NOTES: Good morning everyone! Thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Twelve of The Cursed King! It has been a busy work-week with a lot going on, and so it has been nice settling down in the lounge in the evenings this week to continue working on this book. I’ve almost completed Chapter Twenty-Five, and so this book is now over half-way done at around 145,000 words. Thank you for following and continuing to follow this project. As you can tell, it is a work in progress, but one that I am very passionate about, so if you read it and have comments, or read it and like it, do let me know in the comments! This blog surpassed 650 followers this week, so again thank you for all those who have been here since February, and all of those who have just joined. I hope you enjoy this book!
In this chapter, we see Robert and Mallory tie the knot under the watchful eyes of Natos and Jivana in the God’s Hall of Harthelm, but as we have learned from weddings in the New World, these are not usually smooth sailing. I hope you enjoy this chapter and thank you again for reading! Chapter Thirteen will be posted on August 29th.
Godson Effei was truly mesmerising in his ability to conduct a ceremony. The angelic man wove words that bounced around Robert’s mind, echoed throughout the halls and wrapped around him like a blanket. The way he spoke of marriage almost made the knight excited about the prospect. Robert had admitted to himself that he was fond of his new bride. Despite her skinny frame and her refusal to speak, he found her rather pretty and charming. Her silence was also useful to him, any other wife may gossip about his nightly panics or press him on his relationship with his previous wife, but Mallory did no such thing. She was a quiet kindness that the world had given him. Such was this gift, that Robert felt almost guilty for thinking of Isabelle. When they had married, there was no Godson, no church and no audience. They were married by a witch doctor underneath a waterfall in Natonia. Isabelle held their baby son in her arms as they kissed, and they spent the day looking over the mountains and eating blackberries from the bushes. It was the happiest day that Robert could remember. It must have made him smile, because Effei caught his eye and nodded. Mallory caught it too, and though her face was usually blank and vacant, Robert saw a hint of a smile pull at the corners of her lips too.
The God’s Hall was lavished with finery. Golden ribbons were strung across the balconies, and large fabric banners detailing the emblem of the House of Talford were hung upon the walls. Thair was vehement about having his own standard hanged in the God’s Hall, but his request was refused by Jerimeh, who explained that the House of Spicer was not officially recognised by The Hartlands, and would not be until Mallory bore a son. Sir Robert did not care for these traditions. His own family only became recognised a century ago themselves, but through a mixture of betrayal, luck and cutthroat social climbing, his great, great grandfather somehow managed to receive Hillhold as a reward for killing its treasonous former tenant. The histories within Hillhold do not recount much of House Hill, but Robert had read enough to know that the Hills were not quite as guilty as the histories recalled. Thair Spicer was obsessed with becoming permanently attached to the nobility, and Robert knew that he was just another rung on his new father-in-law’s socio-political ladder. Robert thought that perhaps he would mind being used in this way if he cared an ounce for his family name, but the Talford name was a burden, a chastity belt that had been strapped upon his life that he could not remove. Have my name you old upstart, Robert thought, it will hurt my father more than it will hurt me. Robert had not seen his father since he arrived at Silver City. Almost every Earl in the Kingdom was within Harthelm’s walls awaiting the arrival of King Aedvard, but Robert was far more interested in the men on the ground than the men in the castles.
Eventually, Effei concluded his speech and Robert was allowed to kiss his bride. It was a formal kiss – dispassionate, dutiful and firm. He walked Mallory along the aisle to the polite applause of the court. Though most of the key members of court did not attend, and instead sent someone in their place. Effei performed the ceremony instead of Arkgodson Jerimeh, King Aron was represented by his brother, Prince Asher, and even he did not bring his best knights to accompany him, just the old drunk, Sir Trevon Blacksquire, who was about as useful in battle these days as a butter knife. It did not dishearten him to see such a lack of prestigious personnel, but it did make him realise that this marriage was unavoidably beneath him. If he had married a Lady from any House in The Hartlands, there would have been a fanfare. The marriages of the nobility were incredibly pompous affairs, but this had all the buzz and excitement of a fish market on Docker Row.
