Good afternoon and happy Saturday everyone! I am currently writing this in bed after eleven hours of sleep, which I clearly needed! I have always written less over the Christmas period, but I am determined to keep driving forward over the break. I hope that this book will be completed by next Christmas, and this blog is certainly giving me the motivation to keep going and start the enormous editing process. Today, we move on to Chapter Twenty! A big milestone for the blog, but with much more still to come!
In today’s Chapter, we catch up with Riechard as he trains and strategises for his journey to Ismann and his planned invasion of The Hartlands. I will not say much more, and will leave you to read this at your leisure. Thank you for reading, and Chapter Twenty-One will be posted on December 19th!
Riechard always remembered looking out over these hills. He stood at the point of the crossroads. The first moment that he would be able to see the ocean as he approached from the inlands. As a child, it always filled him with excitement. Wherever he had been, with his father or his grandfather, or his mother, he knew that he would soon be home. There were more ships than he had ever seen making their way safely to dock. He felt proud of his accomplishment, as if he had solved his first puzzle.
Salman stood beside him. Riechard had received news that Hector had joined with his foster father’s army near Six Castles, and wondered what Lord Steel would make of him expelling his cousin from the city. It was a problem for another time though, and Riechard had little time to dwell on his decisions as Sir Gavon and Sir William rode towards him side by side before slowing to a trot and dismounting. Without hesitation, Riechard removed the letters from the inside pocket of his surcoat and double checked the names upon the front. The wax seal was firm and imprinted with the Byrne emblem.
“Sir Gavon, take this letter south to Lord Steel,” Riechard said before turning to the other knight. “Sir William, take this letter north to Warlord Dudsoner in Mount Lakgard.”
Sir William gave him a momentarily quizzical look. “I will go alone?” He asked.
“Ismann are a nation of warriors. They consider a group of three foreigners to be an invasion force. It is a safer journey alone. I have organised a stop for you in Taun, there you can rest and collect some furs for the journey. It will be cold, but you will be glad you travelled in Autumn and not Winter. I expect you back within a week. Sir Gavon. You will be given a fortnight.”
Both men nodded and departed almost instantly. There was rarely trouble with Gavon and William. They were Lord Steel’s men, and that meant that there was no question of their loyalty or their duty. It was as if Riechard’s foster father reared these men from birth, and wished he could have spent more time understanding his methods to learn how to apply them himself. He turned to Salman and the two men began walking back towards their horses.
“You are making smart decisions. I am impressed.”
Riechard somehow always felt patronised by Salman, even when he was complimenting him. He had never seen a man walk with so much confidence, and that unnerved him. “You sound surprised”
“Perhaps I am. When I was told I was to be led by a fifteen-year-old boy, I expected coy, I expected weak and easy to sway,” Salman laughed.
Riechard felt as if Salman could see right through him. Riechard had felt out of his depth since he arrived in Duncath. The reason he did not seem weak and coy was because he was desperate not to expose those parts of himself. He built walls as high as the walls around his city, within himself, to keep those unwanted traits from escaping. He hoped that if he pretended long enough, then he could starve those traits out from within, without anyone ever having to know they had been there. By now, he had learned to let Salman’s praise wash over him. Riechard still did not totally trust him, but it seemed that, for now at least, it was in Salman’s best interests to advise Riechard to the best of his ability.
The next day, Riechard took to the courtyard to face off against Sir Adriel in private. The training sessions would always consist of the same routine. First, Riechard would take the skills he had learned with Sir Adriel the day before and implement them against the lads his age. To make it fair, Riechard would be banned from using a certain hand or a certain movement to teach him how to adapt. Yet so far, no matter what obstruction Sir Adriel gave him, it did not matter. Riechard won, as he always won. After that, however, Sir Adriel tripped, kicked, berated and emasculated Riechard in their private fights by the armoury. It was as if that patch of grass beside the building had some sort of magical effect on his ability to fight. It felt as though no matter how strong he got, Adriel was stronger, no matter how dirty he fought, Adriel had a sleazier tactic. It was tiresome, and yet Riechard kept picking up his sword and fighting again.
On this day, Riechard and Adriel stood across from one another on the grass. As always, Sir Adriel wore the smile of an annoyingly self-assured man. His eyes were focused, his poised stance measured and unbetraying of any human emotion. It was as if he were reading a book that he had read a thousand times, letting the words flick past him and prod his memories until that satisfied, knowing smile cast his enjoyment towards the world. It was a type of arrogance that did not need shouting. It was as plain as day, and yet you would be a fool to accuse him of complacency.
