NOTE: Thank you to everyone who is still here! It has been a crazy couple of weeks pretty much everywhere in the world, so I hope everyone is safe, healthy and reading this in the comfort of their own homes. As of today, I currently have 78 followers on this blog, which is more than I’d ever imagined having at this stage, so thank you to everybody who is reading and enjoying these chapters. A special thank you to Noelle for giving me a mention in her blog last week, and who also has a fascinating blog from historical intrigue to stories and novels well worth checking out. Also special thanks to two bloggers who have been both critical and kind in their constructive criticism of my chapters, which has been invaluable in reevaluating my work. BigHorrorGuide gave me some fantastic tips on dialogue, and PaperPlaneNomad has dove head-first into this story and has picked up on some important details. Also thank you to all my friends and family on Facebook who have given me their support and feedback over the past few weeks. I do mean it when I say it’s invaluable, and I hope you continue to enjoy the story.
This week’s chapter follows Robert, a knight of The Hartlands returning home to his hometown after five years away. As a warning, this chapter features descriptions of claustrophobia and panic. Also, I am very conscious of the fact that there are currently no chapters from the viewpoints of women. This will change, I assure you. The decision on the order of these chapters has been made chronologically, and so we do not get a female POV until Chapter 5. As this book is part of a series, there will be a greater breadth of chapters from the POV of women across The New World and beyond as the series develops.
With those notes in place, I hope you enjoy this chapter, and thank you once again for reading!
Fiddling with the buckle of Avairghon’s bridle was almost as infuriating for Robert as it was for his destrier. He snorted impatiently and he could have sworn to Natos that the beast rolled his eyes at him. Robert didn’t fret when the leather strap had worn away, nor when the ring snaffle bit had rusted, but his party still had a way to go before they reached Talford, and his coin purse was the lightest it had ever been. Eventually he found the hole and tightened the reins. Avairghon shook his head in discomfort.
“Easy boy,” Robert soothed and stroked his nose with the back of his hand.
It was high noon on the 8th of Summer, and the water glistened as it lapped against the moss-covered rocks of the stream. Avairghon dipped his head and drank heartily from the flow. It had been almost half a decade since Robert had found himself so close to home, and the mere thought of approaching Hillhold made his heart pound and his head ache. He squeezed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger to sooth the pain.
Robert heard the sound of a branch crunch and he jerked his head around. Standing between two saplings, he saw Mallory, looking fearful and holding a small clay pot in her tiny cupped hands. She was a delicate looking thing, Robert thought, like a malnourished doe. Her oily black hair framed the outside of her large eyes and draped down no further than the lobes of her small ears. He was never quite sure how she stood straight. Her torso was thin and flat from sternum to navel, her limbs were equally stick-like, so much so that Robert worried that a strong wind would throw her from his horse.
Mallory looked even smaller to Robert who was half-way between six feet and seven with a broad chest and rounded shoulders that framed his taut torso. He was blonde, but he cropped his thin hair short as to spare the embarrassment of a bald patch that had begun to appear on his crown. Nonetheless, he imagined he would be a frightful sight for an eighteen-year-old girl as meek and silent as Mallory Spicer.
The girl approached him cautiously and placed the clay pot on a nearby stone, careful not to get too close to him as if he might bite her. She scurried back through the trees like a scared mouse and Robert scratched his head thoughtfully. He walked up the slight slope and picked up the clay pot- it was warm to the touch and was filled with a slightly thickened crimson liquid the same texture as blood. As he sniffed it, his nose absorbed a concoction of flavours from cinnamon to saffron as the steam wet the back of his tongue. A sip was all it took for him to glug the rest of the liquid down his gullet. It was tart and tangy, but delicious, and swam in the flavour of strong wine made from berries.
When Robert returned Avairghon to their camp, Thair and Mallory had all but packed away their inventory and were awaiting him to take them back to the main road. Thair looked up for a moment and then returned to saddling his own horse. It was an impressive beast, bred from the finest stock of studded Stallions and fertile mares, and it was worth a small fortune. It was no warhorse, but merchants like Thair had no requirement for battle-ready units such as Robert’s, this was simply for show. Thair himself was not impressive afoot- he was a small man just half a foot taller than his teenage daughter, he had a small chin and large teeth that made his face look flat and rodent-like, yet when he mounted his horse, he had the posture of an Earl.