It was then that he spotted Lord Peter Grosvenor in the back-row applauding and smiling at Robert. His liege lord looked infuriatingly handsome, his silver hair shone against the complexion of his naturally tanned skin, garbed in full military uniform that was itself adorned with medals. The Duke of Greenfields stood with such posture that he towered over those around him. Beside him, was Lord Elden Hardwick, Grandmaster of the City Guard. Hardwick was of age with Lord Grosvenor, was equally tall, but not as lean, as his belly betrayed, but he too looked strong and formidable with a hard nose and thick eyebrows that loomed over his brown eyes. His hair was straggly and unkempt, but his uniform was equally as polished as his comrade’s. Robert could not understand why they were here, particularly whilst his own father was absent. Robert and Mallory Talford left the God’s Hall to piercing summer sun that soaked them in heat, and they were guided down the steps by the guards. He felt Mallory squeeze his hand. He looked to her, and she turned her face towards him. Her eyes were filled with sorrow.
“What is it, Mallory?” Sir Robert asked.
“I am so sorry,” Mallory replied, her voice was sweeter than honey, but her eyes filled with tears.
Robert was shocked. Those words were the most he had ever heard leave her lips at once. What could she have possibly done to him to warrant a tearful apology?
“What on earth are you sorry for?”
“All of this. My father…your brother…me. I am sorry that my father has forced you to chain yourself to me. Please forgive me, I never wanted to be your burden.”
Robert felt his heart sink. In all his agony, he had not even thought of Mallory. Whilst she cradled him, whispered notes that settled him and protected him during the night, she was only thinking of him, how she was a burden to him. His guilt stunned him into silence. He doubted that Mallory dreamed of marrying him – a mad kin-slayer with a vile father, and yet here she was before him in her beautiful silk gown, tears filling her innocent eyes, begging him for forgiveness.
“Mallory…I,” before Robert could find the words to console her, they were rushed into the waiting gazebos just outside the walls of Harthelm. Despite the lack of senior attendance at his wedding, there were always plenty at court who wouldn’t dare miss out on a social event, particularly one as scandalous as a Talford marrying a merchant’s daughter. The first to greet them both was Lady Lynda Reynard, a fiery-haired woman with delicate freckles across her face. Robert had met her before at tourneys and she had always been incredibly flirtatious, though it was never just reserved for him, he knew. It disturbed him slightly, as his grandmother Orlaith Talford was Lynda’s great aunt, meaning they were effectively cousins. Yet he also knew that her flirting was part of her demeanour; a forcefully wielded tactic rather than playful social banter. She held a goblet in each hand and held them out before the couple without saying a word – a wry smile across her lips. Robert and Mallory each took one politely before Robert took Mallory’s and placed it on a table beside him.
“We do not want to start too early,” Robert explained, “I fear I will be too drunk for my speech.”
If Lady Reynard felt scorned, her face did not betray it. She smiled sweetly. “Oh come on now. You cannot be too drunk for a speech; it might liven this party up a bit.” She rolled her eyes. Robert knew she was trying to prod him, but he did not mind that his wedding was not a vibrant affair. In truth, he could not wait to take Mallory back to their home and tell her not to worry so that she might feel okay with him.
“Perhaps later,” Robert said dismissively, taking a polite sip of the drink before placing it back on the table.
But Robert had learned in his life, as with all annoyances, they would not be forced away through politeness. Lynda then turned to Mallory whose eyes were still wet with tears.
“And the blushing bride, how beautiful she is, tears of joy in her eyes”. She grabbed Mallory’s face and kissed both of her cheeks before turning to Robert. “Such a delicate thing. You should know that it is a man’s job to protect his woman at all times. If he fails at all else, he must not fail at that.” Lady Reynard leaned in and kissed Robert before moving her lips to within an inch of his ear. “Our king has learned that lesson young.” She pulled away sharply. Robert looked around instinctively, terrified someone may have heard what she had said, but by the time he’d opened his mouth to reply, she had fallen into another crowd, filling the gaps like liquid.
Robert stood beside his wife awkwardly, unsure where to look. Everything made him uncomfortable. The wedding, his crying wife and now Lady Reynard’s words. What did they mean? He wondered. Before Robert could move, he was surrounded. He felt his heart begin to pulse and his cheeks swell with redness, his suit was now as heavy as armour and his eyes darted around the room like angry wasps. Not here, he thought. Not now. Mallory was no longer by his side; he could not feel her hand in his. Myriam was back at Hillhold. Avairghon was in the ground, with his wife…with his boy. All he could hear was his own breathing, choked, wheezing and desperate. Then the plush grass turned brown and vines shot up through the ground and around his skin so tightly that he felt like they might slice through his limbs. Then, when he was flat on the ground, struggling, they pulled him down. Down into the wet dirt. Down into the mud that turned to liquid and drowned him, and the vines choked him of life.
