Good afternoon everyone. I’ve made it back to York in one piece today despite the snowfall in the north. It’s been a quiet, but very relaxing Christmas and New Year, and what better way to start 2021 than by diving straight back into The Cursed King.
Chapter Twenty-Two brings us back to Robert as The Hartlands army marches north to meet Prince Charles’ unit in Hazelfield. In this chapter, the knight wrestles with his past and his future, all the while rubbing shoulders with some of the most important men in the Kingdom, who want far more from him than he ever desired. Thank you for reading and Chapter Twenty-Three will be posted on January 16th.
It had taken Robert far longer than he’d wanted to finally find his way into his dreams. Once he had arrived, however, an overwhelming tingling sensation, as refreshing as a spring breeze, ran over his skin as he awoke in his distant world. Robert found himself standing in the glorious sun of Dalchester. The Blacklands was a large Kingdom, large enough that in the far north, you would be subjected to harsh winters, and in the far south, you would be treated to sweltering summers. Dalchester was an important borderland in the Earldom of Glengarth for The Blacklands. It bordered the Amentian Empire to the South and Filos to the West. This meant that Filos had almost always been contested territory between the two powers, in much the same way that Cesara had been for The Hartlands and Amenti.
It was not just the port city of Barajas that was valuable, but the fact that Filos was rich in iron ore, copper, and acres upon acres of arable farmland that made it a crucial place to control. Whilst the lands had been swapped between the control of The Blacklands, Amenti and the people of Filos themselves many times, it was King Credence Byrne, King Aedvard’s father, who granted it semi-independent status in exchange for the nation’s fealty. It was Norman Angler, the historian, who claimed that the dead King was simply sick of the revolts, and felt that it would cost less in the long-run to simply let them be and tax them as if it were another Earldom.
That was some seventy years prior, but like all nations who are given a taste of power, there are some who thirst, rightfully, for more. Filos had seen revolts in all of its major cities and towns from lords who demanded that Filos declare its independence and break away from the rule of The Blacklands. There was initially split opinion, as those loyal to The Blacklands quelled the revolts in order to maintain the peace, and fearing the retaliation of King Aedvard. The King, however, wanted to send a message, and ordered raids led by Lord Maurice Black along the coast and borderlands as a warning. Instead, this only caused the loyalists to rebel too, as Lord Black had razed many loyalist towns and villages, and ensured that all of Filos were united in a revolt.
Robert had learned to not fear being in a place shrouded by war and violence, but those feelings grew in him now that he had a wife and child to care for and to protect. Dalchester was usually a docile and gentle town, filled with many rich merchants and beautifully built churches. Now though, there was a blockade at the gates, barring anyone from entering, and manned outposts every mile around. It made the place far less approachable, and made Robert worry for his family.
It was in one of the outposts, just three miles from Dalchester, where Brodric and his small unit of guards were stationed. Robert’s brother was like all Talfords, a man of great height and physical prowess. Broad-shouldered and completely bald with deep eyes that seemed to sink into his skull underneath a prominent brow. Despite his formidable appearance, Brodric was one brother that Robert had come to like, if not love. Brodric matured earlier than the rest of his brothers, and by the time he was sixteen had almost completely grown out of his other brothers’ cruel chases and games. Brodric instead spent his time training hard to become an excellent soldier and always had his head stuck in one book or another about military strategy. He took part in The Twin Kingdoms military exchange as part of the peace agreement between the two Kingdoms, and rose to Lieutenant whilst also becoming a Baron in his own right, holding lands in Glengarth.
Robert watched on smiling as Brodric held Harold in his arms sitting on the ridge of the fountain that sat in the centre of the square. The fountain depicted The God of Life and The God of Death in their human forms in a pose that was half a grapple, half an embrace, intended to show the symbiotic nature of their relationship. Their constant fight was necessary for balance to exist, like light and dark or sun and moon. Despite Brodric’s reputation as a soldier and a lord, he was exceptionally gentle when it came to children, and did not turn his nose up at baby talk. Isabelle sat with Robert’s brother until she got up to put her arms around Robert.
“You look at peace,” she smiled and pushed her lips to his neck. “Are you glad we came?”
