An orphan was six years old when he decided that he was going to conquer the empire. He was a willful boy, clever and quick, who feared nothing. His eyes and hair were dark but his skin was pale: he appeared identical to every other child in the whole of the glorious Lancastrian Empire, land of the richest palaces and the filthiest poorhouses.
But this orphan boy was not every other child in Lancaster. He was determined to make himself the ruler of them all, and nothing and no one was going to stay in his way for long.
The nuns in the orphanage called him Jake. He hated the name; he asked to be called Alexander, after the Macedonian conqueror. The nuns politely refused and went on their way.
The orphan known unwillingly as Jake had few friends in the orphanage. They were all rowdy, boisterous children, just as unable to be tamed by the elderly nuns as the nuns were unwilling to tame them. They played on and on without minding their studies, without listening, without watching. The year was 1826, and no one wanted more children than they already had. The orphans, happy as they seemed, were without hope for adoption and knew that they would one day end up on the streets of Lancaster, penniless, hopeless, helpless, and Godless; that they would die in a poorhouse in squalor, or condemned or jailed, if only to get them off the streets. To die surrounded by strangers who take notice only because the body builds such a stench: that was the life these children were anticipating. The nuns told them so when they overacted too much, but they didn't have to: the children knew. And they were afraid.
The orphan known as Jake was never afraid.
For a short time, there was another little boy who wasn't afraid. The nuns didn't have a name for him, although the other boys called him Sneezer. The orphan known as Jake called him Perry, a shorter version of Perdiccas, the second-in-command of Alexander the Great's army. Perry was always sick and weak. The two boys decided that, when they got older, they would be brothers and would help each other forever. Then, Perry wouldn't be sick anymore, the orphan known as Jake wouldn't be lonely anymore, and they could both be free.
However, Perry's sickness ostracized him. The nuns took him away one day to be cleansed of his illnesses and never brought him back. Every day after that, the orphan known as Jake visited the little makeshift cross in the graveyard behind the orphanage and talked to the boy he had adopted as a brother. The nuns always said that they would scrape together the money for a permanent cross, but one was never bought.
The six-year-old orphan learned fast. He could recite psalms and Bible passages as well as the nuns. He learned how to behave like a nobleman from Sister Beatrice, who had once been engaged to the King himself--she had broken off the engagement when she discovered the light of religion and retreated to a convent, never to leave again, and the King married another. The orphan known as Jake once asked why the Sister would give up such a glorious opportunity. He saw her face, tired, haggard, and worn with the strains of poverty and famine. She responded by saying that her work was the will of God. She said that Perry's death had been the will of God, too.
In that moment, the orphan known as Jake decided that, whatever the will of God would be, his will would be stronger.
The nuns saw that the orphan known as Jake was special. They saw him pick up on skills faster than the other boys. They could see that he was of strong body and mind, and they unanimously decided to take his education further than normal for a poor, parent-less child. Because of this, by the age of eight, the orphan known as Jake could read without a stutter, could write using the King's letters, could speak proper English. He knew basic Latin, arithmetic, fundamental laws, and the general history of Lancaster. He was taught which plants were poisonous, how to mend injuries, to cure madness, to exorcise witches. The orphan called Jake learned it all and then some, constantly questioning and adding to his knowledge.
Even more so, the orphan called Jake listened. The orphan known as Jake heard the nuns as they spoke quietly amongst themselves, eavesdropped in the drafty passages when they thought he was abed. He knew what they spoke of: disease, squalor, death. But above all, they spoke of a God, one true God that would deliver them all one day. He fought with the nuns once, on the subject of God. His lessons were suspended and he was given twenty canes. The nuns told him that it was against the word of God to denounce the Lord in any way. He did not cry, but he decided then that, when he ruled the empire, that he would not permit God to hold such control over life; only he, the orphan who would no longer be known as Jake, would have that power.
He acquiesced to the religious teachings so that he could continue his other lessons. It was the first and last time he fought with the nuns. He continued to listen as the nuns prayed in their little chapel, to their one true God. He listened as they prayed for him to deliver the orphans from their miseries.
When such a miracle didn't come, the orphan known as Jake ceased to believe in God at all.
The orphan known as Jake was asked to leave the orphanage at age sixteen. The nuns had no capacity to teach him a trade, and so he was unskilled, though he had far more schooling than most boys could ever dream of. The nuns encouraged him to enter the priesthood, but the orphan refused. He had ceased to believe in God at age eight; at sixteen, he no longer cared one way or another.
He chose his own name for himself then. Under the legal documents that the nuns had presented him with upon his departure, he was listed as Jacob Belfry. He had never liked the name Jacob; it was a Biblical name, and the Bible no longer held any use to him. Instead, he chose the name of the only nobleman who had ever come by the convent to adopt an heir: Raymond.
Tucked away in Raymond's paperwork was the last known address of the mother and father who had dropped him off on the doorstep of the convent's orphanage when he was a baby. The address was close to the convent; both stood in the poor section of Lancaster, an urban jungle of shanties stacked on top of each other, full of sewage, stink, and rats. Raymond tried to find the address, but to no avail; he had never been outside of the convent, and he had no idea where to look. The townspeople were of no assistance to him. He was just another jobless, homeless kid out of the orphanage, likely to die any day from any number of things. Even speaking to him, a person ran the risk of developing a human connection with him, which only meant that it would be worse when he died. And so, Raymond was left completely alone.
He did eventually find the address. The place had burned down four years prior, and no one had seen the inhabitants since.
Raymond walked on. If it was the will of God, then he wanted nothing to do with it. He was Raymond, now, just Raymond; not Jake, not Jacob Belfry, no last name, even; no friends, no religious affiliations, no start, and no end. He was just Raymond, and, for the first time, his life was open to any possibilities.
This was the original introduction to a story that I'm struggling to write, "Demons in the Snow". In the context of the story, the orphan once known as Jake, then Raymond, has become Duke Raymond Valentine, one of the most powerful, influential, and downright dangerous nobles either side of the Channel. My original story gave him no backstory, though I imagined a rather elaborate one for him which isn't all included here.
© JD / CV
© JD / CV
This is beautifully written. Strong use of imagery throughout the entire story. Loved it all. Looking forward to reading the whole story at some stage