He heard those words again, mumbled, as if someone was saying them with their mouth underwater. Aam. Aam. Followed by a slow tap. Robert’s mind was aware of the attempt at communication. He knew that it was Mallory tapping his chest whilst he thrashed beneath his watery prison, he knew it was her voice in his ears as he screamed into the water. Yet there was no relief this time, there was no awakening from this dream. He was being sucked into the underworld and there was nothing he could do. There was no strength left in his body to fight it. He let them drag him down, let them pull him under, and he sank further and further into the darkness until the inside of his head felt so heavy that it felt like it would pop. Then, there was nothing, and Robert finally closed his eyes, as if there was nothing for him left to see.
Robert awoke in a strange bed not his own. Mallory was not beside him, and he could not hear the bustling of the Silver City streets beyond the oriel. When he looked around, he found himself in a castle chamber, not his home. He could not remember much at all. All he knew was that today was his wedding day, and that he was due to marry Mallory Spicer in the God’s Hall at Harthelm. His mouth was dry, but there was a goblet of water placed on the table at his bedside and so he gulped it down quickly. As soon as he was finished, he felt desperate for more.
He heard footsteps outside of the room and Robert jolted upright. Robert had no sword or any weapons at all. In fact, he was completely naked underneath the thin linen sheet that covered the lower half of his body. Short of weaponry, Robert grabbed the empty goblet. It was light, likely made of clay that would crumble before it cracked, but it was all he had to protect himself. As the door creaked open, he instinctively launched the goblet across the room at the door, but it veered to the right and smashed into pieces against the wall. Standing in the doorway was a short, portly old man who looked at Robert like a baker would look at a pie they had just pulled from the oven. Before taking any further steps forward, he lifted his hands into the air, exposing his palms.
“I mean you no harm, Sir Robert. Please, you can relax.”
“Who are you? Where am I?” Robert was desperate to stand up and knock the old man out of the way, but suddenly he felt a wave of ache in his legs, and he was not sure they would support his weight.
“Ah, ah, ah. You mustn’t move. You will not be on your feet for a day or so, I am afraid to say. I am Torvic, and you are in my office. Right now, your only duty is to rest and heal. I will inform your wife that you are awake.”
“What happened? How long have I been here?”
Torvic approached and lifted the goblet to Robert’s lips and nodded. Robert responded and drank the liquid. It was bitter and metallic, but he felt almost instantly better.
“Water will not taste quite right for a time, but you must remember to keep drinking it. You were poisoned. Grizzly business really, and you’re not the first to have suffered. Luckily, you are young and strong, and so you will recover quickly. You have only been here since Grosvenor and Hardwick brought you in from the wedding yesterday. Kicking and screaming you were, trying to grasp at whatever you could. Big man as you are, it took about six knights to restrain you before I was able to put you to sleep.” Torvic’s voice was calm and kind, as if nothing had ever shocked him.
“Poisoned? With what? By who?”
“That is not for me to say.”
“But perhaps I can explain it,” an old voice, filled with lethargy, came from beyond the chamber.
Robert knew Arkgodson Jerimeh as every man in the Hartlands did. He was still tall despite his years, and had not succumb to shrinking, but still nowhere near close to Robert’s height. He walked with a slight limp, every movement cautious, and accommodating one bone or another. His hair was almost white and his long face was devoured by age and smothered in wrinkles. Yet despite this, he still walked and imposed an authority in his stance, his body may have failed him, but his eyes were stern, if not also forlorn. He struck Robert as a man ready to die, but not quite ready to finish living.
“Your worship, what is going on?”
Torvic ushered Jerimeh next to Robert and placed a stool beside the bed so that he could sit down.
“What I am about to tell you will be in the strictest of confidence. It is a matter of regal importance, and I am only telling you this because you are already involved. Do you understand?” Robert nodded, but was bemused. “What you were given was a concoction known as Indinifali. It is a potion created by The Alchemist Guild that induces a severe violent rage, whilst rendering the victim in a dream-like state. The victim has no memory of their actions, and given in large enough quantities over a long-enough period of time, sends them into an almost irrecoverable state of madness. Luckily, you were misjudged because of your size, and all the poison did to you was leave you violently flailing your arms and legs whilst you were on the ground. Several people witnessed Lady Reynard giving you wine moments before this, but she has since fled the city. We have sent men after her, but it is likely she will take refuge across The Settler’s Sea, as she was not found at her husband’s castle in Hazelfield.”