“I am,” Robert admitted with no resentment in his heart. He had been apprehensive, and still was to some degree, but watching his brother experience the same joy that his son brought him was worth the journey. Brodric was married too, but had not yet had any children, despite their attempts to do so. Brodric was a proud man, and so he did not talk of his failure to produce a child, and Robert felt no need to insult his brother by bringing it up himself. Robert too had been married to a woman who did not bear his children. Being so close to Filos reminded him of his brief marriage to the Filosi princess, Aramana of Barajas, the sister of Prince Julier. She died in childbirth along with Robert’s stillborn daughter.
Brodric rose from his seat with Harold in his arms giggling whilst slapping his bald head. Isabelle met Brodric halfway and took the child from his arms, whilst Brodric continued over to Robert. “You have a fine son, Robert.”
“He certainly takes after his mother.”
“Our stock is not so bad, brother. You should not be so ashamed to be a Talford,” Brodric said gently.
“Perhaps I would be less ashamed if its members were less so of me.”
Brodric nodded. “It seems our membership is dropping by the year. You did a kind thing for our mother, naming your son Harold.”
“I could not think of a more suitable name for such a kind and innocent soul. Father thought it was an insult to name him after our brother. He told me I should have ‘given him a bastard’s name’, whatever that means.”
Brodric scoffed. “Our father…if he’d picked up a history book, he would know that our entire line is descended from a bastard. Half of the so-called noblemen on this continent are illegitimate in one way or another if you go back far enough.”
“I don’t think John Talford is interested in that. It’s far too complicated a thought for him.” Robert paused as they both smiled.
Suddenly, the city bells began to sound in each of the churches. Brodric darted towards a group of his men and began to bark instructions at them. Robert watched him carefully as people rushed around them, Isabelle ran over to him with Harold in her arms.
“What’s happening?” She asked as Harold began to cry at the noise that enveloped them.
“They’re locking the gates. There must be a Filosi army not far from the town. We need to leave.”
“What? We can’t leave now!”
“It is the safest course, Isabelle. You have been lucky enough never to see an army break through the gates of a city. It is the greatest horror I have ever seen.”
“And what if we are caught between the army and the city?”
“We will find another way.”
“No you won’t,” Brodric rushed over. “You will stay, I will arrange for you to stay in Lord Challen’s manor tonight. Tell the guards you were sent by me. I will not let an army into this city alive, but if I fall, you will at least be protected in the Lord’s house.”
Brodric began to walk off. “Where are you going?” Isabelle called.
“Into battle. Get to Lord Challen’s house. Stay safe.”
“Brother…” Robert called and Brodric turned to him. “Think of our mother before you do anything stupid.”
Brodric smiled and chased after the group of men that he had been ordering around moments before. They headed for the city gates. Robert took Harold in his arms and began walking towards the hill that would take them to the home of the Lord of Dalchester.
Robert awoke with a start. He immediately leaped out of his bed and onto his feet before remembering that he was not in his home in Silver City, and he was not sharing a bed with Mallory. Instead, it was Eiruc Garrison who snored under a separate pile of furs in one corner, and Danayal Grosvenor who slept in the opposite corner picking at his toenails with a small knife. Danayal was almost thirty and had a great thick beard, a strong, lean frame and his hair shaved to tiny flecks atop his head. He was a strange, but funny man, boisterous in his manner, but exceptionally jovial and friendly. Despite this, he was a man who had never quite learned to control the volume of his voice. It did not matter if he was aiming an arrow at a doe at dawn or drunk at a wedding, it felt as though you could always hear him from half a mile away.
“Having trouble sleeping, sir?” Danayal bellowed, scraping his long toenail with the edge of the knife.
“Any man who does not at a time like this is either stupid or inexperienced,” Robert gestured towards Eiruc who was flat on his face with one leg hanging from his bed.
Danayal laughed. “I’ve always tried to channel my fear into excitement, think of all the shit things I’d get to leave behind if I died in battle. Never bloody works, and I’m always up half the night anyway.”
