Good morning all, and thanks again for stopping by to read Chapter Twenty-Seven of The Cursed King. I seem to be back in a groove of writing, though that may well be because I have almost finished Chapter Thirty-Eight, and the end-game is in sight. With 15 Chapters left to write and over 200,000 words written down already, by this time next year, I imagine this book will be completed. On that note, as soon as I have finished this draft, then I’ll be posting a chapter per week instead of once a fortnight. To everyone who has just stumbled upon this, and to those who have been reading through since the beginning, thank you for your support and for taking the time to read this. I hope you have found it enjoyable.
In today’s chapter, Robert once again dreams of his past life as we gain more of an insight into his history. Whilst recollecting his days, however, Robert stumbles upon some wisdom that captures the imagination of his superiors, whilst a group of dishevelled peasants look to prove their worth to the City Guard. I hope you enjoy today’s chapter, and Chapter Twenty-Eight will be posted on March 27th. Thanks for reading!
Harold did not stop crying the whole night. The poor boy had never heard thunder before, and the repeated flashes of light burst in through the oriel like a thousand slaughtered souls. Robert did not cry with his son. He held him close to his chest and shushed him whilst the rain fell sharp like shards of metal and glass crackling against the stone walls. Isabelle had not awakened. Robert had left her fast asleep in her bed in one of Lord Challen’s many guest chambers. After what seemed like hours, Harold began to settle, but only after Robert stuffed the boy’s ears with some cotton that he’d rolled between his index finger and thumb.
It wasn’t until the boy was still that he placed him back into his cot and sat down on the wooden chair beside it. Soon after, Lord Challen walked past the room and poked his head through the gap. Robert gestured for him to come in, more for the fact that it was rude to deny a man entry to a room in his own home. In the Lord’s hands was a decanter filled with brown liquid. He raised it up in question and Robert nodded politely. If it is rude to refuse a man his room, it is even ruder to refuse him his drink. Lord Challen stepped in quietly and grabbed two goblets from the table. He poured the drinks and passed one to Robert.
Lord Challen was an exceptionally old man. Older than Robert had ever known. Some men said that he was more than a hundred, however those who actually knew better suggested he was closer to ninety. Far too old for war, Lord Challen was Lord in name only. Even his son, Dalmer, who was seventy had passed on many of his own duties to his own son, Gareth, who himself was in his forties and greatly experienced. Lord Challen has great, great, grandsons such was his ripe old age, and yet he still moved and swaggered like a much younger man. It was as if he had not been touched by a single blow or illness in all of his life. Though his face was wrinkled and his hair ghostly thin and white, it did not seem to matter at all to his mood.
“Thank you,” Robert said as he took the goblet.
“It’s no bother. I don’t remember much these days, but I do remember what it’s like to have a baby in your arms. I can’t tell you the number of nights I was up cradling my sons, grandsons, great grandsons…if it wasn’t for this blasted war, I’d be holding the next generation right now.”
“In truth, I would be awake regardless. I should be out there with him.”
“Aye it can be easy to think that when you’re sat by a warm fire with a glass of fine whiskey and a sleeping child beside you. Yet if you were down there wading through the mud, rain hammering down upon your face being sprayed with the blood of your comrades, I believe you’d be thinking you should be right where you are now. People tend to beg for comfort and then curse their fortune once they’ve got it. You are right where you should be…with your son.”
“It is more that I have no control over what happens. If I was there, perhaps I could do something to stop them from entering the city. Here I am useless.”
“Ha! Young man. Still thinks he is in control. I haven’t been in control for a decade. My body pisses when it wants to piss, and shits when it wants to shit. You think I have any say in the matter? Do not ever forget that is all you are to a Lord, Sir Robert, a body. If he wants you to fight then you’ll fight, if he wants you to live then you’ll live, and if he wants you to die, well then there’s really not much you can do about that either. We are raised to believe that our bodies are just vessels for the soul that dictate its will to us. And so, what about the Gods? What about the will of those who flooded the earth with souls and bodies?”
“I have never been much interested in theology, my Lord.”