“I have no ills with Lady Reynard, and she had no reason to harm me. Why would she do this?”
“Alas, that is what we are trying to discover. But Lady Reynard’s crimes are serious. It is not just you she has poisoned. She has now been accused by the King himself of being the perpetrator behind Queen Lorne’s madness, and is wanted for trial.”
There was a knock at the chamber door, as light as a feather brushing on silk. It was Mallory, no longer in her white dress, but dressed as plainly and as meekly as he had grown to expect of her. Her dress had lavender floral patterns embroidered into the linen and flowed lightly over her ankles. She approached the bed and Robert opened his arms instinctively. She stayed back, hovering behind Jerimeh. It was then that Robert noticed her eyes as he studied her more closely. One was dark, shrouded in a grey circle, and her lip had a black bump from a clear split that looked painfully sore. Robert felt his heart sink into his chest. He held his hand out, and she took it gently, stroking his palm slowly before he put his arm around her waist and pulled her close to him. He rested his head on her chest.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
Poisoned at his own wedding. Robert was the talk of Silver City from the highest tower of Harthelm to the opium-puffing tavern-crawlers in the most neglected alleyways. Robert had tried to avoid them all desperately, but he had neither the position nor the social power to refuse the invitations of those at court. In the space of a few months, the seventh son of the Earl of Talford had gone from a nomadic disappointment to the most sought-after social toy in the Kingdom’s capital. None of this enamoured or excited him, nor did it particularly please Mallory. He could tell that although she tolerated the constant unwanted attention, she also did not sign-up for a marriage with a high-profile man.
Her bruises and cuts were healing, but she was different with him now. He was used to his wife’s silence, but before they had a certain way of communicating. It was a dance of movements and gestures that they had been working on for months since they were betrothed. Now though, they were living side by side, away from the supervision of her father, and the silence seemed louder than ever. Robert could not remember anything from the day of his wedding except what his peers had told him. He did not remember seeing his cousin, Lady Reynard, and he certainly did not remember the ceremony. All he remembered was his dream, or what he believed now to be a dream. He remembered being dragged down into the watery earth and waking up in a strange bed. Perhaps I am still dreaming, he thought.
Robert had little time to ponder his near-death. He was due to meet Lord Grosvenor and Lord Hardwick, who were even more excited about his appointment. “Hardest part about leading a unit in this city, is getting them to understand who you are, and why you’re here. Well, for you the hard part is already over. All you had to do was almost die.” Hardwick had told him when he visited his bedside. Robert laughed with his mouth, but not his eyes or his soul. The whole thing had frightened him to his core, but at no point did he feel like he would die. His experience was worse, there was no doubt, but Robert had been poisoned before by a badly cooked chicken on his visit to Ismann. He remembered vomiting violently the entire night and he felt weak and sickly for days afterwards, feverish and desperately rotten. Yet upon waking up after Lady Reynard’s poisoning, Robert felt fine, if not a bit tired and achy. He felt sore, but then he had also been thrashing whilst being held down by several knights.
He dared not express his concerns to Torvic. If he had not been poisoned, then what would they have thought of him? Induced into madness by no more than a wedding reception? What would they have said then? In the eyes of the court though, Robert was brutally poisoned by a foul substance that drove the Queen herself into madness, and at his own wedding of all places! It made him popular, it made him famous, but most of all, it made him respected. He survived, and they liked that about him.
By the time Robert had arrived at Lord Hardwick’s manor in the city, it was midday. The sun shone high above the city at the peak of summer. The gardens surrounding Hardwick’s estate were lush and green, complemented by lavenders and cherry blossom trees. There were men guarding the gate who were sweating dutifully beneath their heavy uniforms, their chainmail poking out from their cuffs. They were soldiers of the City Guard, of similar rank to the men Robert would himself be leading. As he approached, they stepped aside instantly and one of the men rang a bell that hung on the wall. Within moments the gate was pulled opened by two more guards on the inside of estate, just wide enough for Robert to enter. As soon as he was through, they were closed immediately behind him.
