall, not a word was spoken between them. Nadir stayed close to Jerimeh, and he wondered if he was the reason that they had not been allowed to reconcile.
As Nadir thought of this, there was a loud bang on the doors of the King’s Hall. All eyes darted towards King Aron like arrowheads, but the King only looked towards Nadir. “If you are going to be out of your cell, you can at least make yourself useful. Go on…allow your friend entry to my throne room,” Aron swiped.
Nadir looked up at Jerimeh. The Arkgodson nodded and Nadir hurried to the door. He pulled the door open and King Aedvard loomed over him. He had spent so long with King Aedvard in a cell, but to see him stood before him, garbed in his Kingly attire, his finely woven surcoat and heavy boots, Nadir felt a shudder of fear run down his spine. The King of the Blacklands looked at him, but paid him no heed, no ounce of acknowledgement. It was as if they had never even met. King Aedvard stepped into the hall and surveyed his surroundings, savouring the moment, but he did not say anything. Nadir wondered how long he had waited for this, and how satisfied he must be that his plan finally took hold, that his dream of ruling over The Twin Kingdoms would soon come to pass.
“Well, I am here.” King Aedvard said only to Aron, ignoring the other people in the room.
“Then let us begin.” King Aron replied.
“This will not take long. I have discussed these terms at length with my Lords and my son, and I am certain you will deem them fair. Contrary to what you may have thought, I will spare the lives of everyone in this room. All that I require in exchange is The Hartlands’ fealty. I will install my own Earls, but House Hartlin will have dominion over Hartlake. As that is your ancestral home, I see no reason as to why you should not keep it. It will be important to ensure that there is a smooth transition of power. Executing you would do nothing but breed rebellion and revolt, and I will have no time for either. I will entrust you both with quelling any potential uprisings before they have a chance to spread. Of course, you will both lose your monikers. Asher, you will be named War Commander of The Hartlands. Aron, you will be Earl of Hartlake. Arkgodson Jerimeh will remain Arkgodson, and his choice of successor will still be heard. I do not intend to take the Lordships from men like Lord Grosvenor or Lord Garrison, but they will no longer be Earls themselves. I will, of course, be re-coronated as King of The Twin Kingdoms, whilst Prince Charles will be named Duke of The Hartlands.”
King Aedvard paused. There was an intense sense of shock around the King’s Hall. Not a single person in the room expected the King of the Blacklands to spare their lives, let alone allow them to maintain positions of power. Prince Asher was awash with relief, clearly thinking of what may have happened to his family if he had been executed. Jerimeh too, looked slightly more relaxed, but King Aron’s face had not changed, if anything it had tightened and his brow furrowed.
“You will not do this to me. I will not have it!” Aron roared as spit flicked into his beard.
“Quiet, brother!” Asher chaste him. “What on earth are you screaming about? Did you not hear him? He is sparing our lives.”
“He is forcing us to live through our humiliation! He will do to us what he did to House Black!”
“House Black retain lands until this day and served our Kingdom honourably for years,” Aedvard interjected. “Moreover, you will enjoy far more freedoms than I ever allowed that House.”
“Allow us freedoms! I am the King of the Hartlands, the son of King Eldrian the Wonderful. You will not rule me. You will give me a damn honourable death!”
“Brother, that is enough!”
“No! That is enough from you. I have had to sit throughout my reign listening to you talk, listening to my own vassals talk about you as though you were king, as though it was you who truly ruled The Hartlands. I am sick of it.” Aron’s voice began to crack and tears spilled from his eyes uncontrollably. “I lost my wife and my child. I still do not know who was truly responsible. Now, I have lost my Kingdom, I have lost everything. Do you not see, brother?” Aron gripped Asher’s surcoat and sobbed. “Do you not see that all I have left is the opportunity to die with grace, to not be forced to live through this ignominy? Do you not see that?”
Prince Asher held King Aron to his chest tightly as the King of the Hartlands sobbed. It was as though all of his grief had suddenly come to the fore, and now it poured out over the embroidered emblem of House Hartlin emblazoned on his twin brother’s chest. After a few moments of wretched cries, Prince Asher pushed his brother away, but kept a tight grip on each of his shoulders and looked into his eyes. “You have every right to express your pain. I feel it too, I truly do, but we are in dangerous territory now. That man over there is offering us an out, he is offering us our lives, and all we need to do now is accept his demands. It will be painful, and at times, unbearable, but Aron, I have a family. I have a family whom I love, and who I am not ready to leave. If you do not agree to this, then we will all die, not just you. Please…for all of our sakes…please…it is over.”
Aron turned away from his brother, his eyes set on the floor. Then, in one swoop, Aron pulled the sword from Prince Asher’s scabbard, and lunged towards King Aedvard. There was enough distance between them that the King of the Blacklands, out of no more than instinct, twisted his body away. The fabric of Aedvard’s surcoat was ripped away by the tip of the blade, and a trickle of blood dripped down from the tear, but there was no more damage than that. By the time the tearful Aron regained his composure, Aedvard had drawn his sword. Aron lunged again, hopelessly, as the experienced swordsman parried him with ease. After a few swipes, Aron seemed to become a different beast. Nadir realised that Aron was fighting like a man demanding to be killed, furiously throwing his blade without any care at all for his own well-being, praying for the blade of his enemy to find his heart.
