Good morning everyone and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Forty-Three of The Cursed King. Now, I originally posted that I would post this on October 22nd, but that was an absolute typo and we are back to our regular programming of Saturday mornings fortnightly. I’ve had a very relaxing two weeks off having spent a week in Ireland with my girlfriend and her family for her birthday, which was absolutely perfect. No doubt you’ll be seeing some of those pictures used as chapter icons in future. The second week of my holiday has just involved me lazing around, waking up late and playing the latest installment of Football Manager, which I have no doubt will control my life for the forseeable. It also allowed me time to finish Chapter Forty-Nine, and I will be starting on Chapter Fifty next week. It’s absolutely crazy that I’m so close to finishing this considering how long I’ve been working on it and can well and truly see the light at the end of the tunnel.
In today’s chapter, The Blacklands army is storming through Silver City. Jerimeh, feeling helpless, enlists assistance from his allies to help the people on the ground. Whilst Aron’s grip on his Kingdom loosens and his courage wanes, those around him refuse to be defeated so easily, and band together to put up a defiant defence. Thanks for reading, and Chapter Forty-Four will be posted on November 6th.
From King Aron’s council chamber, Jerimeh watched over the city as the armies of The Blacklands and The Hartlands fought in the streets between houses and along alleyways. Harthelm itself was behind another layer of inner-city walls, but Jerimeh knew that the gate would not hold for long, and if their army did not fight off Prince Charles’, then they would be imprisoned or killed. Jerimeh already knew his fate. Even if he wasn’t killed now, he would be dead by the next Vitamara – the end of year festival that celebrates Natos and Jivana. It was the 22nd of Spring, with only ten weeks remaining until Vitamara, he was certain that he would draw his last breath before he saw it.
Jerimeh fiddled with the bloody handkerchief in his pocket and could not help but feel some sense of relief that his life would soon be over. All of the horror that was occurring from his view, all of the men, women and children who would be brutalised and killed, all happening whilst he was held up in the castle. He thought of Jimmy the Blacksmith and his young daughter, he thought of Prior Swann and the rest of the citizens. There were efforts being made to bring as many people into Harthelm as possible, but the city was home to tens of thousands of people, and there was only so much space, and only a certain amount of trust that King Aron could afford to spare.
Even though it was Spring, pregnant clouds gathered over the city ready to burst. It was scarcely past noon but looked like it was past dusk. Occasionally, Jerimeh thought he heard thunder, but soon realised it was another building or siege engine being pulled to the ground. There was a general background noise that showed no signs of ending, but every now and again a yelp of pain or a horrified scream would reach high above the noise of the general fighting and rip through his heart.
“I do not know how you can stand there and watch this,” Effei said, sat at the table with his head in his hands.
“If I am to be protected in his tower, the least I can do is watch over our city as it crumbles.”
“You are the Arkgodson of The Hartlands…not a soldier. There is no place for you down there. It is not a place for either of us.”
It was then that King Aron stormed into the room, flanked by Prince Asher and Lord Grosvenor. “He’s gone!” Aron roared. “Someone has set him free!”
Jerimeh was startled. “Who?” He asked, stupidly, already knowing the answer.
“King Aedvard. They’ve taken him…they’ve taken our only…” King Aron stopped speaking to stop his voice from cracking as he anguished over the words that fell from his lips.
Luckily for the King, his brother stepped in to address the room. “We have men searching the grounds, but yes, it appears he is gone.”
“It is over,” Aron said, almost as if he was in a trance. “The war is over.”
“Your grace, whilst we are still standing, we must fight for this city, we must fight for this Kingdom!” Lord Grosvenor stood.
“We should be down there…we should be standing side by side with our men,” Asher growled. “Not held up here in our castle.”
“To what end?” Aron roared back. “The city has been taken…soon they will take Harthelm too. Whatever is to happen has already been written.”
To that, Asher rose to his feet and moved close to his brother’s face. “I have stood beside you through all of this. Through all of your madness and all of your half-laced plans, all of the times you have made our Kingdom weak, and all of the idiocy that has encumbered your reign. I will not do this anymore. I will not bow to this coward King. I would rather die with my dignity.”
Asher spat on the floor at Aron’s feet and stormed out from the room. “Where do you think you are going?” Aron shouted.
Asher’s voice echoed back from the stairwell, though the Prince did not break his stride to respond. “To fight for this City.”
