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Midmorning sunlight streamed into the small clearing where they had slept. It was late spring, the fifth month of the year, and the sound of animal and insect life could be heard in all directions. This place was far from any of the man-made roads that linked the hubs of civilisation together: on any other day, a tranquil haven.
Soren awoke, disorientated and groaning at the stiffness of his body. He was surprised to find Edmund nearby in deep concentration, attending to something on a small smokeless fire. Soren took half a breath, about to question why Edmund had joined his hunting trip, when he recalled the previous day’s events.
Edmund turned at the sound of his movement and met his measured glare.
“Your Majesty.” Edmund addressed him formally. Soren opened his mouth to reply, pausing in surprise as he registered what Edmund had called him.
“Your Majesty?” Soren questioned, unsettled by the apprehension he saw in Edmund’s eyes. “I’m ‘Your Royal Highness’, no more,” he said, but he knew Edmund would not have said it mistakenly. “Explain yourself.”
“It pains me to inform you thus.” Edmund gestured at their surroundings. He stalled, mouth gaping as though he could not find the words. “Your mother has passed away, God rest her soul.”
“Impossible,” Soren said, but he knew the strange events of the night before would not have been without dire cause. Soren tried to frown, but his face had frozen. “I saw her yesterday - she was well.”
“I saw her… body… with my own eyes.” Edmund rubbed his hand across his face, dragging tears away from his eyes.
Soren could not move; his head held a thousand questions and yet emptiness.
“You want to know what happened,” Edmund said, “but you do not know how to begin asking. Am I correct, sire?”
Soren nodded, still not believing him.
“Then I will start where I must; at the beginning...” said the older man. “Forgive me; I do not wish to cause you pain, but I will not lie to you. Your uncle Zaki has been moving in shaded circles. I am sure you have noticed his repeated attempts to disrupt your grandfather’s peace treaty with the southern countries. Your mother thought little of it, believing him simply to be disagreeable at times, but to my mind he is too sly.
“I set a watch upon him although your mother disagreed with my actions, believing not a bad word against him. Only my long and trusted relationship in her council led her to accept my wishes. I am thankful that even though for her in the end it was all for nothing, you are saved for the kingdom.”
Edmund paused for breath, whilst Soren stared at him, silent. “We watched him for many cycles of the moon; his comings and goings and visits and visitors. All for nought, it seemed, until one day he met with an esquire of his wife’s father. King Harad has ever sought to add us to his growing kingdoms, even since your mother pledged Zaki to Demara. She intended it as a sign of our allegiance and equality but not of our submission.
“Nevertheless, Harad realises how close he is to Caledan’s throne and he is an ambitious man; well matched to Zaki it would seem. The esquire left behind some correspondence, which your uncle failed to dispose of quickly enough by his own hand and our eyes within his household procured this for me at great personal danger. I could not believe my eyes, reading of the king’s wishes to subvert Caledan so that Zaki may gain the throne and cause Caledan’s royal bloodline to fall into Harad’s lineage.
“Harad means to send men under his banners immediately after Zaki gains the throne to ensure success, though no details of how Zaki would achieve this were laid out. I took this straight to your mother, presuming as always her swift action would curtail his treacherous plan, but her denial was total; she could not comprehend the depths of his treachery. Who would believe their own brother capable of such a thing?”
“And what then?” the young man questioned in a low voice; hardly daring to ask as he averted his eyes. “When was this? I had heard nothing... I understood that uncle held the old views that women should not inherit, if only to further his own prospects but surely he wasn’t so evil as to act upon it?” Soren shook his head in a daze.
“My apologies sire,” Edmund said. “This occurred only yesterday. I had to act with utmost haste and took the letter straight to your mother as I could not be sure Zaki would not miss it.
“She commanded me to leave her. I rallied the high council, warning them that we would most likely need to swiftly secure the throne now events had progressed apace. I presumed she would ask for your council, or others, but I did not realise you were absent until much later.
“After that, things blur. I called the Royal Guard to arms in secret, in case there was need of their help, but I believe Zaki must have had huge support from some of the council members and their retinues. As your mother summoned him to her chambers that afternoon I presume to reassure herself this could not possibly be true, it was clear he had done the same with his own men. They rose too quickly for it to be otherwise. He must have decided that then was the time to act.
“I hastened back to your mother’s chambers, begging her to let me sit in on the meet, to protect her, but she would hear no word of it with her guards and attendants already about her. She sent me away and all I could do was urge the head of the guard to join me to protect her. I did not realise she would call him to her, alone. By the time we returned, it was too late. Her chambers were empty and Zaki was gone.”
“And my mother?” Soren breathed with dread. “Tell me,” he said when Edmund met his gaze with a horror Soren had never before seen there.
Edmund licked his lips nervously before he continued. “She was already dead,” Edmund said as tears rolled down his cheeks. Soren gazed at him, feeling numb.
“How?” Soren forced himself to ask.
“A blow to the head.”
She was clubbed to death like a badger. Soren could not comprehend it and instead she sprang into his mind’s eye, smiling at him as he had seen her last before his departure on the ill-fated hunting trip.
“There was no time to care for her,” Edmund said, as Soren listened with a morbid fascination, still unable to connect Edmund’s words to his mother. “Caledan, perhaps now more than ever in recent years, stands on a knife-edge. I could not find either you or your sister; alas I feared the worst.
“Your sister, dear sweet Irumae, was already gone when I reached her chambers. It was clear that there had been a struggle but the fact there was no body or blood heartens me. We can only pray that she is safe, but with you alive and free, Caledan has hope.”
Edmund looked up, but did not meet Soren’s eye. Instead his eyes glazed over, unseeing, seeming to speak to himself. “So many others have passed. The fighting in the great hall was violence and brutality, as I have never seen the men of our Kingdom commit. What should have been friend sat with friend feasting and laughing was foe against foe cutting down man after man in a great gash of blood. This was a trap, waiting to spring into action. Every traitorous man knew his orders. I saw council member after council member loyal to the crown mobbed and cut down, whatever the cost in lives, so that their voices were silenced.
“I can only guess at the outcomes that this may have on Caledan. I cannot imagine what plans Zaki must have to explain this to his advantage.”