“You should start to learn, Sir Robert. The older you become, the more you realise how much the scriptures warn you about your own life. The great irony is that by the time we are old enough to learn what it all means; we are in no position to change it.”
All of a sudden, a bell began to ring from the courtyard of Lord Challen’s estate. Robert ran over to the oriel and watched as the gates were opened. Survivors from Lord Challen’s army hobbled through the gate. “It is our men returning. They must have won!” Robert ran out of the room and down the stairs of the tower until he reached the courtyard. Rain was still pouring heavily, but he hardly noticed the droplets as they bounced off his head. He searched frantically, bouncing between the injured soldiers to find a familiar face, to look for Brodric. There was some celebration and laughter, but most were quiet, bloodied and solemn, clearly grieving for their dead.
Eventually, Robert saw a familiar face. It was Sir Leighton Caster of Irondon, a sergeant in Brodric’s unit. “Sir Leighton,” Robert called to him. The knight of Irondon was keeled over, clearly breathless and soaked from head to toe in a thick film of dirt and blood that was streaked across his face from the rain. “Sir Leighton. Brodric. Where is he? Have you seen him?”
Sir Leighton raised his head for a moment, but it immediately dropped back towards the ground as he vomited violently on the floor. Robert rubbed his back to sooth him, but Sir Leighton shrugged him off. He was a gruff man with a long blonde beard and straggly hair with a pointy nose and chin protruding from his face. “My whole fucking unit. Trampled. Trampled under the horses of those Filosi dogs.”
“But Brodric. Didn’t you hear me? What about Brodric?”
“I’m sorry, Sir Robert. I barely got out myself. We were the front line. It was the cavalry that saved us. If it wasn’t for them, you would be barricading these gates. But Brodric, well you know your brother…he was the first to draw a sword. They were caught in the mud and the Filosi used their numbers to trample us. I was face-down in the mud for minutes before they pulled me up. But your brother…your brother wasn’t found.”
Robert awoke in a cold sweat. He immediately surveyed his surroundings through his hazy eyes and realised that he was back in his home in Silver City. The last few weeks prior had been horrendous. Mallory had to force a pillow over his mouth at his request so that the guards manning their chamber did not hear as Robert screamed and shook. His night terrors had become worse, but his episodes during the day were now almost completely under his control. It was a necessity. Robert felt them coming and excused himself to the privy if he thought they would be particularly bad, but in moments where he had nowhere to go, he simply kept deathly still and tried to fight his demons away with his mind.
This morning, Mallory was not beside him as she usually was. Ever since Thair Spicer had escaped from Harthelm, the Spicer’s daughter would rise before dawn and sleep before sunset. Robert did not mind this, although he did wonder whether or not the girl had already grown tired of him, particularly as his duties were usually between dawn and dusk. There was always a tea waiting for him at his bedside though, as if Mallory could predict when he would wake up just by his stirring. Robert had grown quite accustomed to his wife, and sometimes felt guilty that his dreams would always take him back to his days with Isabelle.
When he descended the staircase, he soon realised that Mallory was not to be found. There was a parchment left on the table, which Robert picked up and read:
I have been invited to break my fast with Lady Grosvenor. I shall return before noon.
Mallory was almost as curt in notes as she was with her words. Robert had still not heard more than a dozen words leave her lips since he’d known her. Other than her soothing tones as he suffered with his night terrors, and the apology she uttered on his wedding day. It had become an unspoken agreement between them that they would communicate in their own way, in their own time. Robert was not one for talking, and so relished a chance to get back home to near silence. It was almost as if they were a perfect match for each other. Despite their growing fondness for one another, Robert had become concerned that they had still not consummated their marriage. It was not as though Robert was desperate, but more that he could not bear the thought of their marriage being deemed illegitimate for any reason.
Being the sole heir of John Talford, if word had got out that their marriage had not been sealed in the marital bed, it would only encourage the Lord of Hillhold to find Robert a fourth wife before it was too late. Whilst he let his mind drift, he wondered how Mallory would get by in the company of Lady Grosvenor. The Grosvenors were not known for their lack of conversation, and they could be exhaustively hospitable.