But it did not come. Aedvard was pushed back into a corner until Aron flicked the sword out of his enemy’s hand. King Aron was frothing at the mouth, his face wet with tears whilst his agony danced mockingly upon his face. King Aedvard, was serene. He gazed into Aron’s eyes and held his arms out wide in surrender. “What do you do now, Aron?”
“No more!” Asher pleaded with Aron and approached them both slowly with his arms out wide too, mirroring Aedvard. “Please, brother. This must end now.”
For the first time in a long time, Nadir finally saw Aron smile. The King of the Hartlands held the tip of the sword hovering by Aedvard’s exposed throat, and spoke to Aron whilst staring at King Aedvard. “Do you not see, Asher? It is already over. Me, you, your family…we are set for execution. Maybe not today or tomorrow, maybe not even a few years from now, but he will find a way. Once all this settles down, once he no longer needs us. Then we will die. I would rather die now, with honour.”
Asher took another step towards his King brother and carefully placed a hand upon his shoulder. “Then die, brother. But I will not die with you.”
It took a moment for Nadir to absorb what had happened. Aron just stood, dumbfounded, as blood dripped from his mouth. He looked down at the dagger handle that was sticking out of his chest, his twin brother’s hand still wrapped around it. It was a look that Nadir had never seen before. It was hurt. It was fear. It was reckoning. The sword dropped from his hand and the steel clattered on the marble floor, it was the only sound that broke the silence. Then, all of the sounds broke through, like a river bursting its banks in a flood. Next, Jerimeh’s cry ripped through the hall and ricocheted off the walls, piercing Nadir’s heart so much that it triggered his own tears. Nadir’s first thought was to run to his mentor, his friend. But as soon as he turned around, he saw the same lost look in Jerimeh’s eyes as he saw in Aron’s, but this time, it was Godson Effei standing over the Arkgodson with a dagger in his heart. Nadir felt his heart stop. All that shrouded him was horror, and he convinced himself that he must be dreaming. He must have been thrust into this nightmare, there was no other explanation for any of this.
Nadir felt his legs sprinting to Effei and he launched his body off the ground, screaming and throwing his fists at the Godson. The dagger flew out of Effei’s hands. Nadir wailed at his face, which was unprotected, and he felt bone on bone, his knuckles exploded with blood as they made contact with his chin, his cheeks and his nose. But he was pulled away, he went to hit whoever did it, but he saw that it was Jerimeh, and all of the anger was washed out by a wave of sadness as he saw the wound in the Arkgodson’s heart. Jerimeh gripped his face in between his hands, his eyes full of terror, but not for himself. With a final, choked breath, as blood filled the corners of his lips, Jerimeh said only one word.
“Kill the boy.” Aedvard instructed.
His face bloodied, Effei reached for his dagger and lunged at Nadir, but as he watched the blade fall towards him, he was forcefully knocked out of the way, and fell onto his back. As he scrambled to his feet, he watched the Godson violently thrust his dagger back through Jerimeh’s heart as the Arkgodson lay flat on his back, his arms out wide, staring up at the ceiling of the King’s Hall. Nadir was too choked to scream, and as he panned around to see King Aedvard, Prince Asher and Effei moving towards him, he thought of his mother, he thought of Bankwater. He thought of running into the woods, he thought of chasing after rabbits and his legs were moving towards the dungeons. He did not know where else to go, and so he ran as fast as he could. He saw a hand reach out towards him, but he wriggled away from it and his legs continued to carry him towards the cell where he spent so much time. He shut the gate behind him, pulled off his habit and tied it around the door, giving him no more than a moment. The bricks that he had removed before had been moved back into place, and left a hole no larger than himself for him to squeeze through. Nadir heard the gate clatter open behind him and he dove heard first into the gap and felt the bricks scratch his naked back. He wriggled his body through the bricks, but felt a strong hand grab his ankle. He shook it off angrily, but felt sharp cuts on his legs that made him yelp in pain. It echoed around the halls, and Nadir could not force himself through any more.
Nadir lost strength and felt his body being pulled back. Then, just as he was about to give up the fight, he was being pulled the other way. He was yanked into the darkness and found himself in the tunnel, the blood trickling down his legs. Scrambling away, he watched the desperate hands flail angrily at the empty air, but before he could discover what had happened, he was lifted up and flung over a shoulder. The body carried him away and ran.
“We haven’t got much time,” the voice told him as they rushed away from the scene.
“No…no…we have to go back. It’s Jerimeh, they killed Jerimeh! They killed Aron!”
“I know they did, Nadir, but the most important thing is, that they do not kill you.”