Before I start today’s blog, I would first like to focus attention onto the situation in the US. I have been deeply moved this week by the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, and have been inspired by friends across the world who are actively working on educating themselves and others on how we as a society can try to understand just how deep prejudices run not only in the US, but in the UK, Australia, Europe and across the world.
I have seen a lot of people using “What about-isms” to try and justify their country’s bloody histories, I have seen people use the phrase “All lives matter” more times than I can count in an attempt to try to surpress the sentiment of the Black Lives Matter movement. If all lives mattered equally, there would be no protest, there would be no need to stand outside the White House and demand justice. If you feel like you have used these phrases yourself or have your mind set on what you think about race and see no reason to change it, then I urge you to educate yourself and try to understand just how deep your prejudice may run. It is no longer enough to not be racist, we must now be actively anti-racist.
As a white man who has never been harassed by the police and who has never been the victim of racism, has never had to worry about whether or not my race will be a barrier to employment, to safe travel, or to be given the benefit of the doubt if unknowingly using a counterfeit bill, I will never truly understand that struggle. But I will try. And so should you. There are ways we can all help, and I won’t bombard you with links, I will just give you one that is pretty comprehensive list of resources and will articulate this subject in a way I am unable to. Protest. Donate. Sign Petitions. Research and Learn.
Please visit www.blacklivesmatter.carrd.co/# for more information on protests, education, donations and more. Thank you for giving this your attention.
NOTES: Good morning everyone, and welcome to Chapter Seven of The Cursed King. It looks like whilst lockdown is easing, we are still ways away from being back to normal, and so if you are still at a loss for new reads, this blog series still has over forty chapters still to be posted, so your thirst for content will be met here. I would, as always, like to thank my followers, and now have almost 370, which means we’re getting close to gaining 100 more members of the BeyondTheCryptsAndCastles community every week. So thank you to all of those, both new and existing followers, for reading my book.
As you may have noticed, I try to give shoutouts on my blogs to people who have given me feedback or constructive criticism, and that will continue. I am eager to engage with my readers, and I want to know what you all think. This is a work-in-progress and I want to know your thoughts whether positive or negative or mixed. So if you have any thoughts, then feel free to comment or send me a message, and I will always reply. Those who do, will be thanked in my next Blog with a link to your site included. This week, I’d once again like to thank my friend Izzie for the feedback on my previous chapter, Wolves, which was extremely helpful.
This week, we are back with Robert, the seventh son of the Talfords. With a jousting tournament comes great excitement, but also great danger. This is made even worse for Robert, as his night terrors overflow into the day. Enjoy, and thank you for reading! The next chapter will be posted on June 20th.
The trampling gallop of charging horses thundered upon the dry earth. In moments, the pang of steel was consumed by the crunch of broken wood, which was almost instantly forgotten with the thumping crash of steel armour smashing into the dirt. Gasps from the crowd hung in the air like the dust from the horses’ hooves until the defeated opponent got to his feet and the people were free to celebrate their champion, safe in the knowledge the loser had survived his fall.
The sun was beating down onto Robert’s plate, and he could feel his breath on the inside of his visor, which only made him sweat more. The sweat from his forehead had began to drip into his eyes, but he blinked it away before signalling to his squire to fetch a cloth. It was Myriam’s twentieth year, and Lord John had put on a spectacle, which of course included a tourney. Most of the Royal Family regretfully declined their attendance due to the scandal that had befallen their kingdom, but Prince Asher never turned down an opportunity to prance in front of a crowd, and Robert watched the Prince’s semi-final win.
Prince Asher was a great general and a superb leader, particularly for a man of his young age. The death of his father whilst he was still a teenager enabled the boy to become a man far quicker than usual. Robert had more than a few years on the Prince, but he liked him enough and respected him wholeheartedly. The Prince had just unhorsed Lord Nathaniel Garrison, the Earl of Hunter’s Valley. Garrison was a stout man with a bitter heart and a scornful scowl that couldn’t be hidden by his long, wild red hair and thick, curly beard. Despite the defeat and his usual demeanour, he removed his helmet and was all smiles and courtesy for his Prince.