When Robert arrived at the courtyard of Harthlem for sparring, Sir Eiruc was already there fighting with another member of the Brothership, Sir Danayal. The sun had barely risen and the young knight was throwing his full weight behind every swing of his sword. Robert watched the fire in the young man’s eyes as he mercilessly peppered Sir Danayal with blows and parries. Before long, Grosvenor’s son lay on the ground and yielded. Robert entered the fighting ring that had been squared off with pegs and string beneath the Prince’s Tower.
“Early start, gentlemen?” Robert said as he dumped his satchel pack in the dirt.
Eiruc was still catching his breath. “Good fight, Sir Danayal.”
It seemed to Robert that the young Garrison had abandoned much of his cocky taunts and smug demeanour since they returned from the Battle of the Mountain Pass. It was as though Eiruc had been scared humble by the brutality of the slaughter that they had witnessed. Robert wondered if that was the case, then what was his lesson in all this? Had the Gods not served him enough trauma? Did he still have more humility to learn?
“This bastard could fight ten men hanging upside down by his ankles.” Danayal leaned in and whispered to Robert. “I come here every morning to fight him to get better. I’ve never trained so bloody hard in my life. This lad is relentless. I’m going to win tourney after tourney when this war is over thanks to this little shit.”
“Just as long as he’s not fighting in the same one,” Robert joked.
“Sir Eiruc. It is not good to drink until midnight and be up before dawn. You need your rest,” Sir Robert called over to him as he drained a skin of water.
“Tell Sir Danayal that,” the knight jested. “Perhaps you’re ready to face me again, Sir Robert. We will see how much sleep I really need.”
Robert had no intention of doing any more than sparring with Sir Eiruc. He had little to prove and a lot of respect to lose should he lose the fight; however, he was also keen to show off to Elden Hardwick just how much his men had improved under his tutelage and leadership. Any excuse to keep his role as City Guard and stay in Silver City, far away from Hillhold and his loathsome father.
“We will have our moment to fight again, Sir Eiruc, however perhaps it is best to wait until the entire Brothership can see just how far you’ve come in the past few months. We can focus on our pride when we have won the war and can sleep soundly in our beds. Until then, we are focused only on the enemy that are bearing down upon our gates.”
By mid-morning the entire Brothership were sweating buckets in their heavy armour. Robert shed his various layers. He placed his sabatons, vambraces, armour and his helm carefully on the ground before unclipping his sheath and letting that fall to the ground too. It was refreshing abandoning all of that weight to the dirt, and he felt a surge of energy burst through him as he chugged a skin of wine. Watching him from the outside the pegged square were a group of men dressed in ragged rough-spun tunics and trousers, led by a skinny bald man holding a wooden sword. Behind him were men of similar age, but rough and poor-looking.
“Can I help you?” Robert asked the man.
“We would like to train if it please you, m’lord,” the bald man said.
“It would please me to know who you are and how you got here.”
“Every man, woman and child has been registering themselves in the God’s Hall. My friends and I have been looking for a place to spar and men to train with, but it seems all the men in the city know how to do is brawl with fists.”
“Where did you get that?” Robert gestured to the wooden sword. “Did they let you in the God’s Hall with that?”
“I spotted it by the alley between the God’s Hall and the King’s Hall. I figured it belonged to one of you.”
“We train with blunts. Not with woodens. That is for the boys. Woodens are far too light for a grown man to practice on.”
“I suppose that depends on how heavy the wood is. Where I am from, we train with oak swords. We cut the trees, chop the timber and carve the wood ourselves. At least we did, until Prince Charles’ army spilled into our town and burned our forests to the earth.”
Robert paused for a moment and let the man’s bitterness hang in the air. “I am sorry for your losses, but we cannot allow just any man to train with us. We are the Unit of the Brothership, the senior rank of the City Guard. Every single man here has been trained in combat since he was old enough to hold a sword. It would be an unfair match.”
“Try us,” the gruff bearded man behind the bald man said. “Watch how I pummel these pampered boys and tell me I cannot hold my own amongst you.”