Robert had not walked ten feet before he saw Elden Hardwick bounding across the courtyard to greet him. A sweaty, extended hand was thrust into his own before Robert even had a say in the matter, and the Grandmaster slapped his back with an almighty thump that would have knocked a smaller man to the ground. Robert shook his hand and gripped his shoulder, half in comradery, half to maintain his balance. “The Knight who was poisoned by the Fox”, Hardwick boomed. “They will write a song of it!”
“I’m afraid they already have,” Robert confessed, having heard the diddy played at him as he walked past a tavern. “It is truly terrible.”
“No matter. There’ll be plenty more opportunities to attain fame and glory in the battles to come.”
They walked through the courtyard and onto a small patio. It was a beautiful estate, and the gardens within were even brighter than those outside. Magentas, pinks and yellows bloomed against the walls that were painted an intense, clear, blue like the colour of the deep ocean or a desert sky. It was truly striking. In the centre of the courtyard was a square fountain with a delicate spout in the centre modelled on two intertwining branches and a pool surrounding the fountain to collect the water. It was all painted the same vibrant colour of blue. Even the surrounding pillars, arches and buildings were painted the same way, with the odd orange window or yellow curtain to break up the intensity. On the patio, Lord Grosvenor was sitting in the sun, holding a glass of orange juice. On the table were several large oranges, bigger than Robert had ever seen.
“Lord Grosvenor,” Hardwick roared. “Sir Robert of House Talford,” he theatrically bowed and winked at Robert.
“You must forgive your new commander, Sir Robert. He fancies himself an actor.” Lord Grosvenor rose and shook Robert’s hand. “Poison agrees with you. You look positively war-ready.”
Robert relaxed in the knowledge that his episode was being treated lightly. He had feared that it would jeopardise his opportunity in the City Guard. He would not have known where else to turn. Too rich to be a travelling knight, too bitter to join a household guard, too ashamed to return home. “I’ve drunk enough poison in my time and haven’t died yet,” Robert joked.
“Well good, we are in need of good men on my guard. We will discuss the terms of your employment, and then you will meet your unit this afternoon.” Hardwick explained.
“This afternoon? So soon?”
“Of course! Your men are desperate to meet the survivor of the Poison Witch! I saw you in that fitful state, and whilst I am sure you would not wish to revisit it, I thought for sure that you had been possessed and that Natos had your hand. You are nothing short of a miracle!” Robert did not know how to respond, and so he bowed his head solemnly.
“Lord Hardwick, perhaps you would be so kind as to allow Robert and I this space. I have some matters I wish to talk with him about privately.” Lord Grosvenor commanded under the umbrella of courtesy.
“Of course,” Hardwick bound across the courtyard towards the guards at the gate and immediately struck up conversation with them instead.
“He is a fine leader of men, but he doesn’t half talk for the kingdom,” Grosvenor joked. “Please, sit down,” he gestured. Robert sat. “Your father has not but bad things to say about you, lad. I, for one, cannot seem to fathom why.”
Robert was surprised at how sad that made him feel. He knew it was the truth, of course, but to hear it so expressed by his father’s liege lord was another spike through his chest. “My father is a complex man… I have never sought to injure him.”
“And yet you seem to do so constantly. It would seem you both need each other now more than you ever have. You are the only son he has left from seven. He is the only father you will ever have. As it stands, your father is ageing, and your nephew is still a boy. We are at the brink of war. Hillhold will need a capable Earl to steer them through the tough times. I will need a capable commander.”
“My father is alive and well, and no doubt will be until this war passes. I have no doubt young Vincent will be well of age by my father’s time to pass.” Robert brushed off the suggestion. He had no desire to be an Earl, and walking in his father’s footsteps did not interest him in the slightest.
“For now, yes. But it is my job to ensure that my Duchy is protected, both now and for the future. When the boy is ready and he comes of age, he will inherit Hillhold and all the lands around it as is his right, but should your father not make it through the war, I will call upon you to rule the Earldom. I assume you realise that this is an order, and not something that you are able to refuse.”
Robert nodded. “Yes, my lord.”
“Good,” Grosvenor smiled and gripped Robert’s wrist. “You are a good man, Robert. It was a terrible tragedy what happened to your brother that day. He may not say it aloud, but your father knows in his heart that you are not responsible.”