The second semi-final would be between Robert and his brother, Jonathan. Jonathan had received a fairly fortunate tournament bracket that included a few minor lords and ageing knights, hardly competitors to strike fear into the heart of a proven warrior like Sir Jonathan Talford. Robert could hardly complain either, apart from a few tough, young knights who had more than a few years left before their prime, Robert’s toughest test was the quarter-final against Peter Grosvener, the Earl of Greenfields and liege lord to Robert and his House of Talford. It surprised many, but Peter showed limited annoyance at his close defeat. Robert felt Peter’s lance graze his shoulder, but Robert’s caught Peter straight through the heart. It was part skill, but mostly luck and timing, and truly could have been either man’s win. Peter raised Robert’s arm to a cheering crowd, who had wholeheartedly welcomed back the seventh son.
It was John Talford who presided over the festivities with his wife and daughter beside him, and Prince Asher with his wife, Ethelrith and his young son, Arnulf, given their own viewing station right beside the hosts’. Thair and Mallory were tucked between a few minor members of the court as if his father was trying to hide them. Robert did not mind this much, he knew that although Thair would have relished a position on the dais with his father, Mallory would have been uncomfortable with all the eyes of Hillhold upon her. Robert did try to catch the girl’s eyes a few times from the track, but if she felt any emotion about his victories then she hid it well. Every time he looked upon her, she had a look of ambivalence.
Robert had woken in the night many times during their weeks at Hillhold. Always the same dream with Robert being locked in the cupboard when he was a child. He was not even sure if the memory was real or if he had made it up. No matter what, he’d wake up to find Mallory cradling him in her arms as if he were a child, and she would whisper condolences into his ear and dab the sweat off his forehead with a cloth until he went back to sleep. In the morning, they did not speak of it. It was the only time she would speak. She would not even betray a glance that she even remembered his nightmare or that she cared that her husband was consumed by madness. Robert wanted her to see him fight. He had no earthly right to defeat his brother, let alone the Prince, but he felt a desperate need to do it. He had to prove to his betrothed that his madness was restricted to the mystic workings of the night and not a reflection on his true self. The squire had returned with his cloth, which Robert snatched eagerly and rubbed it across his forehead before giving it back to him, and taking the skin of water that was in his other hand. Robert took a swig, swirled it around his mouth and swallowed.
Robert had no lack of offers to squire for him on his travels, of which he turned them all down and only took temporary service at tournies. There was always a few lordlings that were all too eager to practice their craft on anyone and everyone. This one turned out to be a cousin of Robert’s. A bastard-born lad of eighteen who may have been knighted already if his parents had given half a shit about his upbringing. He was gangly and awkward, with spots on his thin face, and two buck teeth, but Robert had seen him fight, and had been impressed with his skill. All Robert cared about was that he did what he was told and was quick about it. The boy did both, and kept his mouth shut most of the time. Robert’s only gripe was that the boy only ever brought him water.
“Here is a lesson for you. Always carry a flask of wine with you, you never know when you or the knight you are serving may need it,” Robert told him.
“Are we feeling nervous, little brother?” A familiar voice jabbed from behind him. Robert turned around to see his brother standing side by side with his squire, one of Lord Grosvenor’s middle children. Robert thought his name was Theodore, but he always got his liege lord’s sons confused as he had so many.
“It was more to starve off the boredom of the interlude in truth, but thank Jivana that you have saved me from such torture.”
Jonathan rolled his eyes, but took too long to respond adequately. When it came to wits, Robert may not have bested all, but he certainly outflanked the combined intellectual prowess of the other Talford men.
“I wouldn’t have been so inclined to make conversation with you, but we have a matter to discuss, and I can scarce imagine whoever loses this bout will be too eager to talk amicably with the other once it’s over, so I thought I’d accost you now.”
“Whatever games you’re playing, brother. Be quick about it and spit it out.”
Jonathan rolled his eyes again. “Very well. Father wishes for me to join you in Silver City to serve at the King’s court.”
Robert stood unmoved. “So?”
“You don’t wish to know why?”
“I do not. Silver City is a big enough place, and I do not intend to spend much time at Harthelm. I dare say whatever you’re up to, it does not concern me.”
“Very well,” Jonathan said before turning around. Robert’s brother stopped in his tracks and turned back once more. “Good luck, little brother. Try not to get too hot and bothered in that brazen bull you’re wearing.”