No one dare say a word. King Aron sat at the head of his table, staring straight ahead and did not move a muscle. After a few moments, Jerimeh went to open his mouth, he did not know what he was going to say, but he felt as if something was needed. As soon as the words began to form, Jerimeh heard small, hurried footsteps against the stone before Nadir burst through into the room with urgency. “Your grace, your worship…I need to tell you something!”
“Not now,” Jerimeh hissed under his breath, shocked that Nadir would break into a meeting like this so uncourteously.
“I know how King Aedvard escaped…I can show you!”
All of a sudden, King Aron had been brought back to life. He stood tall over Nadir and his shadow completely smothered the boy. “And how would you know that?”
Nadir took a deep breath. “I helped him escape…I have been helping him for months. I am sorry.” Nadir then turned to Jerimeh. “Please forgive me, Jerimeh. I thought he was helping me find my mother, but he was just using me as a way of escaping the castle. He tried to kill me in the tunnels that lead to the cove.”
“What tunnels, Nadir? What are you talking about?” Jerimeh quizzed him. In all of his time in Harthelm, Jerimeh did not know of any secret tunnels by the cove.
“I will show you! I will show you everything. There is a network of tunnels throughout the city…Aedvard knew about them, but no one else. I also helped Thair Spicer escape through them.”
“You treasonous little bastard! Is there no one who has not been sucked in by this man’s lies? Seize the boy and prepare him for hanging!”
Jerimeh’s heart lurched in his chest. “No! What good does that do you now, your grace? There is an army at our gates, and we may have just found a way to provide refuge for the people of our city, a way to allow our armies retreat that our enemy does not know about.”
“He is a liar!” Aron roared. “He will lead us into a trap and to our deaths!”
Jerimeh knelt down to Nadir’s level, it took all the Arkgodson had to not show the pain that the one simple movement caused him, it felt like his knees were going to explode. “Nadir…I want nothing more than to be able to protect you, but I must tell you the truth. Something that I have not done enough since we have met. No matter what you do here, no matter what happens, you will be hanged. You have committed high treason, and there is nothing that I can do to protect you from that. Though what I can promise you is that now is the last chance that you will have to do the right thing. To protect people just like you. All of those innocent people in that city, they did not ask for this war, and they are dying because of it. We now have the chance to ensure that mothers stay with their children, to keep them safe from those who would harm them. Is that what you want? Would you like to help me?”
“Yes!” Nadir said without hesitation. “I’m sorry…I just want to help…please.”
“Then you will take Effei and I to these tunnels, and you will help us escort the city folk into Harthelm.”
“No, you will not!” Aron boomed. “I will not have any more treachery, I will not have soldiers sneaking into these tunnels to butcher my court too. This is folly!”
“I’m afraid I must agree with King Aron, Jerimeh. I did not want to take in the refugees into the city…there were too many. In trying to protect them we have damaged ourself, and look where it has got us,” Effei said.
Then, Lord Grosvenor threw a goblet against the wall. “Listen to yourselves! Your father would be sickened by this. The fact that the protection of our people is up for debate would have him turning in his grave. Your father protected this city and this Kingdom his entire life, and now as it crumbles into ruin, you stand here and seek to do nothing but protect yourselves. Jerimeh is right. The only thing we can do now is to help those who need us, to give our armies a way to retreat. I will go with you.”
“You will do nothing! That is an order from your King!”
Grosvenor’s face turned to stone. The room was silenced, and the Earl of Greenfields looked at King Aron in disgust.
“You are King of nothing.”
Jerimeh was absolutely flabbergasted by the network of tunnels that existed throughout Harthelm at the city, and could not understand how no one had ever discovered them before, let alone how King Aedvard seemed to have a deep knowledge of them. The stone that was used to make them seemed ancient, but strong. He wondered if Stillius knew of these tunnels, and then began to wonder whether this was one of the many ways that The Order of Ravens navigated the great city. It turned out that Nadir wasn’t leading them into a trap, and had instead led them to a forest by the river. Hidden by trees, shadows and a patch of turf, Jerimeh soon realised how this entrance had never been found, and wondered how many more there were throughout the city.
Grosvenor had joined them, but Effei had stayed behind with King Aron. It hurt Jerimeh to abandon his King, but he had no choice. It was the only thing that he could think to do that might redeem him before he died. Grosvenor had also brought along his son, Sir Danayal, though most everyone else was fighting in the streets with The Blacklands army. Before long, they reached the end of the tunnel and Nadir led them out.
