So in the end, and without the intervention of Jesper (whose grand imagination conjured up a scene in which Jacob was appropriately stirred by more of Sir Francis’ rousing speeches), the blander history that inhabits legal documents, chronicles and diary entries informs us when Jacob eventually made his way to the temporary royal court at Heraney that week, it was due to an entirely random event.
Jacob’s father, Sir Conrad Tabloh, had died the day before Jacob had been visited on his island by the King’s messengers. Already suffering from a weak heart, the pompous and extravagantly overweight Sir Conrad had initially heard of the progress of the Arvintan army with a smug kind of contentment. He was probably waiting for an opportunity to draw some dramatic parallel with Rowenia’s much smaller-scale invasion of Sarin almost two centuries earlier – his fourth son Eustace later found an abundantly-illustrated draft of an incomplete poem called ‘The Testament of Tabloh’, along with a brief synopsis which claimed its contents to be ‘ane woful dyte’). Sir Conrad is said to have grinned as his servants brought him news of the invasion of Havilund, and later his excitement only grew when he heard of the Arvintans’ destructive journey to Detland, Hanland, the Rutland Islands, Calbania and through the rest of Matalie. He even apparently giggled as he heard the details of the army’s extraordinary and seemingly irrational acts of violence, and laughed out loud when he imagined the frantic state into which Grand Duchess Celeste’s court had been plunged in Matalie. He was a fervent nationalist and thought that central Islandia, with its artistic Renaissance currently in full bloom, could do with being taken down a peg or two.
But when the Arvintans reached Puremy and Leauret, on the eastern coast of Calbania overlooking Rowenia, a change was noticed in Sir Conrad. When his personal physician additionally informed him that the Arvintan fleets had been sighted at either end of the Lemin Strait, Sir Conrad merely tittered, but there was a distinct flash of anxiety in his eye. By the evening he was thrashing around and screaming in his bed, hollering that he could see immense ships manned by devils before his eyes. In the final moments before his heart was permanently silenced, he croaked that he saw himself on the deck of the largest ship, grinning and cackling as he broke bread with devils and drank from goblets in the shape of skulls. He died just minutes before the inception of the storm changed everything.
Although Jacob had not spoken properly to his father in years, this peculiar event apparently obligated him to travel to the family home at Poldena to join his mother and siblings’ vigil. When he arrived, two days after his father’s death and just hours after his royal summons, the family reacted to his presence, and his wild, sea-sprayed appearance, with their characteristic exasperated silence, and Jacob failed to mention the visit he had received from the King’s messengers a day earlier. It was only when more of the King’s messengers turned up at the Tablohs’ manor house that anyone in the family guessed at Jacob’s situation. ‘Whanne that he dide his message telle, me thoghte my brother dide wax fulle redde in his rage’, as Joan Tabloh wrote of the visit.
But as news of the war’s progression washed over Jacob in its entirety, Jacob found himself shocked – shocked and enthralled. He was no longer a boy who played with toy soldiers, and whilst his interest in international warfare had waned over the years, the idea that something resembling his long-ago imaginary battles was playing out in his own lifetime, with Islandia itself as the stage, inevitably whetted his curiosity. There apparently came a moment during the messengers’ visit to Tabloh home when, showing no outward sign of enthusiasm, Jacob turned sternly to Sir Francis and announced to him, “Come I will. Not for your kingdom, but to see for myself”.
When Jacob first came to Court, even he must have been baffled by the state of the palace. The magnificent sparkling foyer of Heraney Palace, with its huge gold-plated double staircase and echoing dome, was being used as a kind of base camp for the newly-appointed Rowenian generals, none of whom had the slightest idea of what to do. Hastily-manufactured weapons lay in piles on the stone floors, and a very redundant strip of cloth had been spread across the floor and up one of the staircases in a futile effort to spare the tiles, though by this point they were covered with all manner of grit and dirt. Day and night, soldiers trooped in and out of the foyer, and the sound of desperate chatter was constant.
Even amidst this chaos, Jacob must have cut an interesting figure: pale and thin, with untidy dark hair and a famously prominent Adam’s apple, Jacob walked into the palace for an indefinite stay with only the clothes on his back. He wore the ubiquitous colourless tunic of the peasant families from the Heraney region (a letter by his sister Matilda had recently described Jacob as ‘clothed alle in greye and wel unclene’), with battered leather boots that dated back to his adolescent years in Poldena and Kemerin. According to King John’s personal diary, however, Jacob’s facial features instantly marked him out as a Tabloh, and somehow the crowds of frantic soldiers in the foyer knew to clear a path through the sea of war-related detritis to let the strange young man pass by and climb the stairs. On the King’s orders, he was taken directly to the royal apartments, where John sat waiting anxiously. But the second that Jacob entered the room, John jumped to his feet and stared at Jacob in despair. In his mind, there was no way that the frail youth before him could ever be the military genius of his most desperate dreams. At this point, blatantly ignoring the state of the Arvintans, the history books encourage us to believe that a miracle was needed.
Across the Lemin Strait, Queen Olivia’s soldiers were not as well-prepared for the storm’s end as they might have been. The combination of their confidence in their imminent success and their chronic malnourishment resulted in an unfortunate series of events: after gorging themselves on all the food of the Calbanian natives, many of them became seriously ill with the sudden excess of food. Several soldiers died on the spot as their hearts were overwhelmed; others were seized with violent convulsions; a few were so unaccustomed to the texture of food that they choked to death. The remaining soldiers, whilst still a formidable fighting force as far as numbers were concerned, found themselves considerably weakened in both body and mind, and it was with distinctly reduced comradely rage that they progressed towards their ships when the storm broke.
My mother’s favourite painting of the resultant battle is one of those pieces of art that everyone knows, but which no one can name. The artist, perhaps once a promising young visionary living in the artistic Renaissance that dominated the reign of Queen Gwendalynn, has sunk into oblivion under the weight of the cultural success of his masterpiece, though I am willing to bet that he was not a eye-witness to the scene he played out in paint.
Not unlike a painting by Turner, the painting is dominated by sharp bursts of colour. At least ten whole ships have managed to squeeze their way into the picture; two of them, one of which is enormous, dominate most of the frame. The ship on the right is so large that it almost dwarfs the small strip of forested land visible at the edge of the painting. The dark-brown wood of its prow is almost black against the blinding orange-tinted lightning storm that rages behind it, and is interspersed with tiny, mysterious little windows, out of which one can see a few expressionless faces peering out at the furious, boiling waves of the ocean.