All of a sudden, Robert felt his body overcome with heat. He could feel his fingers go numb and his joints started twitching beneath his skin. His breath quickened and he felt the urge to piss immediately. It was then that the horn blew for the Talfords’ semi-final joust.
“Is everything okay sir?” His squire enquired, leading Avairghon by a rope.
“Fine. Help me ahorse,” he growled, afraid the boy would hear the stammer in his voice.
As soon as Robert was up, he steered his destrier onto the track to a large roar from the gathered crowd. Robert felt piss trickle down his breeches, but his plate smothered any embarrassing stains, and they would soon be bone dry in this heat. Avairghon could feel that something was amiss, Robert’s legs were shaking and he couldn’t grip the reigns as his hands were sweaty and shaking. Avrairghon made a few cautious manoeuvres, but knew Robert well enough to not fling him off his back. He was grateful for his patience.
An even greater cheer erupted when Jonathan entered the view of the crowd. He made a show of galloping confidently up to the row, offering a rose to his wife and planting a kiss on his son’s forehead. The crowd swooned and gave him encouragement whilst Robert tried desperately to retain his composure as he hunched-over breathless atop Avairghon. His breathing became shorter, sharper and more difficult, but it was time to take his position. Robert begged the God of Life to grant him breath, and he prayed to just be able to make the run-up.
After a few more breathless moments, he pulled himself into position and pulled his visor down. The squire handed him his lance and wished him luck. Robert stared down the dirt track with water stinging his eyes. He patted Avairghon and whispered in his ear.
“Don’t slow down, old boy. Just keep running no matter what. As fast as you can, I trust you.” Robert patted him again and heard a long snort.
The horn blew and Robert kicked Avairghon into a sharp burst of pace. Despite his speed, the horse was steady and glided across the beaten dirt as if it were slick morning grass. It gave Robert the confidence to sit tall, and the time to guide his lance. The gasps of the crowd came first as they approached. They were both thundering at full speed towards each other. Robert aimed his lance and thrusted. He had no time to enjoy the crashing of wood on steel as Avairghon stumbled beneath him, and before he knew it the world had flipped upside down and a white haze covered his eyes. His vision had left him and all he could hear were shocked gasps and footsteps rushing past him. He felt a gentle hand underneath his neck, but he was soon overcome with pain. Before he faded from consciousness, he heard the most piercing scream that he had ever heard in his life, so long and so loud that he drifted to sleep before the sound had time to fade.
Robert thought he had died until he awoke from his sleep. He had never had a more restful sleep in all his life. The pillow beneath his head was soft and plump, he felt no pain and his dreams were all trickling streams, boundless meadows and laying in his darling Isabelle’s lap with his baby Harold as they watched the sunset. Robert felt as though he had been asleep for years. As soon as he regained consciousness and attempted to move, a sharp, searing pain rippled through his leg. He expelled a grotesque gargled growl that separated his sticky eyelids through nothing but shock. Robert looked at the linens wrapped around his leg from his ankle to his thigh and every moment brought him agony. Suddenly, the door burst open and Mallory and Myriam rushed towards him and pushed him back down onto the bed.
“You must not move, brother,” Myriam whimpered. “Please, please just rest.”
Then Robert remembered. He felt the crushing weight of Avairghon landing on his leg all over again.
“Myriam, what happened? Please, you must tell me.”
His sister’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry…I can’t, I can’t,” she cried and rushed from the room.
Robert’s heart pounded and as the panic rose within him.
“Mallory, please. Talk to me. Tell me the truth of it.”
Mallory gazed into his eyes and stroked away his hair, and as her lips parted to speak, his father’s voice boomed from the hall.
“You want to know what you did, you coward?” His father, John stood by the door and looked at Robert with disgust. “You murdered your brother. You robbed a young boy of his father. All for your blasted pride.”
Robert’s eyes filled with tears and his throat closed. All of his words fell out and tripped over his tongue, each one lingered with a pathetic whine.
“No…no, I didn’t. Please, father no…he can’t be.”
“Stop your whimpering!” John screamed and then immediately brought his temper to heel and spoke in a cold droll. “I have no sympathy for you. You murdered my boy. Of all the things you have done to this family, of all your wretchedness…I have no forgiveness left in my heart for you. As soon as you are able to walk, you will leave this place and you will not return.”