Danayal was Lord Grosvenor’s third son and had spent some time being fostered at Hillhold by Robert’s father. Danayal looked up to Jonathan when he was a boy, but if he blamed Robert for his death then he did not show it in his manner towards him. Robert poked his head out of his tent to find that there were lanterns lit in a few other tents around the camp. It did not surprise him. The night before a march was always a restless time, and no matter how each man decided to explain away his sleeplessness the following day, each of them knew that if was fear that kept them from their beds.
Robert walked out of his tent and over to an abandoned fire. He sat upon the damp log and felt the dewy grass between his toes, a soft chilly wind blew past him and carried with it a few specs of rain. He inhaled deeply and closed his eyes, desperately trying to think of anything else but Isabelle and Harold, eager to push all of his pain towards the deepest depths of his soul. Opening his eyes, Robert realised that it had been weeks since his last fit, and this made him nervous. If there was one due, it would make sense for it to come as he fought for his life on the battlefield. As he thought on this, a figure approached the same wet charcoals that Robert sat by, he looked up and saw that it was Lord Hardwick who was now sat opposite him nursing what smelt like dark spirit from a leather skin.
“You should go back to sleep,” Hardwick told him with a gruffer tone than usual, likely due to the alcohol in his throat.
“I doubt I’ll get drowsy on the battlefield.”
“There might not be a battlefield at all.”
“What do you mean?”
“Prince Asher has sent a message to Prince Charles telling him that we will cross the mountain pass and destroy them if they do not turn back. Our scouts have reported that we have almost twice their number. Lord Steel’s army is in the south and will not reach him in time. If we receive no message by tomorrow, then we will march the following day.”
“Why did he warn him? We should have snuck up on them and slaughtered them in their sleep.”
“That was my preference. But the Prince is prudent. If he thinks he can avoid losses then he will at every turn. Prince Charles is not known for his bravery, we believe there is a good chance that he will turn his army around so we can secure the Great Forest borderlands.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“Then we’ll just have to slaughter them whilst they are awake. Listen, Robert. I want you to join the strategy meeting tomorrow. The Prince, myself and Lord Grosvenor will be there to discuss next steps depending on what message we receive. You should listen in. I should like to hear your thoughts.”
Robert was stunned that he would be invited to such a meeting. “Of course, but why me?”
“Lord Grosvenor has requested it. John Talford may not see you as his successor, but Grosvenor does. Expect more of the same at court should we make it back. He intends to groom you as the next Earl of Hillhold should something happen to your father. Your father cannot know of this, of course, and it goes without saying that Grosvenor’s tutorage is not optional.”
Robert suddenly felt extremely cold and moved his toes to get some feeling back. “I will be there tomorrow…I don’t suppose it would help matters if I told Grosvenor again that I do not wish to be the Earl of Hillhold.”
“You are correct, Sir Robert. I don’t believe it would help matters at all.”
By the time morning came, Robert had not slept a single moment longer. As he left his tent for the Prince’s, he found Eiruc in exactly the same position. Danayal was also sound asleep, though still had the handle of his knife gripped between his fingers as he snored. To Robert’s surprise, he stepped out into air that was almost warm, as if a summer day had become lost in the windy mists of autumn. The dew of the grass had almost dried as he crushed the muddy grass beneath his heavy boots. Their camp was becoming busy with noise, as men walked their horses to the nearby stream, and fires were being built to cook their breakfast rations. Out of the corner of his eye, Robert even saw a few camp followers hurrying from some of the larger tents, perhaps eager to find their way to Prince Charles’ camp on the other side of the pass. Robert’s focus was on Prince Asher’s tent. By far the largest and most grandiose, if assassins came in the night, then they would have no trouble finding it. Even Prince Asher’s personal coat of arms – a shield-shaped outline with a quartered field of the purple heart of House Hartlin and a black scorpion – flew proudly beside it.
Robert pulled open the tent cautiously and poked his head through to see Prince Asher, Lord Grosvenor and Elden Hardwick all deep in conversation as they stood around a table of a large map, held down by several large rocks on each of its four corners. Though Prince Asher certainly looked at him, he did not acknowledge him nor dismiss him, he simply continued talking as Hardwick ushered him over to the table. Robert looked down at the map and saw Prince Asher’s hand controlling a wooden carving of the Hartlin heart on a rectangular stand. This particular map was a map of the Great Forest that separated The Hartlands and The Blacklands, with the heart currently atop a spot just beyond the forest called Hazelfield. Cutting into the forest were the Steurholm mountains that acted as a natural barrier between The Blacklands to the west and Ismann to the north. On the other side of the mountain pass between Hazelfield and The Blacklands, was the valley where Prince Charles’ army camped.