Usually, they would circle each other for a few paces to warm up and prepare their first move, but Sir Adriel was feeling brazen and bold. The knight stepped forward immediately, raised his sword over his head and swiped it at Riechard’s ribs. With more luck than skill, the young lord twisted his body away and flung his sword towards the ground before rolling after it and picking it up neatly whilst springing back to his feet. Riechard knew that this was a complete fluke, and in no way could he have planned such a smooth-looking evasion. Yet he caught in Sir Adriel’s eyes a flash of doubt. Taking advantage of his brief lapse of confidence, Riechard stormed forward and met his opponent’s rising sword. He did not go for the winning blow. The knight would have used his own strength against him if he’d tried. Riechard was younger, and stronger. He realised that their fights had been too short, and the key was getting them to last longer. So they parried even shots, the muscles in Riechard’s arms twitched, but he had more than enough breath. Every swing of his sword was calculated so that Adriel had the furthest possible distance to cover. If the first blow was high, the second would be low, if one was straight, the next was diagonal. Riechard swung faster and faster, never intending to strike Sir Adriel and always expecting a block and a counter. They became used to the blunt force resistance as the swords met each other, and Riechard became better and better at pulling his sword back, and immediately driving forward again. He saw the sweat pouring from Sir Adriel’s face and after driving his sword into the knight’s blade for the last time, he pivoted on his heel and drove his foot hard into the back of his ankle. It did not send Sir Adriel tumbling, but it did bring him to a knee. It was enough. Once his own panting died down, he could hear just how hard Sir Adriel was struggling. Riechard pushed up Sir Ariel’s chin with his blunt sword, and the knight threw his sword to the ground in disappointment, and yet he could not help but smile.
“Five weeks I’ve been training you. Five. I should be ashamed of myself,” Sir Adriel lamented as they walked towards the armoury, the knight dabbing the sweat from his face and neck.
“Perhaps you are a good teacher.”
“Or you’re a lucky shit.”
The armoury was packed full of blacksmiths. It was so noisy that Riechard could hardly hear himself think. Where a few weeks before the armoury had been gutted and little steel remained, Riechard had arranged pre-emptively for blacksmiths around the city to work in shifts at the armoury for greater pay. The output had been fantastic, and already they’d produced enough weaponry for another five-hundred men. Riechard held up a finished sword and inspected it himself. It was by no means the best he had ever seen, but it was a solid piece of steel, and well-crafted with a solid oak handle carved with inlets for the fingers to fit snugly within. Riechard had a far greater sword that he would bring with him to battle, but this would feel royal to a humble foot soldier.
“This is fine work,” Riechard told the blacksmith.
The man’s face was leathery and tanned, weathered from years around smoke and fire. He carried on about his business, giving an acknowledging nod to Riechard out of politeness. Riechard walked into Sir Adriel’s office, where a tea had already been brewed waiting for him. Riechard’s hands were so hot, he barely noticed the heat of the ceramic cup. He noticed straight away that Sir Adriel was staring at him, clearly thinking of what to say. Riechard waited patiently, eager to let the knight articulate his thoughts as best he could before he said a word in return.
“There is no doubt you are ready to go into battle, but that does not mean that you should.”
Riechard sipped at the scalding hot tea. It was far too hot to consume, but he needed to buy himself a moment of two of time to respond adequately.
“I know that you are thinking I am doing what I am doing so that I can play war, but I am not.”
“Then why? Why take this risk? Your father and Lord Steel are seasoned military commanders. They…”
“They are predictable. Who else would lead our armies? Where else would be capable of passing their armies through into The Hartlands? They are predictable because they are highly strategic, and whilst I cannot speak for King Aron, Prince Asher knows the weaknesses of his borders, and he will reinforce them. It will be a stalemate, and when they have our King locked in a cell. A stalemate for The Hartlands is a victory. It forces a negotiation.”
“Do you truly believe that your army of five-hundred could break a stalemate like this? I have seen these Kingdoms at war all my life, lord. They are long, drawn out affairs, bloody and utterly relentless. Very rarely has one dominated the other into surrender. Far more often, it is a compromise that benefits no one, and has put both peoples in a position where they are worse off than they were before the war started. I have faith in your ability to win a fight, even to lead an army to win a battle, but you are fifteen years old, and these Kingdoms have existed as they are for over half a millennium.”
“I do not go to lessons often enough to challenge your knowledge of history. What I do understand is opportunity. At this very moment, I have an opportunity to be the difference and end this war swiftly before it has even had the chance to begin. What chance does our Kingdom have without my grandfather? Tell me truly what you think.”