Robert didn’t see his father leave. His head was buried in his hands as he sobbed uncontrollably. The pain had left his leg and shot towards his heart like an arrow, and every breath he snatched from the air caught in his throat. Mallory stroked his hair, but said nothing. He craved a word from her, anything that would alleviate his pain and remove his guilt.
“Talk to me, love. Please…tell me, I beg you.” Robert buried his head into her shoulder.
The door creaked open again and Mallory’s father stepped through. Even his rat-like features softened at the delicacy of the situation. He had removed his ornate colourful clothing for more a more reserved tunic. Robert pulled back his tears and avoided Thair’s eyes. The merchant perched himself on a chair beside the bed, and waited for the tension to fall from the air.
“Mallory, perhaps you could make us both a cup of tea?” He gestured towards the door and Mallory obeyed silently, clearly eager to avoid the speech that Robert had begged of her. Robert turned his head slightly. His eyes met his future father-in-law’s eyes, who looked at him with sadness and remorse, but not judgement or scorn. It was a plain kind of expression like a man studying a book, as though he had seen all that the Gods could throw at a man.
“Will you tell me?” Robert finally asked.
Thair took a deep breath. “It was not your fault. It was a freak accident in truth. You and your brother met at your horses’ peak speed. I’d never known Avairghon was even capable of such a gallop at his age. Your lance caught him on the side, right here,” Thair gestured to his ribs. “He span out as soon as you made contact, fell over the separating fence and fell under Avairghon’s hind legs. She stumbled and fell on top of your leg. Your father feared for your life too whilst you were unconscious. Unfortunately, Avairghon’s hoof went straight through your brother’s helm and crushed his skull. There was nothing that could be done for him. In all honesty, I have never seen such an accident like it. In any other moment, on any other day, in any other area of his body, he would have been unhorsed, but he would have lived. I know that means little to you, but you should know that it was nothing that you did.”
Robert felt sick. He remembered Avarighon’s stumble, he remembered him falling. That the stumble was caused by his brother’s skull cracking underneath her legs caused his tears to start again, but he held them back as Mallory entered the room with the tea. She placed the pot and two cups on the bedside table between Robert and Thair, and perched herself on the end of the bed.
“What of Avairghon?” Is he dead?” Robert asked, sipping at his tea, trying not to shake.
“The horse lives, but he is in great discomfort. The Stablemaster has put him to rest for now, but the poor thing will be in agony when he awakes. Myriam thought you would want to see him before he died, so she commanded that his pain be managed as much as possible until you are well enough to reach him.”
“Just like Myriam…to think of my feelings at a time like this…after I…oh Natos guide my brother, Jivana save my family this pain,” Robert muttered. Then he thought of Avairghon. He could not bear to know that he was in pain, he would not be able to walk for weeks from the pain in his leg. He may never walk the same again. The thought filled him with anguish, and the tears threatened to come again. “Please, for the sake of Avarighon’s comfort, tell The Stablemaster to put him to sleep, do not allow him to wake up and feel pain. Let him fall into his dreams forever.”
“Of course,” Thair answered obligingly, who swapped glances with his daughter and rose from his chair to leave. “I know this will be of little comfort to you now, but your father will always know that his blame on you is false. All of your wounds will heal, Robert. Of that, I promise you,” Thair gave him a tender smile and turned to leave.
“Spicer,” Robert called. “Why are you being so kind?”
“Because you will be my son soon, and before you have a child with my daughter, you should know how a father should behave.”
When he left, Mallory closed the door behind him and turned to face Robert. She had an intense stare, as if she were looking somewhere far beyond his eyes, through the tower and over the horizon behind him. It seemed to him that she could see every land beyond the sea with diamond clarity. She was still wearing the dress that Myriam had leant to her for the tournament. There was still mud at the bottom of the frock that dragged across the carpet.
“On the track…you came to me?”
“Thank you,” he whispered and without warning the tears fell from his eyes again. He choked them back and grunted, the shame of his father weighed down on him. How dare I whimper? He thought. What right do I have? What pain have I earned to cry whilst I live and my brother dies? Then he saw Mallory approach him. He dipped his head in shame and lamented his lack of self-control. She stood by his side, gripped his cheeks between her palms and gently pressed her forehead into his own before kissing him tenderly on the lips.
