In a land, far from where I write to you, existed a kingdom filled with joy and prosperity. The old king, Roslow, had died, leaving behind a legacy of kindness and strength to his two sons. Jerome was the elder and Roman was the younger. Jerome had grown bitter towards the end of his father’s life. King Roslow decided that he was unfit to rule and so instead chose to pass his crown to his second born. Roman was kinder than Jerome. He was selfless in his passion for his people and carried the strength to face all those who opposed him, including his brother.
Jerome was furious when he learned he had been passed over for the title that was rightfully his. Despite Roman offering him power at court, Jerome was jealous.
The Kingdom of Navaria rejoiced at the coronation of their new King. Roman was a once beloved prince and now an adored ruler but a dark blood ran underneath the snow covered land as tensions between the brothers threatened to erupt, bringing me to the beginning of my tale.
“He’s drunk again, Majesty,” the king’s adviser, a trusted confidante named Perrin announced discretely. There had been a commotion earlier that morning. Jerome had been fighting again.
“I am the rightful king!” had had spat on the guards trying to subdue him. “You are nothing but shit stains and should be bowing to me!”
Roman shook his head as Perrin described the scene Jerome had created in the Great Hall of Castle Kroestov – the ancestral home of Navarian Royalty.
“I’ve given him every possible advantage he could have and still he is unsatisfied,” Roman groaned. He wasn’t sat on the throne. Instead he had chosen a more modest wooden chair by one the long windows of the hall.
“He doesn’t have every advantage,” Perrin interjected. “He doesn’t have that gold on your head.” Perrin’s long face was saddened. He had watched the prince’s grow into men and it pained him to see Jerome behave with such ingratitude.
Roman removed his crown from his mane of curly brown hair.
“I’ll speak to him,” he reasoned. “He needs to learn his place and respect the crown he so desperately covets. He will respect the decision that father made.”
“There’s no reasoning with a drunkard, Majesty,” Perrin said. “You should be careful.”
“I have nothing to fear from my own brother,” the king dismissed. “I’ll speak to him.”
Later that evening, Roman set out for the Hargov Estate where his brother resided. It was a quiet ride along the edge of the forest. He travelled in a plain carriage so as not to draw attention.
The gatekeeper at the edge of the lands spied Roman’s fine clothing and the jewels on the fngers suspiciously before realisation came over him. He fell onto his knees in the muddy snow that had been churned up underneath horse foot.
“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” the gatekeeper cried. “I was not warned of your arrival.”
Roman climbed from the carriage and placed his hand on the man’s shoulders bidding him to stand.
“Please, pay no mind. I don’t mean to impose. Is His Grace home?”
“I saw him ride out a few hours ago,” explained the man with his head lowered. “My lady is home though,” he quickly added.
Roman offered a warm and accommodating smile.
“I trust I can make my own way along the path if you wouldn’t mind keeping my driver company until I return.”
The man bowed. “Of course, Your Majesty.”
“I trust he has a hearty drink stowed away you can share that will warn you both up.”
The driver and the gatekeeper were left behind as the king completed the path alone. Unafraid of assassins so close to the castle known as The Hand given the shape of the five towers that looked like a granite hand against the grey sky. Legend told of the Hand of Hargov being an impenetrable force in great wars. Edward Hargov, king, made it his home .
Countess Natalya had married Jerome at her father’s request believing that she would be queen one day. The old Count, a distant cousin in Roman’s family, died. Natalya was granted his titles and rule of the Hand as his only remaining child. When Jerome was denied the crown he became the new master of the Hand. The Hand was a great power within the kingdom but Jerome would not be satisfied until he had his crown.
The door opened upon Roman’s arrival. The servants who had spied him approach gathered in the doorway to offer him a warm welcome. Lydia Harrington, the Countess’ maid of honour, curtseyed before the king. The other ladies did likewise.
“Good evening, Your Majesty. Welcome to The Hand. It is quite an honour to receive you,” said Lydia. The other girls smiled shyly before scattering off to other parts of the castle to carry out their duties.Roman and Lydia started to make their way to Natalya’s chambers.