Sir Adriel smiled slightly. “I think that if I had known the man at fifteen, he would have sounded exactly like you.”
Riechard was announced at Isabel’s chamber by Sir Dominic of Launton Vale. The knight was never too pleased when anyone disturbed Lady Isabel, even when it was the Lord of Duncath. Sir Dominic’s head was covered in a mop of blonde, fluffy hair like a poodle, and his face carried a near-constant scowl of indignation, as if he were always ready to argue or reject a notion or request. This was of course, until it came to Isabel, whom he doted after and saw to that she was never disturbed and always served well. Sir Dominic was a few years older than Riechard and Isabel, and had always hoped to marry Riechard’s aunt. Yet his lower-born status meant that he settled for being her personal bodyguard.
After announcing Riechard with as much courtesy as his thin lips could muster, Dominic pushed open the door and closed it immediately behind him. Isabel was sat at her table with her head in a book, reading eagerly whilst sipping on a cup of watered-down wine, so much so it was almost pink.
“You should have agreed to marry the Ismann warlord,” Riechard said, “perhaps then, Sir Dominic might have lost faith in his pursuit of you.”
Isabel rolled her eyes, but a semblance of a smile appeared on her lips. “I dare say he’d die at the warlord’s own hands before he stopped asking me to marry him.” Isabel closed the book. “I do not wish to fight with you nephew. Nor do I wish to defy you in public, but I will not be used as a pawn in this war.”
Riechard felt a stab of guilt. He wondered how his grandfather did it. How did he put his pieces where he needed them whilst maintaining their love and support? “What are you reading?”
“Do not tell my father. It is a banned work by Ulusun Nawoni, about the true history of The New World,” Isabel pushed the book towards Riechard. He lifted it up in both hands, and immediately turned the book on its side to see how thick it was. He agonised about how long it would take him to read the thing before placing it back down. “I am almost finished. You may read it when I am.”
Riechard scoffed. “I am far too busy. That aside, you should not be reading banned books.”
“You should really be asking yourself why they are banned in the first place.”
“Because they tell lies?”
“Or because the person banning it does not want you to know the truth. Open your mind,” Isabel said gently. “What brings you here? Have you come to sell me off to another political ally?”
Riechard took a breath. Isabel had always outwitted him, and it was a tiresome battle trying to keep up with her. Riechard’s strength had never been his mind, and even he could admit that, but he had always hoped his body would talk for him. Staying in Duncath and thinking would not help his Kingdom, but moving forward and fighting his enemies would be the best use of his talents. “I am here to ask for your vote,” he explained.
“And what is the council voting on today?” Isabel seemed disinterested.
“I need the council’s permission to take a small army into The Hartlands. Amelie, Salman, myself and Neville will be voting yes. Aetheld, Lyo and Edweard will be voting no. With Hector Steelmont in Blackport, you cast the deciding vote.”
His aunt laughed, but Riechard’s face remained still as stone. “Oh, nephew, do you not find this the least bit humorous? “
“Isabel, please. Do not joke with me. If you vote yes then I will be gone from Duncath, perhaps for months, you will not need to marry anyone, in fact, you can do what you please.”
“Well thank you for giving me the basic freedoms I had anyway, nephew…” She paused, and looked at him for a moment. “I do not want you gone from Duncath if that is what you think. But there is something I do want, and if you can give me that, then you will have my vote.”
“Of course,” Riechard said, shocked. “What is it?”
“The thought of marrying an Ismann Warlord is terrifying to me. In fact, the thought of marrying any one of my father’s vassals makes my skin crawl in truth. I know what is to come. We will both be married off as quickly as possible to ensure alliances. All I want is a say in who I am to marry.”
Riechard felt the request was reasonable, but did not want to give away his relief that her request was not something more problematic. “Who would you seek to marry?”
“Salman of Westshore.”
It took a moment for Riechard to understand what was being said. He considered Isabel carefully and thought for a moment. On the surface of the idea, he could see how it made sense. Salman was a key advisor to King Aedvard, one of his most influential vassals with vast lands in the arable South West of The Blacklands. Salman was providing a fifth of the army that Riechard would take to The Hartlands. Moreover, it would allow Isabel to remain in Duncath. He thought on it for a few moments, and then realised that this would secure a man he was still unsure he could totally trust.
“I will propose the idea to Salman. If he agrees, then I will sanction the marriage before we leave, but only after you give me your vote.”
Riechard stood up to leave. “Out of curiosity. Why Salman?”