“Calm,” she whispered. Mallory knelt down and wrapped her arms around his neck. Robert sank into her chest and let his tears fall until he fell back to sleep.
It was two weeks before Robert could walk again. The healer caring for him had initially predicted two weeks more, but Robert was determined to escape Hillhold. Each day he spent in his bed was another day of Myriam avoiding his gaze whilst trying her best to be comforting, his father completely avoiding him and his mother trying to hide her tears. The only real contact Robert had was the occasional fatherly talks from Thair and one soothing word from his betrothed repeated over and over. Their wedding had been postponed until they reached Silver City. The Talfords thought it was in bad taste to hold a wedding so soon after the death of their eldest son, even if it meant they would not be present at the wedding of the only son that remained to them.
Robert could find no way to alleviate his guilt. His beard had grown to an uncomfortable length, which added to his age and only served to make his partnership with Mallory look unseemly. Thair had loaned him some money for another horse who Robert named Sanguine. Partly for her sleek burgundy coat that made her seem as though she’d been dipped in blood, and partly to remind him of the blood he had spilled. Both his brother Jonathan and his beloved horse, Avarighon, were dead because of his actions, and he felt the best penance would be to ride a symbol of his shame for as long as his palfrey lived.
The party left before dawn broke, not only to reach Silver City with plenty of daylight to spare, but to avoid the clamouring of the townsfolk who wished to watch the awkward goodbyes of the Talfords or to throw fruit and spit on Robert as he left. Neither option appealed to Robert. He felt as if he was escaping his home like a coward. He had been protected by thick castle walls, nursed like a child and now he would sneak out unseen like a rat fleeing into the forest. Myriam joined their descent from the castle to the town. When they reached the bottom, Myriam threw herself at Robert and wrapped her arms around his neck. She jumped with so much force that she almost knocked him down. She pulled away from him, and kissed his cheek.
“I do not want you to leave this castle without you knowing that I forgive you. Please…do not let anything happen to you, and protect this girl like you would protect me. Jivana be with you, brother,” she whispered in his ear as a single stubborn tear fell down her cheek.
Robert could not find the words he wanted to say. All at once he wanted to apologise and thank her. In the end, each word that he pondered seemed inadequate, so he just pulled her close and hugged her tightly. Myriam then took Mallory’s face in her hands.
“We will meet again, sweet thing. You will always have a sister here.”
Mallory responded with an equal silence, but gave a warm, soothing smile and pushed her forehead into Myriam’s. Myriam turned to Thair and curtsied cordially before turning back to her guards to make the trip back up to the castle. Out of all of the people Robert felt he had wronged; it was his sister’s grief that filled him with the most guilt. She was the victim of her family’s quarrels. She was the one who took on the role of peacemaker, and it caused her nothing but pain. He vowed to keep himself and Mallory safe, and he vowed that he would return a better man for her sake. Robert mounted Sanguine and lifted Mallory onto the tame beast which started into a trot. When they first arrived at Hillhold, Robert remembered Mallory’s bony hands digging into his waist as she held on for dear life. Now he felt her fingers interlocked and resting gently around his stomach. Her hands were warm, as was her breath on his neck.
The day was cool for peak summer in The Hartlands. Although the sunshine licked the viridescent hillside without a single cloud to block its rays, the air was brushed with a cantering breeze that cut through any uncomfortable heat. Hillhold was surrounded by paradisiacal open meadows that allowed travellers an alternative from the more direct, but far more dangerous woodland routes that were filled with bandits and other undesirables. Robert’s thoughts were still back at the castle, and he felt a prang of guilt for enjoying the exquisite day whilst his brother’s body lay beneath the dirt. He wondered if his brother had lived a life fulfilled. Jonathan was an accomplished knight with a loving family and a strong male heir to continue his name. Surely Natos would allow him to pass into paradise. Robert had never thought too much about the words of Godsons, even after losing his Isabelle and his Harold. It was far too painful to think of them, so he pushed those thoughts deep into his stomach. Yet his brother’s death did not cause him such pain. He felt guilt and sadness, but no true sorrow. Not the sorrow that left him bound to his bed without food for days, not the sorrow that forced a crowd to rip the bodies of his wife and his son from his arms whilst he promised Natos in prayer that he would find The Angel of Death and kill him. That sorrow had almost destroyed him. This somehow felt different. Almost as if the darkest part of his grief had past him by already.