“Wait,” Sir Danayal said. “It will be dangerous out there. I will go first.”
“We must all go,” Jerimeh said. “We must alert as many of the city folk as possible to use these tunnels as we can without alerting the army.”
“You will stay,” Lord Grosvenor said. “This city is a battlefield now. It is no place for an old man and a boy, meaning no offence. We will need to be careful, which means we will need to aim for the most impoverished areas, the areas furthest away from the plunder. Danayal, you head for the North gate, and I will take the West. We will work our way to the gates and back before heading back here, try and recruit some men on your way to help us.”
Sir Danayal went, and his father followed. Grosvenor turned back to Nadir and Jerimeh. “You were brave…to stand up to King Aron as you both did. You have done this city a great kindness.”
Almost as soon as they’d left, Jerimeh could feel the tension rise between him and Nadir. He could not bring himself to feel anger towards him, but he also could not help feeling betrayed. It was as though their bond had been broken, and yet, Jerimeh could not escape the feeling that their bond was false to begin with. Jerimeh did try to apply resources to find Nadir’s mother, but he did exaggerate the possibilities of finding her. He had underestimated him, and what he was capable of. He almost laughed to himself. What I did to find my son, what I did to find those who took him from me, and yet I could not fathom what Nadir would do to find his kin.
“I am sorry,” Jerimeh said finally as he pressed his sore back against the cold stone.
“Why are you sorry?” Nadir asked. “I have done so much evil here. Look what I have done…I have released King Aedvard…I have betrayed you and Effei and Stillius…and I murdered Sir Eiruc.” Jerimeh had to swallow his anger when Nadir said that, but the boy started crying before he could release any of it. “I did not mean…I don’t know why I did it. Something happened to me. It was though I was not in control of my own body. I saw him and I just felt this heat throughout my body. It was as though my blood was boiling in my skin, like my head was on fire. And then as soon as I killed him. As soon as I put the blade through his skin, it was like being awash with cold water. I am sorry, but if I am to die, I will die with you having heard my confession.”
Jerimeh found it hard to show his anger to Nadir. Although he felt it, he also understood what it was like to face death. For Nadir to do so whilst still so young, was beyond even Jerimeh’s comprehension. Childhood felt like another life altogether for Jerimeh. “What will happen, will happen, Nadir. Consider your confession heard. We will meet our fates soon.”
“What will happen to us when we die, your worship? Truly? You must know.”
Jerimeh had a thousand answers for that question. He had learned throughout his years how to answer such questions from his flock, and yet now, faced with this child, he realised that he did not truly know. What was beyond life? He had some idea, some musings and some learning, but nobody could ever know. Nobody knew until they were on the other side. “I do not, Nadir. Sadly, I cannot truly tell you. I would hope it’s some place with more beauty than we could ever imagine, and at worst, somewhere where we do not feel the pain that we do on earth.”
“I think we are reborn,” Nadir said.
Jerimeh could not help but smile. “You do?”
Nadir nodded. “Yes. I believe all the trees in the forest are people who have once lived, all of the animals in the fields, all of the stars in the sky. They are all of the eyes of all of those who have ever walked the earth, and they look out for us.”
Jerimeh pondered that for a while as they sat in silence. All of the eyes of the world on them, and what would they say if they could speak? What would those millions of dead say to them whilst they tore their cities apart and put people to the sword? It was when he was wondering that, that the crate lifted and Lord Grosvenor and Danayal dropped in.
“Move move move!” Danayal roared and Jerimeh leapt to his feet, ignoring all of the agony that ripped through his body.
People rained down into the tunnels, scared people, men, women and children, their faces covered in dirt, blood and fear. Their hair dusty and with tear streaks through their ash-covered faces. “Lead them back to the castle!” Grosvenor ordered, and Nadir sprang to the front.
“I will lead,” the boy said. “This way!” Nadir shouted over the commotion and ran ahead, whilst the confused refugees followed him. Jerimeh stayed where he was, ensuring that those who made it down kept moving and did not stop. There were some who demanded to stay until a family member had reached them, but Sir Danayal, impatient of everything standing in that tunnel, held his sword to them and forced them along the precession. Before long, the tunnels were packed full of people, and there was no room left for anyone else. Lord Grosvenor and Jerimeh pushed their way to the front whilst Sir Danayal stayed by the crate. As they reached the cell room, they saw Nadir standing by the door.