Robert stood. “Everyone keeps telling me how I almost died. Everyone says that it was a miracle. Tell me truthfully, did my father make any enquiries about my health? Did he visit my bed?” Grosvenor sat in silence and looked up at Robert sympathetically. “That is all I needed to know. I will do as you command, my lord, but I am a Talford no longer, and once my duty is fulfilled, I’ll never return again.”
The fanfare for the arrival of King Aedvard was out in full force across the city. Hardwick and Robert rode through the city and were crowded by vendors selling their wares and taverns overflowing with drunken punters. The long road from the city gates to Harthelm had been blocked off and were lined with hundreds of the City Guard. Robert’s unit would man the main gate at the west of the city. King Aedvard’s convoy was estimated be no more than fifty men, and the King of the Blacklands would be a fool to bring more. There was a sense of cautious anxiety in the air mixed with excitement. The last time two Kings were in the same city, it was King Eldrian and King Aedvard announcing their peace. Now, most wished for a renewal.
As they approached the main road leading towards Harthelm, the crowds suddenly dispersed. There were two guards stationed at the end of the alley on horses who stepped aside to allow Hardwick and Robert through. The street was empty, but for city guards dressed head to toe in their burgundy surcoats and hose with the emblems of their house emblazoned on their chests. Each member of the City Guard was permitted to honour their house by having their own coat of arms represented above their hearts upon the front of their surcoats, but upon the back was the large emblem of House Hartlin – the bronze crown inside a purple heart on a grey field. It was simple, elegant and represented their ancestry as the third family descended from the Harts to be the Kings of the Hartlands. It made Robert consider his own family’s coat of arms, the clunky image of a man, arms spread, separating a lion and a bear. Perhaps it was his hatred for his family, but though the man was said to look at peace, the man instead just looked resigned to die. It did not inspire him as it did his father or his brothers.
Hardwick and Robert unhorsed themselves at the gate. Hardwick immediately walked to up a young man with long, blonde hair down to his waist. The emblem across his chest was the coat of arms of House Garrison, the Earl of Hunter’s Valley that bordered the lands of his father. He could not recall the lad’s name. Garrison had a hoard of sons from many wives, bastards from many mistresses, and probably a few lambs from the occasional sheep. Lord Garrison and Lord Talford had many rivalries – not least in the amount of offspring they could produce – but as much as Robert loved those who enraged his father, even he couldn’t bring himself to enjoy the company of Garrison’s moronic sons. At almost every social occasion, he would be unfortunate enough to meet one, and almost every time he would make his excuses to walk away.
“Sir Robert of House Talford, this is Sir Eiruc Garrison,” Hardwick introduced them.
“Pleased to meet you, commander,” Eiruc smiled wryly.
“And you, Sir,” Robert replied politely, unsure as to why he was being introduced to such a junior member of the unit. “Who do you report into, Sir Eiruc?”
Eiruc turned to Hardwick with a confused look on his face that soon turned to offense.
“Sir Robert. Sir Eiruc will be reporting directly to you. He is the Sergeant of The Brothership.” Hardwick explained.
Robert was stunned. This lad could not have been a day older than seventeen. His face was covered in soft white hairs, the densest of which was a patch of yellow fluff above his upper lip. “My apologies, Sir Eiruc, I meant no offence. You surprise me, that a man of such a young age could have risen to Sergeant so quickly.”
“The youngest in history, commander. The strongest sword in the Unit, perhaps in the entire city.”
Robert smiled. He remembered when all he cared for was how people viewed him with a sword. Everyone wanted to be the best swordsman, every man boasted of their skill in the hope that their fellow men would believe their own propaganda. Robert did not care to brag or brazenly wave his sword before anyone. He had proven his worth in battle, in defence of lords, and had won tournies across the New World and even some in the Old World. Robert wanted so much to put this boy in his place, but he decided to be respectful. Sewing seeds of anger in his men would not help his cause in getting them to respect and follow him.
“Well it is good to know that I can rest easy knowing that the city is safe under your protection.”
“Does the Lord Talford, mock me?” Eiruc bit. His pale face was now flushed pink. “Perhaps our Commander wishes to test my accomplishments?” Eiruc roared, which drew the men from their posts. Robert looked around, and the men of the Brothership had their eyes fixed on Talford and Garrison, stood opposite one another with Hardwick between them. Eiruc unsheathed his sword, and Robert instinctively grabbed the hilt of his own. Hardwick stepped between them, and placed his hand over Eiruc’s sword.
