The Heart of Sorrow’s Keep
By Brenna Hanson
Date: August 22, 2018
Ch. 33

“Arsenic, my lord,” Georges the Red, first mage of Stonewood Castle said. He made his pronouncement with a sad tone and lack of sufficient surprise for my liking. “It’s a coward’s tool, poison is. Today it was a coward’s tool to kill women which is even lower. Still, with the times, I suspect we harbor a coward or two within our walls.”
“Why would they do such a thing?” demanded Lord Fargus. He had been first to arrive and had promptly thrown up in the holly bushes by the doors. “And how can you name the means so easily, if I might ask.”
“It’s in the way they died,” Georges the Red said. “There is always the possibility of a similar poison, but arsenic is easiest to come by. It kills fair queens and their ladies with the same ease as it kills the rats in the cellars.
“As to why? My guess would be a rumor I heard about the castle folk feasting while the people starve. I can’t be certain of that but it seems like a good place to start looking.”
“But they weren’t,” Harold said. “They often took only tea in the hope of stretching the stores for others.”
“Rumors care less for the truth than a dying man cares for dancing,” the mage said. “I’d consider adding a guard to the kitchens if I were a careful man…which I am.”
“This makes you the head that wears the crown until your father or brothers return, Prince Harold,” Lord Calvert said. “Might I suggest that you delegate the decision making to the Council to relieve part of the load and remove some of the danger to your person? Third in line and such a tender age can’t possibly have prepared you for times like these.”
“I have already been shouldering the load in my father’s absence, Lord Calvert, or had you not noticed me at my royal mother’s right hand during meetings? Make no mistake, she was ensuring a smooth transition should the worst come to pass. I doubt she had this future in mind as she taught me, but her training was still sound to the situation.”
“Apologies, Highness,” Lord Calvert bowed low. I saw his eyes shift to Lord Aubrey as they both frowned.
“Accepted with the stipulation that you taste my porridge at meals until this business is concluded,” Harold said. “I would hate to find out that our queen died in a quest for power even more than because hunger took over someone’s better judgment.”
“As Your Majesty wishes,” Lord Calvert said through gritted teeth. I noticed that Lord Aubrey was looking rather more pale than he had when he came out and made a mental note to tell Harold.
“Now, on to other essential business. High King Dan left instructions that were to be carried out in his name under a variety of circumstances. I regret that plans were made in the event that his beloved wife, my mother and your queen, should die in his absence. He also left directions for the care of his children should the situation at the castle become more than reasonably dire. It is my belief that both of these circumstances have come to pass and that we must act accordingly with all haste.”
The Council of nine men shuffled to one side as Prince Harold ushered in servants and directed them to take the bodies of Queen Mara and her eight ladies-in-waiting to be prepared for their funeral. I wanted to go with my mother to wash her delicate hands. I wanted to brush her raven-black hair just like she had let me do as a child. Harold’s eyes met mine. He held me in place with a nearly imperceptible shake of his head.
“Although the customary funeral feast will be delayed until such a time as is appropriate,” Harold said, sadness deepened his voice making him sound grown, “the Queen shall lie in state in the throne room with her ladies arrayed along the side of the hall where they would normally attend her.”
“Your Highness,” Lord Matrim said into the growing quiet after Harold’s first proclamation. “I do not wish to add more to this horrible situation, but I’m afraid traditional burial is ill-advised. The churchyard is too far from the gates and - I hesitate to bring this news to add to your grief but I was on my way to deliver the message when I received your summons – another arrow-filled corpse was found at the gate this afternoon. Although we cannot see them directly, it is believed that a large number of The People of the Trees are surrounding the castle and picking off those outside the walls.”
I was too numb to gasp but I closed my eyes and tried to calm my breathing in much the same way my half-brother, acting king of a land gone to hell, did before he spoke again.
“I will leave disposal of the remains up to the Council. My mother has been relieved of her shell. I do not believe she has a care as to what happens to it now. Ask Georges the Red for advice. As a mage, he may have some knowledge that will ensure that our home and welfare are not endangered by the mortification of death.”
There were uncomfortable shufflings and low agreements from the council. Harold looked at me and cringed when I met his gaze.
“The next important order from our king is to ensure that his children are as safe as possible,” Harold said.
I felt my brows draw together at his tone. His next words drew them closer in anger.
“He left specific instructions to secret all of his offspring who are not necessary to the day to day management of the kingdom out of the castle. They are to be fostered among his faithful followers in the south. This will put all of my seventeen remaining siblings as far from the fighting and from this castle as possible.”
I nearly stood up and demanded to stay. Harold’s warning look was the only thing that stopped me. I could not make him look weak in front of a Council that saw him as a child. I held my tongue but vowed to make him change his mind once I could get him alone. We were a team, he and I. He could not send me away. I would not leave him more alone than he had ever been, especially not in his time of greatest need. Who would be his eyes? Who would be his ears? Who would he trust when I was fairly certain that his advisers were not out for his best interests?

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