“What’s going on?” Lord Grosvenor asked.
“It’s locked! I cannot open it!” Nadir called back.
Lord Grosvenor pushed his way to the front and twisted the key in the lock to no avail. “The lock has been changed!” Lord Grosvenor banged on the door with his fists as more city folk pushed their way through. “We have to find a way to break this door down, or we’ll be sitting ducks if any of the soldiers find out what we’re doing. Nadir, grab the biggest men you can find and we’ll throw our weight against it.”
Nadir nodded and rushed into the tunnels. Then, Jerimeh thought for a moment and tapped one of the city folks on the shoulder. “Pass a message back. Ask the person behind you if they are a locksmith, and whoever is, should come to the front.” The woman nodded and passed the message back.
After a few minutes, there were three rotund men and a young woman standing by the door awaiting instruction. “Who are you?” Grosvenor queried the young lady.
“My name is Claire Smith, my lord.”
“And what are you doing here? We need to break the door down.”
“I was told you needed a locksmith, my lord.”
“Well, yes, that would certainly help if we had one and they had their tools! You don’t happen to know where we can find one, do you?”
“I don’t have my tools, lord, no, but I can certainly help get that door down if that’s what you need!”
Grosvenor almost smiled through his irritation. “Young lady, we need a locksmith! I don’t care what your family name is, we need the lock off that door.”
Claire’s brow furrowed and she stepped forward towards the large men and looked the door up and down for a few moments, checking the hinges, the lock, and the gap between the door and the frame before turning back to Lord Grosvenor. “It’s a single-bolt mechanism. The hinges are rusted and the door opens outwards, not inwards. These men won’t be able to do a thing, because, and I don’t mean this disrespectfully, they won’t be able to get the power in their legs to kick through the door – throwing them at it won’t do a thing because the wood is solid. We can’t break through the door, but we can break through the lock. What we need is someone who is good on a horse, someone with strong legs to kick right about here,” Claire said pointing to where the foot should meet the lock. It might take a few tries, but if the person is strong enough then it will snap the bolt and the door will open.”
Jerimeh smiled. “You cannot argue with her logic,” he said. “There are far worse horsemen than you, Lord Grosvenor.”
Grosvenor looked happy enough to be humbled by Claire the Locksmith, and seemed pleased with the compliment. It was not exaggerated either, Lord Grosvenor was constantly competing and winning in tournies and jousts and was as experienced a military man as anyone in the city. “Right here?” Lord Grosvenor asked Claire, pointing at the same spot and the locksmith nodded in agreement. Grosvenor took a test kick, which caused a thud, but did not move the door. Not to be defeated, Grosvenor tried again, with more force this time, and although it caused a bang, it did not break through. Before Claire could even voice the first word of advice as she went to speak again, Grosvenor grunted indignantly and put his foot straight through the lock. The wooden door flung open and a cheer went up. “Through here!” Sir Grosvenor called, smiling. “Your worship, guide the people to the God’s Hall, the King’s Hall, wherever will hold them, I will go back with my son to find more.”
“You are a good man, Lord Grosvenor. Thank you for doing this,” Jerimeh said and grasped his hands firmly before allowing the Earl to find his son.
Jerimeh and Nadir lead the crowd of city folk through the tower and down to the courtyard. As soon as they stepped out of the tower, there was a row of guards and King Aron stood before them. The guards were all armoured from head to toe, draped in the purple capes and surcoats of House Hartlin. Sir Trevon Blacksquire stood at the head, despite the fact that he was Prince Asher’s personal guardsman.
“What is this?” Jerimeh asked, unable to keep the disgust from his voice.
“The boy has committed high treason, your worship. He will be jailed until he undergoes trial,” King Aron said blankly.
“There is a battle going on in your city! Your brother, your Earls, your army are fighting for it, and here you are, arresting a child. Your brother was right…you are a coward!” Jerimeh roared.
“Seize them both,” Aron growled. “Take them to the dungeons.”
“You will do no such thing!” A voice came from the crowd of people behind Jerimeh. The man forced his way to the front, and covered in mud, blood and soot was Prince Asher, flanked by Sir Danayal and Lord Grosvenor. “You will let them go, and you will lead these people to the God’s Hall.”