Isabel had already reopened her book and looked up slightly. “He has been by my father’s side for as long as I can remember. He is loyal to the Kingdom. But moreover, there is a goodness about him. Of all the men at court, he has never once even suggested the idea that he might want to marry me. Never have I found a wayward glance in my direction nor felt a wandering hand as I passed him in the hall. I want to marry him because I believe he respects me, and I respect him.”
The council meeting came and went in a flash. Isabel’s vote swayed the room and the motion was cleared. Riechard would lead his army into The Hartlands. With Salman joining Riechard on the journey, he would also have time to float the idea of marrying Isabel to him. He chose Salman as his Deputy Commander, yet in truth, he knew that Salman would be the one driving this expedition. Riechard had no experience leading an army, and yet it was he who the men would follow. Isabel’s words had affected him. Perhaps he could not trust Salman to act in his best interests, but at the very least, he could rely on him to act in the Kingdom’s best interests, and he was certain that those principles aligned, regardless of whether or not his father or grandfather approved of his actions.
The thought of seeing his father or grandfather seemed so far away, that he was not yet concerned for their response to defying their commands. It seemed to him, that if his plan worked, then he would be hailed as a hero. If it failed, he would likely be killed long before he suffered a worse punishment at the hands of his superiors. Neville was almost in tears when Riechard announced he would act as Castellan in his stead. It was more an honorary role, and a role that required the Naval Commander to protect Duncath from an attack. The real responsibility of the Kingdom would be in the hands of Isabel and his mother, Amelie. Only those who called themselves Byrne could call themselves leaders.
It was almost a week later when Sir William returned almost intact. There were bruises around his right eye, but the knight insisted that this was a drunken tavern scuffle on his return home and nothing more. Riechard believed him. It was not unlike Sir William to fight drunk. It was how most men prepared for war. He had not yet experienced the fear and the dread. He presumed that would come the knight before a battle. Perhaps, he thought, more experienced warriors started the suppression of those feelings earlier. Sir William was tired from his journey, and so Riechard sat him down in his chamber with a cup of wine and a roaring fire.
“How was Mount Lakgard?” Riechard asked.
“Cold. Bitter. Miserable. I was only there a day, spent the rest of the time drinking, fighting and fucking whores on this side of the border,” Sir William took a swig of wine.
“Did you meet Dudsoner?”
“Aye. I met him.”
“And his daughter?”
A brief smile flashed across his face before the knight retained his composure. “Aye, and her.”
“And?” Riechard shrugged.
Sir William shook his head. “I wouldn’t fight her, let’s put it that way.”
Riechard nodded and took a big gulp of his own wine. “Do we have an agreement? Where is his letter?”
Sir William scoffed. “Turns out, Dudsoner doesn’t like parchment. But aye, he has agreed.”
“What do you mean he doesn’t like parchment?”
Sir William slammed his cup of wine on the table and lifted up the sleeve of his tunic. Carved into the knight’s skin was the word ‘Yes’ half-healed and swollen with specs of red and blacked mingled together among the hairs on his forearm. Sir William pulled down his sleeve and sank his cup of wine before pouring himself another from the flagon on the table. Riechard topped up his own cup and sank into his chair.
“I suppose you should not wish to return there,” Riechard said.
Sir William laughed. “If I refused to go back to every place I got cut, I would scarcely have a home left in the world.”
Over the next few days, Riechard gathered his army and the camps were erected just beyond the city walls. There were not many. In fact, it was surprising to Riechard just how few five-hundred men actually looked like. His father led an army of ten thousand men, and his foster father another eight thousand, and here was Riechard looking out of the oriel at his ragtag band of merry men and wondered how on earth he expected to make a difference. As he pondered this, there was a knock on his chamber door. There had been many visitors arriving to wish him well, but when Sir William announced his mother, a wave of relief came over him. Even in his teenage years, he felt a comfort knowing that his mother was here, and did not realise until he returned home just how much he missed her company. Amelie Byrne joined him at the window and looked out over Duncath.
“Is it enough?” Riechard asked.
“It will have to be.”
“Lord Steelmont…he knows…he knows not to-”
“I would not have my family harmed.”
“Are you afraid?” Amelie asked.
“Would you believe me if I said no?”
“Perhaps. Teenage boys have historically been too stupid to fear war. And yet, no, I would not believe you.”
“Do you know what it is like? To kill a man, I mean.”
“Thankfully I do not. Your father does, of course.”
“Has he ever spoken to you about it?”
Amelie nodded. “He has told the world. With his paintings, with his songs, with his attitude to this life. It is written on every inch of him how he feels about violence and pain.”
“Do you think I will respond the same?”