“We will bring our army through the mountain pass and we will cut them down where they camp. They have nowhere to go, and if they dare meet us in the pass then our numbers will crush their own. We have more armoured men, more men ahorse, more spears. Prince Charles can either choose slaughter or retreat, and he is not brave or foolish enough to choose the former.”
Robert had spent little time with Prince Asher in meetings such as this. Only exchanging pleasantries at events that he was expected to attend, but now he saw where this young man had gained such respect from his men. He had a supreme confidence and dignity about him, a conviction that was rare in men twice his age, and yet he carried it all with a level of maturity of which even the great King Eldrian would have been proud. Asher had gained a reputation quickly as a capable general, whilst Prince Charles was known as flamboyant, weak-willed and a disappointment to his father. It seemed more and more likely to Robert that he would make his way back to Silver City without a single tale to tell.
“Are we certain of their numbers?” Grosvenor turned towards Hardwick and asked.
“Positive. I’ve had men scouting non-stop for days, they all bring me the same information. The same figures. We have the quantity and the quality of our numbers. In fact, I’d dare say a battle would suit us more than their retreat would. Even on a bad day, their losses would be far, far greater.”
“We must first aim to suffer zero losses, any number above that is a failure. There is nothing worse for an army’s morale than a wave of deaths, by battle or by sickness. The longer we stay here, the more chance there is of that too, so we must be cautious. If they have not responded by tomorrow, then we will have no choice but to move on Prince Charles’ camp.”
“Why wait until tomorrow?” Robert said, half to himself. All three men looked at him incredulously.
Grosvenor was about to speak in reply, but Prince Asher raised his hand. “Sir Robert has something to say, Lord Grosvenor. It was at your behest that he attended this meeting, and it is at my behest that he will speak his mind whilst he is here.”
Robert was encouraged by Prince Asher’s response. “Just because we have not received Prince Charles’ response, does not mean that he has not yet made his decision. All he knows is that we intend to march and that he can either meet us in battle or retreat. The longer we wait, the longer he has to plan. This is not to say our army has to engage and follow. It would simply be a way of ensuring that they are turning back.”
“And if Charles does intend to do battle?”
“Then more fool him. The outcome would be the same. If he intends to do battle then we will battle anyway, whether we are there today, tomorrow or in a week’s time. There will still be losses unless we ourselves retreat. But the sooner we arrive, the less time he has to think about what he is to do and therein lies the pressure for him to make his decision. Perhaps, in seeing the true strength of this army for himself, it will give him the nudge he needs to retreat back into The Blacklands.”
Prince Asher looked over at Grosvenor, who was keenly contemplating Robert’s suggestion. “Well, what does the room think?” The Prince asked.
“In my experience, my prince, timing is everything in these situations. I have often found that patience is for the court and not the battlefield,” Grosvenor replied.
“Prince Charles is smarter than most men give him credit for. Smart men who lack bravery are not to be trusted, they are scheming and sly, but rarely forthcoming. You have been noble in forewarning him, but do not expect him to repay you the same courtesy. I too, believe that we should march as soon as possible,” Hardwick bolstered Robert’s position.
“Well, Sir Robert. It would appear that you have already made use of yourself. I make that a unanimous decision. I will send scouts this morning and we will march at midday. Lord Grosvenor, you will command the heavy cavalry to lead the march, and Lord Hardwick, you will command the infantry behind. Sir Robert, you will be between cavalry and infantry commanding your own unit. If any man seeks to retreat for any reason, it will be down to you to hold them to account. Moreover, if any man engages when the enemy is retreating, you must do the same. I will not have our honour destroyed by blood lust, and I will not endure cowardice either. Do I make myself clear?”
Robert nodded. “Yes, my prince.”