King Aron’s face flushed red with rage. “You have always wanted to be King! Always! You have always tried to undermine me, talk behind my back, conspire against me. You wish to see me lose my Kingdom because you could not have it!”
“You have lost your Kingdom,” Lord Grosvenor called out. “Your brother is trying to protect it. To protect its people. Out city is flooded with the enemy – thousands have died – and yet here you stand, without a spec of dirt upon you, ignoring the horror that exists beyond this castle.”
“The army does not fight for you, Aron. It never has. I have never conspired against you. Despite all that I hear every day, that I should be King, that I should rule this Kingdom. I have ignored all of it, and have given you all of my loyalty…and yet they still do not want to fight for you. They fight for me…they fight for Lord Grosvenor. I will not lose this castle; I will not lose this war. I will fight to the death for this city and for this Kingdom. You are King in name only,” Asher roared to cheers from the city folk and the other members of the army who had also retreated through the tunnels. “Stand down, brother or stand with us and fight for your Kingdom.”
King Aron looked around him, the Royal Guard seemingly his only allies left, but even the young, brash King understood that he was outnumbered, that he could not arrest an entire army. After a moment, the King stood tall and stepped forward. “I will not have my Kingdom led by another other man but its true King. I will fight for this Kingdom and this city, because my hatred for King Aedvard outweighs my disdain for your treachery, but the boy conspired against this Kingdom and he will be punished. “Sir Trevon, arrest the boy. The rest of you, allow as many people as possible to retreat into the castle, and then die with honour, with the blood of our neighbours stained upon your swords.”
By the time Jerimeh was able to catch up with Sir Trevon in the dungeons, Nadir had already been locked in his cell. It was the same cell where both Thair Spicer and Queen Lorne had been kept. It was quiet in the cells, where usually there were jeers and shouts, there was a solemnity to the air as those within the cells worried about their families and friends outside it. Rumour travelled fast in these places, and there was little worse for anyone than the feeling of being helpless whilst their family suffered. Sir Trevon had almost reached the steps by the time Jerimeh descended them, and the Knight smiled grimly.
“What is it you fight for, Sir Trevon? What is it you stay alive for?”
Sir Trevon grunted, almost as if he was trying to laugh. “A warm bed and a warm drink. He who is content with least is the richest of all, your worship.”
The Knight strolled past him, breathing heavily as he climbed the stairs. Jerimeh could not help but feel defeated as he walked towards the end of the corridor of cells where Nadir sat with his back against the wall. Once Jerimeh reached him, Nadir smiled at him, which instantly made the old man feel better. “I am sorry, Nadir. I know I have said it many times now, but I mean it. You trusted me, and I did not come through for you.”
“You tried,” Nadir told him. “That is all you can do. I accept my fate.”
“This should not be your fate. Less than a year ago you were working the fields. You were not brought here by fate, you were brought here by violence, by politics. No boy should be separated from his mother so young…no boy should have to see what you’ve seen, and no boy should suffer the punishment of death for the meddling of grown men,” Jerimeh felt his blood boil. For so long, he had become so resigned to his fate, but seeing Nadir so strong in his defeat, so humble and mature facing his impending sentence of death, that he could not help but allow his outrage to seep out.
“It is okay, your worship.” Nadir said as Jerimeh’s eyes filled with tears.
“No…it is not…it is not okay.”
“No…Jerimeh…it is okay,” Nadir was beaming as he begun to remove the bricks from within his cell. With each brick that Nadir removed, Jerimeh’s mouth gaped wider until there was a gap in the wall big enough for Nadir to move through.
“By the Gods, Nadir…how many more of these are there?”
“I have no idea, but this one has to be the most convenient.”
It was then that Jerimeh remembered where he had seen these tunnels before. All of those years ago when Stillius took him and Jonah away. All of those many years had washed away the details from that day, and all that remained was his pain. Now though, he knew. All of it made sense. How did Stillius reach him in his own castle? How do the Ravens move throughout the Kingdom without being seen? How do they gather their information? Jerimeh was convinced. Nadir had discovered the secret networks of The Order of Ravens. This must be how they navigate the Kingdoms, how they spy and how they meddle. Perhaps then, Jerimeh thought, they could lead us to The Order.
“Nadir. I am going to turn my back now. I will be in the crypts of the God’s Hall praying. Perhaps you could join me.”
Nadir smiled. “I would like that, Jerimeh. I would like that a lot.”