Mallory looked at her feet and waited patiently for Robert to help her onto his horse. The girl could ride, but Thair insisted she ride with Robert so that they could spend time with one another. He had little intention of doing such a thing, and he had not yet totally resigned himself to his fate of having to marry the merchant’s daughter. Robert then counted the coins in his purse through the velvet and sighed deeply before hoisting his bride up and into the saddle. Soon they approached the road, and he remembered that the last time he walked this path he swore to himself he would never walk it again.
As the trees thinned and the farms began to appear, Robert could begin to hear signs of life around him. Cows, pigs and sheep groaned on the outskirts of Talford as they trotted into the town. It had grown since he’d last been here, as most places did in peacetime. There were more homes, more people and more businesses on the main road than he remembered, and even as he gazed up towards Hillhold, he could see, even from his grounded position, that his father’s castle had gained another tower.
Robert could remember a time as a boy when Talford had but one blacksmith, and now he’d passed at least two by the time he reached the river. Then he noticed a stable on the opposite side of the bridge and was shocked to find that his humble town now even had its own farrier. He guided his party over the bridge and Robert felt uneasy as he approached the new buildings in his town.
“It’s not quite the capital,” Thair sniffed. “What is that God-awful smell?”
“That would be fresh air,” Robert quipped and heard Mallory make a brief noise that suggested a stifled laugh.
Talford had little of the grandeur of Silver City, its church was small, its people were simple and its lifestyle basic, yet everyone he had ever known always stopped for a moment to look up at the might of Hillhold. A castle built on the highest hill that overlooked the town and surrounding forest for miles. It was only accessible by a narrow path on a steep slope that took the best part of a morning to navigate. Many didn’t even take their horses to the top, instead preferring to leave them in the stables at the bottom and take a more sure-footed mule to the castle’s portcullis.
Just the sight of the crenelated battlements gave Robert a languorous feeling, the journey from the capital back to his home was long enough to reflect on all of the reasons that he never wanted to return, and now he had another third of the day to think on it. As Robert pulled on the reins to pull Avairghon to a stop, the leather snapped and the resistance he expected never came and he had to rebalance himself hastily to stop himself from falling off, he felt Mallory’s fingers dig into his side to hold on and it took a local man’s quick thinking to pull on the cheek-piece to hold the beast in place. The brief commotion would have gone unnoticed were it not for the emblem emblazoned on Robert’s surcoat. A black castle on a hill coloured green with a blue sky behind it- the same as the flag that flew from the castle.
“The seventh son has returned,” he heard a lady say.
Robert dipped his head in the hope that few would care or even remember him; he jumped down from his horse and helped Mallory too. Thair remained on his horse, clearly eager to avoid as much contact with the smallfolk as possible.
“Is that his son?” He heard a man whisper.
He ignored them all and approached the farrier who was hammering a horseshoe into shape before the burning furnace. It was lovely work, and clearly made of good quality iron. Once the man was finished, he turned around to Robert and smiled fondly, as if he had met him a thousand times before.
“Sir Robert, how wonderful it is to see you again,” the farrier extended his hand. Robert took it graciously and shook it, but eyed the man so thoughtfully that the man broke the silence before he could respond. “You wouldn’t remember me, don’t worry. I was the blacksmith’s apprentice when you left. Earned my way as a farrier since- I always had a fascination with horses, you see. That sword in your scabbard, sir…that was my work, I do hope it has stood the test of time.”
Robert beamed for the first time since he entered the town. “Waylan?”
“The same, sir. I am surprised you remembered.”
Robert had met hundreds of smiths, and he would be hard-pressed to recall each one, but he could remember Waylan as a younger man, eager to impress everyone who walked into his shop. The swords he made were cheap because they were the work of an apprentice, but it didn’t take the smith long to realise that his work was far beyond that of a normal boy and soon hiked the price. The sword by Robert’s side was by no means a work of art, but it was light, flexible and maintained its sharp edge with sparing use of a whetstone. It pleased him to see him successful.
“I need new reins for my mare…can you help me?” Robert asked.
“I have some parts for you, I’ve been working on cheek and mouth pieces recently engraved with battle scenes- intricate work, but the punters love a war story. How much coin can you spare?” Waylan asked.
Robert looked around him and felt for his purse. He opened it cautiously underneath Waylan’s nose. The farrier looked into the bag and then up at Robert sympathetically. He went over to the wall and took a set of reins off the hook. The leather was slightly worn and the bits were circular and thin- it was basic, cheap and not at all worthy of a knight. Waylan gave it to him discreetly and Robert tucked it in his surcoat.
“How much?” Robert whispered.