“She needn’t make a fuss,” Roman assured.
Lydia lowered her voice. She took the king’s arm. “To be truthful, Your Majesty, she is a little out of sorts.”
“I hope nothing serious,” was Roman’s reply.
Lydia patted his arm affectionately.
“She’ll be glad of a friendly face.”
They stopped at a door that led to a small living room in Natalya’s chambers. Lydia knocked and pushed the door open.
“A visitor for you, Your Grace,” she said.
“I won’t see anyone. Not like this!” complained Natalya. Her voice was hoarse for weeping.”
Roman pushed Lydia aside.
“Nat? What happened?” he asked with genuine concern.
Natalya, a petite woman with flowing blonde hair ran to the king and threw her arms around him. He could feel her tears as she pressed her cheek against his. Lydia quietly stepped out and closed the door, leaving them alone.
“What happened?” Roman asked again as she stepped back towards the light of the flame in the fireplace and could see the bruising on her milky, white skin. Her lip was swollen and one eye could barely open.
“It’s nothing,” she replied. She crouched by the fire where there was a bowl of warm water. She took the cloth and began dabbing at the bruises.
“Someone should help you,” Roman decided.
Natalya stopped him. “I don’t want anyone to see me like this.”
“Did Jerome do this to you?” asked Roman even though he already knew the answer.
“I’m his wife,” she replied.
Roman frowned. His warm brown eyes flickered with anger. His lips tensed.
“Marriage is no licence for this,” he spat.
Natalya smiled as best she could manage with lip. She knew the king’s anger was not directed at her.
“If my father knew the king was going to give his crown to his second son it would have been you I would have married.”
Roman took her hand and kissed it.
“It would have been bliss,” he said. “I will give my brother the crown he covets so much if it means never bringing harm to you again.”
It was Natalya’s turn to frown.
“Don’t be so stupid,” she growled.
“I’m serious,” the king insisted.
“Then you are a fool,” she returned with impatience. “I’m one person. Think of the countless others who would suffer under the rule of such a man as Jerome.”
“I can’t leave you hear. Not like this,” said Roman.
He took the cloth from her and began dabbing at her lip. She reached her hand up and clasped his.
“You can’t be here when he returns. His mind would turn to all kinds of ill fancy. He will hurt you regardless of the consequences.”
Roman sighed. “Come with me,” he suggested.
“Come back to Kroestov. You will be safe there.”
Natalya shook her head. “The Hand is my home. I will not abandon it to a brute.”
“I will have something done about this,” Roman assured. “Jerome will suffer for what he has done to you.”
“What happens between a man and his wife cannot be punished. Their business is their own.”
“There has been talk of raising charges of treason. His talk of his claim to the crown has made my court nervous. He could lose his head.”
Natalya spoke soothingly. “You and I know we both still love him too much to see that happen. He is misguided.”
She could see that Roman’s frustrations were not waning so she reached out and turned his face so their eyes met. Her fingers caressed his soft, neatly trimmed beard.
“I’ll be fine,” she said. “Seeing you has given me strength enough.”
When the king was satisfied he had left her in good spirits he departed. The driver and the gatekeeper noticed his melancholy air when he returned but said nothing.
Lydia returned to Natalya. She was watching Roman disappear into the distance. The darkness was thickening and a mist beginning to gather across the low lands.
“You didn’t want to go to Kroestov with him?” Lydia enquired.
“No,” replied Natalya sharply. “Roman’s responsibility as king has to come first. I will deal with Jerome on my own.”
“What did you have in mind?”
Natalya reached her finger tips to her lip.
“Yesterday, as I was walking in the woods, I happened upon a woman. I thought her lost at first.”
Lydia took a sharp intake of breath
“You have to be careful,” she warned. “They say there are witches deep in those woods and they are drawing closer.”
A wry smile appeared on Natalya’s face.
“That’s exactly what I was hoping for,” she explained. “This woman said she had such powers. She is going to help me end Jerome once and for all.”
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