“No. You are much like your father in some ways. You are thoughtful, and you have empathy, but you are so much more like your grandfather, like Lord Steel. You are restless. You cannot stand inaction. You are a born warrior. I have great faith in you, son. You have Charles’ heart, but Aedvard’s head.” Riechard turned to his mother and wrapped his arms around her. She squeezed him slightly before pushing him back. Whatever sadness his mother felt, she had supressed most of it, so far down that her eyes did not even water at saying goodbye to her son. She looked down at his bed, and at the two furs that were laid neatly upon it. “You will need more furs than that in Ismann. I will have them packed and sent down to you.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Be safe,” she said, and did not look at him as she left his chamber.
At the crossroads, Neville sat high upon his horse. Though his Castellan did not stand above five and a quarter-foot tall, he looked as noble as any man he had ever seen sat atop his horse with the sunlight bouncing off his bald head. He was dressed in his blue uniform adorned with the emblem of his House of Neville – a man holding both a hoe in one hand and a sword in the other upon a horizontally split field of blue on top of yellow – over his heart, and the Byrne flame beside it. Riechard was also astride his destrier. This time, however, there was an army at his feet. Beside him were Salman and William, two of only twenty-five mounted knights in their five-hundred strong army. In any other situation, it would be a pitiful army, but if Riechard’s plan worked then they would be legends among their kinsmen.
“I am glad that I can leave our capital knowing it is under your protection, Commander.”
“Travel well, lord. The next time I see you, I hope it will be upon this crossroads with your father and grandfather beside you. That is the sight I will dream of.”
Riechard and Neville shook hands, and the Commander turned away and kicked his horse into a canter back towards the city of Duncath. Riechard looked over his army who waited patiently for his lead. Five-hundred men scraped from all parts of the Kingdom, almost half of which were simple foot-archers. Only about a hundred were mounted upon horses. It would be a long journey, and he knew he would have to be cautious of their health as Autumn moved into Winter. With most on foot, travelling to Ismann would take a few weeks taking into consideration rest stops and Riechard’s lack of experience leading an army. He looked to Salman, who met his gaze, and for once, had a look of sincerity across it.
“Did you know that my aunt Isabel is eager to marry you?” Riechard said.
Salman did not respond, but his face did not seem shocked. He gave Riechard a slight smile. “Lady Isabel has long been an admirer of mine. I am aware.”
“She would be a fine match for you.”
“Is that a statement or a proposition?”
“I have given you a thought. I will say no more of it.”
Riechard had held up his end of the bargain to his aunt. He did not see a reason to push it any further with his advisor. Salman and Isabel would be a sensible match for all parties, but Riechard was deeply nervous about arranging marriages without his father or his grandfather’s approval. They put me in charge of the Kingdom, he thought. If I am not to make my own decisions in their stead, then what did they bring me back to do? In his own mind, he already felt he had betrayed their orders, but equally, he had not received any. He had not been forbidden from arranging marriages or raising an army. His job was to run the Kingdom effectively, and helping defeat their enemies was surely the best use of his time. Riechard was tired of waiting for responsibility and battle to come to him. He would need to go towards them both.
“Are you ready?” Salman asked.
Riechard nodded. “Aye, I am.”
Salman shouted “Forward” with his hand around his mouth to amplify the sound, and they started moving. Riechard looked to his left at the coastline as the word echoed from the leader of each unit as it carried its way to the last man. Sir William rode up beside him, looking straight ahead.
“I am sorry for what Dudsoner did to you,” Riechard said, eager not to injure the man’s pride.
“You know that you will need to be civil with him? He will be my father-in-law once this is all over.”
“Aye, I’m aware.” Riechard nodded, eager not to push Sir William too hard whilst he was clearly intently focused on holding in his anger. “Do you know how many warriors are in Dudsoner’s tribe?”
Riechard shook his head.
“The bastard has eight-thousand. Eight-thousand trained fighters. You are giving your royal blood to this savage’s bloodline for eternity. Forgive me, but I would say that is not a fair trade for passage alone.”
Sir William rode off ahead. Those behind would believe the knight was scouting, as was his duty, but Riechard knew he was leaving him to chew on the thought. An army of eight-thousand. An army capable of sweeping through The Hartlands, an army capable of not only releasing King Aedvard from his prison, but capable of perhaps even conquering the entire Kingdom. The thought was too great, the dream too grand for Riechard to properly digest it, and so he did not. He looked straight ahead and watched as Sir William cantered into the distance. He closed his eyes for a moment and took in the air of his city, that would perhaps be the last he would ever hold in his lungs.