By noon they had made good enough time to stop for refreshment at a local inn. The village they stopped in was called Woodford upon the River Rowden. It was a charming town that hosted travellers from across the Greenfields region, and as such had a number of popular inns and taverns. Thair was not one to spare cost when it came to dining though, and far preferred to be welcomed at a Lord’s manor than a local inn. Robert was far from keen to listen to one of his father’s liege lords’ strained words of sympathy for his brother’s death, and was eager to mix with men who had little idea who he was. Robert had sold much of his armour whilst in Hillhold for some much-needed coin, so his replacement plate was unremarkable and would easily disguise him in a tavern full of lower-born knights.
Whilst Thair and Mallory sought to sup with the Lord of Woodford, Robert slumped onto a wooden bench on a table with several other hungry knights just outside the inn. Delicious looking pies with crimped crusts and golden-brown pastries were brought out by serving girls. Tankards of ale were smashed onto tables amidst roaring laughter as the travellers traded stories and enjoyed the sunshine. Robert ripped the pie in two, and a river of thick, black gravy oozed out onto his plate and thick chunks of mutton poked out of the sauce. He picked up half the pie and scoffed it down hungrily whilst cooling off his mouth with ale between bites. It was the first time he had been able to eat freely without the eyes of his household upon him, and all he felt was a wash of relief as refreshing as the cooling summer breeze.
After two hours of eating and washing down his feast, Thair and Mallory arrived back at the tavern to meet Robert, but they were not alone. Four monks approached with them as Robert rose from his seat and considered them. The tallest of them struck him immediately, his skin was a golden shade of brown, his body slim with brown hair draping just past his shoulders. An older man with a pot-belly stood beside him as the two others chatted away to themselves just behind them. Thair led the party with Mallory upon his own horse. What was strangest to him though was the young boy with them. He too had brown skin and looked up at Robert with wide-eyes like a puppy. There was not the air of an oblate, nor a noble about this boy, he looked as if he’d been picked straight off of a farm. For a moment he thought he was the tall man’s son, but although there seemed to be an aura of protection around the boy, none seemed to elicit any kind of paternal ownership of him.
“Robert!” Thair greeted him far too enthusiastically for Robert’s liking. “I would like you to meet some new friends. These men are monks returning from a pilgrimage from Samuel’s Crypt. They are bound for Prior Swann in Silver City and have kindly agreed to offer us their services for the rest of their journey,” he smiled broadly.
“How wonderful,” Robert beamed. “Thair, may I have a brief word with you alone?” Robert gripped his father-in-law’s wrist and pulled him to one side. “What are you up to?”
Thair gave him a thin smile. “These monks require protection for their journey to Silver City. We will accompany them to the priory and in return they will grant me an audience with Arkgodson Jerimeh.”
Robert eyed the group cautiously. “They seem to have got this far without protection.”
“They had some trouble in the woods with some bandits, and the child seems to be valuable. I’m not sure why, but apparently he is our key to meeting the Arkgodson,”
“And you trust these men?”
“They’re monks, sir. If we cannot trust them, we cannot trust anyone on this earth.”
Robert was unsure, but he did not see how any of them could be a threat, and none of them seemed to be armed. “The Arkgodson is King Aron’s most trusted advisor…he sits on the council with-”
“I didn’t think that would take you long to figure out. Lord Grant controls all of the commerce that comes in and out of Silver City, if I can make these contacts at court then I can move more stock in and out of the city. And if you help me, then I will be far more able to provide for my daughter and son-in-law…” Thair nudged.
Although Robert hated the thought of being supported, he had little coin to speak of until he started work with Lord Hardwick, and as much as it displeased him, for the time-being at least, his finances depended on Thair’s success.
“They will not slow us down?”
“We will still be at Silver City in a matter of days.”
“Then we should set off now,” Robert said. They walked back towards the monks and the child, and Robert signalled to them that they were ready to leave. Robert stood before the old pot-bellied man and the child, and extended his hand. “I am Sir Robert Talford.”
“I am Stillius,” the monk shook his hand. “And this young man is Nadir.”