Noon had come and gone by the time the scouts had returned, much to Prince Asher’s anger and frustration. Before too long however, the army was on their way through the mountain pass towards Prince Charles’ camp. It was an extremely narrow road, wide enough to fit only two men abreast. On one side was the densely forested mountainside, and on the other was a river, flooded by the recent autumn rainfall. It was a slow march, but made efficient by the fact that there was no room for obstruction. Each man could only step so far ahead of him, and this caused a smooth rhythm to form throughout the length of Prince Asher’s army. Robert looked behind him and saw infantry as far as he could see, and when he looked ahead, he saw not but cavalry around every corner of the winding road.
After a while though, Robert began to run out of room to walk as the men became tighter and tighter to each other. Eventually, they came to a complete stop as men became sandwiched together. Robert and Elden Hardwick were close by and there were enquiries from the foot soldiers as to what had caused the stoppage. As far as Robert could see, the men had come to a complete stop, but could not see the reason for it. Ten minutes had past before the whispers found their way towards Robert and Elden Hardwick, and it appeared that there was some kind of blockage in the road ahead, another five had past before they were told that it was a man-made wooden blockade.
Elden looked at Robert gravely. “We need to get word to the men at the back to move back. It may take them some time to dismantle the blockade.”
Robert surveyed the rear guard, but they were stuck. Sanguine snorted impatiently as men were moving closer and closer towards her. He patted his palfrey in an attempt to sooth her, her coat warm from the heat of the men around him. “Pass a message back,” Robert called. “Move back. Move into the space behind you.”
All of a sudden, Robert heard a faint shout in the distance. The noise flew back towards them from the front of the line like a gust of wind, followed by another, and another. Then there was panic. Men started to be pushed back and Robert had to fight to keep himself on his horse as Sanguine had no choice but to step back, crushing the toes of the soldiers directly behind her. Then the trees began to move and figures began rushing towards them from the forests. Before Robert had time to think, he had drawn his sword.
“Stand your ground!” Robert roared as one by one, men fell upon them holding swords and spears.
Each man beside Robert fought in close proximity, so close that there was barely any room to swing a sword. Halberds moved in between swordsmen with spears long enough to avoid a longsword. Robert frantically twisted his horse away and volleyed the spears with his sword, but they crept closer and closer as the men were edged towards the river. Soldiers began falling back into the water, desperate to avoid their attackers. After a few moments of fighting, Robert realised that the ground underneath Sanguine had become soft and bumpy. It was then that he realised his horse was trampling on human flesh, on bodies still alive and writhing in agony, crushed under the hooves of his horse. The spears were edging closer and closer until Robert felt a splash of water against the back of his hosen. Infantrymen were desperately scrambling back whilst some rushed desperately with shaking fingers to remove their armour before they flung themselves in the water. For every one man that succeeded, four were cut down. Hardwick grabbed Robert by the neck from his horse and screamed. “We have to retreat! We have to go!”
Robert looked over his shoulder as fully-armoured men flailed their arms above the water as they slowly drifted and drowned under the weight of their plate and mail. He watched as the foot soldiers were slaughtered by swords and impaled by spears. Then, in a flash, horses galloped past them in a stampede, crushing their attackers and anything else that stood in their way. Hardwick had already made his decision and followed the path of broken bodies that the horses left as Prince Asher’s cavalry trampled its own men. Robert faced the hillside and saw a group of Halberds move to close in around him. Without another thought, he kicked Sanguine into an immediate canter and felt a sickening crunch beneath his palfrey’s hooves. An involuntary spasm twisted his stomach and he vomited over his shoulder, but Sanguine was away. Each gallop filled Robert with nausea as he watched the bodies of his men stumble beneath his horse’s hooves until the path had finally cleared. Robert focused on the cavalry in front of him, the legs of the horses stained in blood, but he did not look back. He did not dare look back.
As dusk began to fall upon their camp, Robert stared into the fire as the smoke ascended towards the grey clouds that shrouded the indigo sky. He held Sanguine close beside him as she occasionally nuzzled into his neck as he stroked her nose. It gave him some small comfort to know that his horse was safe and had not suffered any injury from the battle but for a few scratches and scrapes, which Robert washed off himself by a stream. In the mayhem, Robert had not realised that he had been bludgeoned heavily. His entire left arm was covered in a purple bruise that spread from his shoulder to his forearm. It was tender and sore, but he knew how lucky he was that he had escaped with his life.