“We’ll just say that you owe me a favour,” Waylan smiled kindly.
Robert felt as if a rope was tightening around his throat. He nodded graciously, turned around and gritted his teeth as he walked over to the base of the hill.
Dusk had settled by the time they reached the top of the hill. The castle was as grand as he remembered it and even Thair was suitably impressed. Hillhold’s walls stood sixty-five feet high and were built upon a jut of white rock on the side of the hill, the main tower had been built almost twenty feet higher in the centre of the courtyard- and though it seemed impressive on first glance, Robert soon noticed that its defensive capabilities were meagre, and it had clearly been built as a showpiece.
Mallory didn’t even take note of the whitestone behemoth beside her, and instead stared over the village and the forests in the distance. The portcullis opened for them and before Robert had even finished dismounting from his mule, he felt a great weight almost knock him to the ground. Kisses littered his face and he pulled away to see his sister, Myriam smiling from ear to ear, her long blonde hair fell in ringlets down her shoulders, she wore a wonderful red dress that hugged her body and cut short at her arms, and her perfectly symmetrical face shone with affection.
“You have grown so tall!” Robert remarked, noticing that she was only a few inches short of him.
“As true a Talford as ever there was.”
Robert glanced at Thair who was standing beside Mallory impatiently, and spun his sister around by her shoulders. “Myriam, allow me to introduce to you my betrothed, Mallory and her father, Thair Spicer.”
Myriam held out her hand and Thair kissed it, “my lady,” he uttered curtly.
Myriam turned to Mallory and had to bend down low to kiss her on both cheeks. “My, my…my brother has snatched himself a prize. How clear and white your skin is, you must tell me and my maidens your secret,” Myriam gushed. Robert had always wondered how on earth someone so kind and gentle could carry the name of his house. He thought of her proudly, but soon realised that she was the only one who came to greet them.
“Where is father, Myriam?”
Myriam turned to him and gave him a pitying look. “In his study with Jonathan, they knew you were coming, perhaps they thought you wouldn’t arrive so soon.”
Robert waited in the great hall for John and Jonathan to emerge from their council. John and Jonathan Talford had always been inseparable. Whilst many men prayed day and night during pregnancy for a male heir, Eleanor Talford churned them out like a cat delivers a litter. Boy after boy emerged from the womb of Lady Talford over the course of fifteen years, and whilst Jonathan was the first, Robert was the last, and they were all that remained of the brood of brothers.
The hall hadn’t changed a mark. The fireplace was alit with flame and spitting timber, and on the mantle was an elaborate protruded stone carving depicting a bear and a lion on either side of the coat of arms of House Talford. In the centre of the sculpting stood an armoured knight holding his arms out wide, facing forward and separating the ferocious-looking beasts in a state of total calm. Robert tried to peer through the helmet to catch a glimpse of any detail showing the knight’s eyes, but the fire sparked and he was drawn back to the hall.
“He looks brave, does he not?” A voice came from behind him. Robert turned around to see his father, standing of height with him, just a yard behind him. John Talford’s once black locks and bushy beard had now been replaced by a silvery cropped cut and a clean-shaven face that was lightly dusted with equally silver stubble. It had only been five years, but his father appeared to have aged a decade since he had been gone. Robert smiled and turned back to the fireplace.
“I always thought he looked foolish,” Robert replied.
John scoffed. “It is a symbol of what it means to be a man. In life, it is a man’s duty to defend what he represents from the most fearsome of creatures, and do so with dignity and honour. It is what it means to be a Talford,” he announced proudly. “Perhaps your time away has made you forget precisely what that means.”
“I’ve always known what it meant to be a Talford, I just never cared for it.”
Robert turned around to face his father. John opened his arms and wrapped them around his shoulders. For a brief moment, Robert felt like returning the embrace and relaxing into his arms, instead he bent slightly forward to reciprocate before they separated almost immediately after.
“You shouldn’t go away for so long. Your poor mother has already lost five of her boys, the last thing she needs is to hear of the death of another.”
“My death is nobody’s business but my own.”
“Were your brothers alive right now, I would agree with you. Circumstances permitting, you are third in line to inherit my lands behind your nephew, therefore I require you alive long enough to produce heirs of your own.”
“You always were a man of touching sentiment. I dread to hear what you said to mother in your wedding vows.”
“I can assure you it was nothing but the purest and most honest admission of love and compassion I have ever uttered, though I can understand why you think I wouldn’t be capable of such words. I tend to save them for those I love,” Robert stared into his father’s unforgiving green eyes. “Why did you come home?”