“Are you out of your mind?” Hardwick chaste Eiruc. “This is your commander, and you will show some damn respect.”
“If he is to be our commander, then he should be able to defeat me in single combat. If words and accomplishments are not enough for Sir Robert, then they certainly are not enough for me.”
Robert stepped in and whispered to Hardwick. “I will not kill the boy, but I will not gain his respect if I do not show him that I can.”
Hardwick stepped aside. “Put those swords down. If you must do this, you will use blunted bloody swords. I am not losing two men to this foolishness, but perhaps your cuts and bruises will teach you not to be so fucking proud. Have at it…” Hardwick stepped aside. Robert and Eiruc dropped their sword belts and a guard hurriedly brought over two blunted swords. Robert’s was small and light, far from what he was used to. His own steel was heavier, and he had been using it for at least a year, the change in weight made him nervous. The nerves made his heart pulse, the noise of the cheering guards, Hardwick’s eyes surveyed him. He was surrounded again, and he felt his stomach lurch. This time, there was no poison in his blood, but the sweat that had begun to soak his face betrayed him.
Then a crash. A sword on his sword. Steel pushing against steel. Robert deflected the blow, pulled his sword away and swung it downward, only to feel the same crash that Eiruc had felt moments before. He had not seen the first strike coming, but his body knew what to do. The momentum of his own strike almost took him off his feet, and yet his balance did not betray him. All he could see was a blonde blur in front of him. Robert could not make out the details on his face, nor could he see the emblem on the boy’s chest, he was simply a flash of light dancing in front of him, trying to cut him down. Robert saw only the shape of the blade as his heart exploded inside his chest. A parry. A slash. A lock of swords and a test of strength. It was all against the light. There was no Eiruc, there was no sword, just lights and shapes that pranced arrogantly in his mind. He saw them all. He knew when they were coming, how they were going to strike him, and where. The lights and shapes flew around with cocky energy, they were inexperienced, if not technically gifted. You are not my match, Robert thought as the pain inside his chest became unbearable. He must have looked a hell of a sight, stumbling around with sweat dripping off him, parrying blows from a sword as though he was swatting a fly.
Then the flashes of light became sharper and more careful, there was less thrashing and flailing, and an increased level of sophistication. Oh he is good, Robert realised, he just thought I was worse. Robert tried to focus as the sword twisted against his own, his own dance became tighter, and he made his torso slighter with his movements, bending and turning like water, taking whatever shape he needed in order to attain the upper hand. Still his heart beat. Thump after thump after thump. Quicker now, the sweat poured down his face as the unrelenting sun shone mercilessly upon his face. The lights slowed. The shapes became rigid and unmoving. The grey light of the blade became easier to parry, the blonde blur slowed down. Robert moved faster. His strokes more dominant, more powerful, he felt the pure power of his tendons drive through his sword as it smashed into his opponent’s steel. He felt the opposing sword lose balance, and he pulled back and swung again as the grey light flew out of view.
Robert used his left hand to wipe the sweat from his face and eyes. His heart began to slow and the cheering resumed. He had not realised until that point, that he fought this fight in silence. He had not heard a word. Yet now, the cheers continued, but these were not the cheers of angry men desperate for violence, these were the congratulations of success. Robert stood over the blonde blur, which was no longer just shapes and light. He saw the boy’s youthful face, as he lay with his hands gripping the dirt on the ground, and he saw the emblem on the boy’s chest – a pink man holding a longbow on a zigzagged field- the bottom half grey and the top half sky blue. Garrison was on his arse. Defeated. Robert threw his own blunted sword to the ground and locked eyes with his foe.
Then the horn blew. Every single guard scattered like rabbits to regain their formation on the ramparts. Eiruc Garrison rushed to his feet and started barking orders at his men. Robert looked to Hardwick, who was the only man who remained. Not a single word passed between them for a moment, but Hardwick eyed him suspiciously and sauntered over to him. He removed a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped it across Robert’s forehead before placing it in his palms. Robert felt it. It was soaking wet.
“It is not that hot,” Hardwick said.
“The horn?” Robert replied, catching his breath.
“I think you know. King Aedvard. He has arrived at last.”