Men trickled back to the camp slowly in the hours following the ambush. Most of them were resigned, but whole, whilst others came in on the backs of others or crawled through the trees and into the arms of the awaiting medics. Robert watched one man dragging his severed arm along the ground before he fell face first into the mud. Somehow, they managed to sew him up and the last he’d heard the man was alive, but that would be little consolation to him. He was a poor man, likely a farmer whose livelihood depended on his ability to work the land. Without that, he would be a burden, unfit for any manual labour and without the education to pursue another career. The thought played on Robert’s mind as he felt a cooling breeze brush against his bruised arm. He knew that if his arm were to be hacked off in battle, he could find a suitable role at Harthlem’s court, and in the worst instance, go back to Hillhold. That avenue was for men like him. Men with names and a standing in society did not suffer misfortune like smallfolk did.
After a while, Prince Asher left his tent and sat down opposite Robert. He went to stand, but was immediately told to sit down by the Prince’s glaring eyes.
“I do not blame you for what happened,” Asher told him.
Robert had not thought for a moment that he would take the blame for what happened. If anyone was to blame it was the scouts for not being aware of the blockade.
Robert nodded, unable to thank Asher for absolving him of responsibility for something that was not his fault. “Did the scouts not see the blockade?”
“They say they did not. If they are honest, then it would mean the blockade was hastily built and means we could have perhaps broken through it. If they are lying, then it makes no difference. What’s done is done. All I must decide upon is whether they suffer for incompetence or for treason. You, however, should be praised. If we would have arrived tomorrow instead of today, then they would have been more prepared, had more men ready to slaughter us. We caught them off-guard and forced them to act, which allowed us to retreat as many men as we did. We suffered losses, but we have been given the chance to learn from this mistake. For that, you have my thanks.”
Robert thought this was some sort of joke. He was being praised by the man who was second in line to the throne of The Hartlands after running his horse at full speed over the twisted bodies of the same man’s army. It was as if nobody cared that he was a murderer. It was as if no one minded that he killed his own brother. It was as if none of that mattered at all to them. All Robert could think about was death. All he could smell was the blood and sick and sweat. “I have done nothing worthy of praise, my prince.”
“Although this may not be a day we will look back upon with pride, we must also savour the ways in which fortune did favour us. ‘Just as we find faults in our victories, we must find resolve in our defeats. That is balance.’”
“Your father said that, did he not?” Robert asked.
“He did. Though I’d wager there have been many iterations before his. It is an all-encompassing truth, which means it will be in a scripture of The Book of Life and Death somewhere. I’d imagine.”
“What about the men who died beneath our horses? What about those without expensive armour or sufficient weapons? What about their balance?”
“Their souls will find peace eventually. All souls do. The man trampled by a horse in this life may die in his bed an old man in the next. All we can do is hope that this life is our last, and that paradise awaits us on the other side. You are a good man, Sir Robert. I know that because you are sat here thinking about the men who did not make it back. I know that because your guilt screams so loudly through every part of you like it is trying to escape. I am well aware of your episodes. I am well aware that they are caused by the screaming terror of your soul and I do not care.” Robert opened his mouth in shock and went to protest, but Asher raised his hand to silence him. “You’d think I might, but I don’t. Neither does Grosvenor, neither does Hardwick. Lady Reynard was sent away because she was a gossip, and she was becoming a problem. Your timely encounter with her just so happened to be convenient in protecting you and myself. Do not say anything, and do not try to deny it. You know as well as I do that you were not poisoned that day on your wedding. You are a good man, I will say it again, but you also know when it is time to protect your own interests. Our interests are tied in with each other, Sir Robert, and I wish for you to see it that way too. Like Lady Reynard, your father is becoming a problem, he is becoming unreliable, and by the time this war is over, I will need a good man to manage Hillhold and your father’s Earldom. Your interests are my interests, and I want our fortunes to be tied together. Will you agree, Sir Robert? Will you help me guide this Kingdom into a new age?”