Robert paused for a moment. “I have amassed a great debt,” he admitted stoically. “Thair Spicer has agreed to buy my debt and absolve it, in exchange for marrying his daughter.”
John looked at the stony ground and shook his head slowly. “And you dare to call him foolish?” John gestured to the knight. “Let me guess…whores…gambling…opium…what has my son been wasting his coin on?”
“I met a woman, and we had a child together. I supported us all as we travelled the New World seeing the wonders of our great continent. Alas, there is little work for a knight in peacetime, so I took what work I could as a guard and took part in tourneys here and there. We got by well enough until Isabel fell ill with fever, not long after she died, little Harold followed her into the afterlife,” Robert confessed. “After that…whores…gambling…opium, whatever it took to forget.”
John looked at him pitifully, but Robert ensured to keep his face taut and unfeeling. His father placed a hand on his shoulder. “Life happens. Sometimes it happens every now and again, sometimes it happens all at once, but it happens to all of us eventually. Tell me of your troubles, lad. Tell me all about them the day that you lose five sons to the cold hands of men whose same hands you must shake to make peace. Come…we shall meet this merchant and see to his demands, and may Natos have mercy on his daughter.”
The table was set for a feast. At the head of the table sat John Talford, directly to his right was Robert’s mother, Eleanor, and to his father’s left was Robert’s brother, Jonathan. Robert sat in the middle between his mother and Mallory, and opposite his nephew Vincent, a lad no older than eight. On Vincent’s left was his aunt Myriam, and Thair was placed directly opposite John on the other end of the table. Silver platters had been laid before them covered in fatty meats, honey-glazed vegetables and rolls upon rolls of fresh, warm bread coated in herbs and spices. Robert and the rest of the guests waited politely for the hosts to dig in. It was Vincent who stuck his fork into a slice of chicken first and greedily shovelled a few more slices on his plate and began cutting into it as if he hadn’t eaten for days. Jonathan looked on proudly.
After Vincent had broken the ice, each member of the table began picking away at the food. Not long after, their hunger had betrayed their manners and they were soon passing platters around the table as the servants topped up their wine between sips. Usually, a homecoming meant a lavish and extravagant reception in the grand hall, but for Robert, a private party was all he could have ever hoped to receive.
By the time the last bite was eaten, Vincent was almost asleep in his chair and the rest of the table had pushed their chairs out to relax and sipped sparingly at whatever wine they could fit in their stomachs. Robert felt a tad hazy, but even he was sober enough to see that his father had succumbed to the effects of the wine much faster than the rest of the table. Robert had thought that this would be an awkward dinner, but the wine had kept the conversation light and personable. He hoped that they would avoid talk of the betrothal until the following day, when he’d had a chance to rest from his tiresome journey.
Thair dabbed at his mouth delicately with his handkerchief whilst Mallory sat in the same position as she had sat all night- her hands folded together on her lap. She’d barely touched the food and of what she took she only ate small amounts; it was no wonder to Robert that she was so skinny. He couldn’t imagine spending his days laughing and joking with this timid girl, frolicking naked in the lake, or travelling across Kingdoms finding work where they could. All he could think of was Isabel. Jonathan looked at Robert and then across to Mallory and smirked.
“Mallory, is it?” Jonathan asked.
The girl looked up and nodded before refocusing her gaze at her plate. Thair cleared his throat. “Apologies, my lord. My daughter has a small affliction of the tongue…erm…as if to say she cannot speak.”
“How very strange,” Eleanor pondered. “Can she hear us?”
“He said an affliction of the tongue, not the ears, mother,” Myriam rolled her eyes. “I doubt she has a condition, most like she is just surrounded by men who don’t give her a chance to talk,” she grinned at Mallory who returned the smile briefly. “You see? I believe my sister-to-be is mute by choice.”
“At least it’s not hereditary I suppose,” John interjected. “Although we may not need worry about that, with her hips, it is unlikely either she or any Talford children would survive the birth.”
A silence fell upon the table. Myriam and Eleanor looked embarrassed whilst Jonathan hoisted Vincent from his chair and into his arms. “I believe it’s time I put my son to bed.”
After Jonathan, Eleanor and Myriam also rose from their seats. On the way out, Myriam tugged at Mallory’s arm. “Come, my dear, I will show you to your chamber. Let us allow the men to talk.” Thair nodded his approval and Mallory went with Myriam to the tower. Robert sat awkwardly between his father and Thair. The merchant’s face turned to a scowl and he pushed his plate away in disgust.
“You insulted my daughter, my lord,” Thair said through gritted teeth.
John took another glug of wine and slammed it onto the table. “I spoke not but truths, Spicer. The Talford seed is not made for lowborn wenches, there’s not been a Talford for a generation who didn’t split its mother – your girl will die in the attempt.”
“Your son owes me a great debt,” Thair started. “A debt that I am willing to forgive in exchange for a grandson that men will call lord.”
“Robert’s last wife was the daughter of a Filosi prince – I too know the difficulty of trying to arrange a marriage above your stature. The difference was that I provided the prince with an army should he need it, and all you can offer me is the absolution of a minor debt of my seventh son?”
“Oh believe me, my first suggestion was for you to pay off Robert’s debt, however he made it clear that he would not allow it,” Thair blurted.
“Sir Robert to you, Spicer, regardless of the debt he owes, he is still a knight. Robert, why on earth won’t you let me pay this man? I will arrange a suitable marriage for you and you will pay me back in land tax and military service. I trust this resolves the issue?”
“I will not be in your debt father. I came back here for no more than your approval. If what you say about Mallory is true then what have you to fear by allowing me to marry her? Thair has agreed for us to take residence in one of his manors in Silver City, and I will join Elden Hardwick’s city guard. Lord Hardwick has offered me a position as a Unit Commander, and I intend to accept,” Robert stated.
His father’s nostril’s flared and he pursed his lips. “This is what you want? To live under the thumb of a common merchant? To marry a weak, sickly child? To spend your days arresting common thieves in shit-stained streets? Is this what you want?”
Robert locked his eyes with his father’s. “It is better than this.”
John threw the back of his hand at the goblet and it flew off the table, spraying wine across the pine timber floor. “Then have your damned marriage, but do not dare return to my castle,” John turned to Thair. “And you, merchant. Commoners may call your grandson ‘lord’, but he will never inherit my lands or wealth, he will never wear the Talford arms upon his chest, and he will never bear my name,” Robert’s father took a deep breath. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I must tell my poor wife that she has lost another son.”
Robert spent the night in what used to be his brother, Brodric’s, chambers. It felt strange for him to sleep in his bed, flick through the books in his bookshelf and marvel at the ornaments that once seemed so dull to him. It had been almost two years since Brodric perished in the Battle of Dalchester- the third Talford brother who had died in battle. A particularly impressive book took Robert’s eye, it had a thick, brown leather hide and was tied together by a perfectly symmetrical indigo ribbon that showed no signs of fraying.
The book was covered in dust when he pulled it out. He wiped it off with the side of his palm and rubbed it against his white smallclothes, leaving a grey stain across them. The engraving had faded slightly, but the title was clear; ‘A History of Grosvenor’ by Val of Keane. Robert scoffed and pushed the book back into the shelf with force. He fell onto the bed and ran his fingers through what remained of his hair. A ferocious wind lashed at the shutters of the oriel and rain began to pour over Talford as if the Gods were battling in the clouds, Robert imagined them both with swords the size of towers cutting through the grey clouds and forcing them down towards earth with their heavy feet. Before long, Robert drifted away as the sound of the rain hammered onto the stone walls like the footsteps of a hundred-thousand soldiers.
All of a sudden, Robert was a child again standing over a river as the sun shone down on the back of his neck. As the face in the water stared back at him, he touched his soft cheeks and smiled at the freckles that dotted his nose, then ran his fingers through his wavy, strawberry-blonde hair. A giggle made him jolt his body in excitement; it was his sister, Myriam. Sat in the grass, she had a stick in her hands that she was using to dig a hole in the ground, whilst Harold stood over her with a big grin, looking out for any worms that she dug up.
Without hesitation, Robert ran over to Harold and tackled him to the floor. Myriam started cackling behind them whilst Harold and Robert rolled around, grappling with each other until Harold got the upper-hand and pinned him to the floor. “Nice try, Bertie!” His older brother jumped off him, held his hand out and pulled him up. “Another year or so, and you might actually win without taking me by surprise.”
Robert smiled and shook his head. “I thought this time I could do it.”
“Forget about this time, focus on next time.”
Harold was eleven, two years older than Robert and the middle child of the Talford brothers. Unlike the rest of the clan, Harold had the black hair of his mother, dark brown eyes and a short, stocky frame that made him look podgy. The rest of the brothers were all blonde and tall for their age, which made Harold look as if he was not their brother at all. Robert felt a tug on his breeches and saw Myriam standing there holding a lump of wet dirt, with a long, juicy worm wriggling its head from the top of it. She was filthy and covered in mud, but her proud smile shone through the dirt on her cheeks. Harold and Robert beamed at each other.
“Wow! Look at the size of that worm!” Harold gushed, “I think that might be the biggest one I’ve ever seen, Robert.”
“It’s definitely better than anything I’ve found!” Robert responded and Myriam giggled shyly.
A roar of laughter came from beyond the trees and Jonathan emerged from the trees with Brodric, Clarence, Reuben and Sibley following him closely behind. “I’m sure you could both find something like that in your smallclothes if you looked hard enough,” Jonathan mocked and his gang laughed. Jonathan was the eldest of them all at fifteen, Brodric was a year younger, and Clarence a year younger than him, whilst the twins, Reuben and Sibley were ten and idolised their elder brothers in a way that Harold and Robert couldn’t understand.
“Go away, Jon, we’re playing without you,” Harold announced.
“You were playing without us, and we got bored. Now we’re going to play chase,” Clarence shouted.
“3…” Jonathan started.
“I said leave us alone, we’re not playing your stupid game!”
Harold turned to Robert. “I’ll take Myriam back home…run as fast as you can, and loop back. I’ll find you when it’s safe!”
“Go now!” Harold shouted, picked Myriam up in his arms and ran alongside the river.
Robert ran through the meadow, a barrage of footsteps thundered behind him as the sinister laughter of his brothers rang through the wind like the warning of the church bell. His bare feet sprang off the slightly damp ground, and he looked around to see that he had gained a good distance, almost enough to lose them. As he turned his head, his coordination abandoned him and he tripped over his feet and into the daisies. He looked up and found that he had fallen at the roots of a hawthorn bush. He realised that if he hadn’t fallen then he would have been tangled with the thrushes and berries and caught by his brothers. The thought shocked him into panic.
Bounding his way to his feet, Robert looked over his shoulder again to see them gain ground on him. Up in the distance he spotted the mill on the river and sprinted as fast as he could towards it. He focused only on the revolving blades and forced his feet to pound the earth as he got closer towards it. He didn’t look back. Any second he felt as if he would be tackled. His heart beat faster and faster until he finally reached the door. He yanked it open and slammed it shut behind him, and heard the crash of a body against the wood as he pulled it tight. Robert couldn’t hold it. They were all too strong. He spotted a small cupboard, scarcely bigger than he was, but it had a latch on the inside. He knew he would only have a second.
Robert released the door and threw himself into the cupboard and pulled his knees up to his chin to fit. He slammed the door shut and flicked the latch and heard the boys banging on the wood. “Get out, Robert you craven!” Clarence yelled. Horrible thuds clattered against the wood. Then for a moment there was silence. A wave of dizziness flooded his body like a river overflowing its banks, he started to shake, the tiny strips of light swirled in front of him, and his heart thumped. Louder and heavier with every pump it tumbled on and every breath he took felt like he was underwater. Then it crashed through the cramped wooden space, the sole of Jonathan’s leather boot dangled an inch away from his nose, the water filled his eyes and dripped onto his freckled cheeks.
Sweat poured from his body and the wooden timbers of the cupboard melted away to linen, he was still in darkness, but his body was grown again and he was back in Brodric’s chamber, the cold wind seeped through the cracks in the wooden shutters and threatened to freeze the droplets of sweat that coated his body. In a moment he felt a pair of arms shawl his shoulders and cross over his chest, the hands then clutched together to restrain him.
“Calm,” the voice came from behind him. It was a sweet voice, filled with light and hope. “Calm,” she said again, this time certain that it was a woman holding him. “Calm,” she repeated once more. The shaking began to subside, the tension in his shoulders began to relax and his breaths became longer and deeper. He felt her breath on his neck and he tried to imitate the soothing pattern with his own breaths. She tapped his sternum with the tip of her finger in a rhythm in time with her breathing. Tap. Breathe. Tap. Breathe, he thought as his mind returned to him. Eventually he was still and managed to manoeuvre his fingers up towards hers and linked them together.
He slowly turned himself over, still delirious from his fit, and brushed the girl’s dark hair away from her face and stared into her large, doe-like eyes. The light of the torch on the wall shone onto her face and gave her skin a deep orange glow, her shoulders were delicate and the bones in her body could be seen through her skin as if it were translucent. What a beautiful thing, he thought. In fact, Robert had never seen anything quite so beautiful in all his life.