Sir Robert could not help but laugh. “Gentlemen, as much as I enjoy your enthusiasm, the answer is no.”
“You are Sir Robert, are you not?” The bald man asked as Sir Robert began to walk away. “I recognise you.”
“Do you really?” Robert asked, beginning to lose his patience.
“I worked a number of tourneys as a squire a few years ago for a knight you defeated -Urgwood Santel.”
Robert turned back. “Dalchester. You were there?”
“At the tourney. And on the battlefield when the Filosi army tried to storm the gates. Your brother, Sir Brodric, died on the field that day. I remember the men talking about him.”
Robert did not have time to respond before Sir Danayal and Sir Eiruc appeared beside him. “Who are the scabs, Sir Robert?” Eiruc asked.
“Who you calling a scab, poshcoat?” The bearded man lurched forward, but was held back by the bald man.
“Settle down,” Robert said. “Sir Danayal. We have some spare armour and blunted swords in the armoury. We’re giving these men a trial.”
“You cannot be serious, Sir Robert,” Sir Danayal leaned close and whispered in Robert’s ear.
“There is nothing to lose. Either we give them a hiding and then send them on their way or they prove themselves worthy of joining the Brothership.”
“We do not know who they are or where they come from. We cannot allow them entry into the Brothership simply because they can hold their own in a fight. You had to pummel Sir Eiruc into the dirt before the men accepted you.”
“Then let them pummel us into the dirt if they are able, and perhaps then we will accept them. Now go and get them what they need. That is a command, Sir Danayal.”
Danayal skulked off with Eiruc towards the armoury. Sir Robert turned back to the bald man. “Thank you, Sir Robert.”
“You seem to know far too much about me, and yet I do not even know your names.”
“My name is Ahnsel of Slavenall, this is my brother, Buhgrad and his son, Embron.”
By the ages of the men, it was not hard to see who was the brother and who was the son. Buhgrad was the hairy-faced hothead whilst Embron he barely even noticed as more than a skeleton in a skin. The boy had remained silent and now that Robert was focused on him realised how young he was. The boy was scarcely older than Mallory with soft cheeks and floppy blonde hair covering his face. Though he looked strong, perhaps from chopping all of that timber, Robert wondered how that would translate to a fight. He underestimated Eiruc when he first fought him, and he turned out to be one of the finest hands he had ever fought.
“I welcome you, gentlemen. But I must warn you. If you do not win this fight, you will not train with the Brothership.”
Sir Robert turned to put on his armour again, but as he did, he watched as Prince Asher stepped out of the King’s Hall and walked over to the courtyard. Sir Robert whistled and alerted his men to kneel before the Prince, however Asher immediately waved his hand dismissively before rushing over to Robert.
“My prince, what can I do for you?”
“You can follow me right now. We need to talk.”
Robert had not seen the Prince since they’d returned from battle. The weeks after had been hectic, and Robert knew that the Prince may have forgotten all about their conversation after the Battle of the Mountain Pass. He had heard about Lord Steel’s army taking Hartlake and the last of the Six Castles, the strategic stronghold of the south. Robert knew of no war in history in which either Kingdom had held all six at once, but he also had not heard of a war in which one King was imprisoned in the other’s castle. Prince Asher’s usual calm demeanour had abandoned him. The Prince paced in his chambers, spied out of his oriel and pressed his ear to the door to make sure no one was listening in. As he paced, he chewed on his fingernails until they began to bleed.
“I am sorry to hear about Hartlake,” Robert said.
“Four centuries those castles have been standing. They have been conquered more times than any other, they have changed hands more times than any fortress in history. Six Castles. Six. And yet in all of that time, for all of those wars, not once has a single Kingdom claimed them all. This is The Blacklands’ greatest victory…all whilst their King was locked in our dungeon. This is not just catastrophe, Sir Robert. This is total humiliation. They are not only winning this war, they have damn near won it.”
“We still have King Aedvard.”
“That we do. There is not a day goes by that I don’t think about that. King Aedvard still able to pull the strings of this war from a cell. The only people he sees are servants and guards, and yet look what he has done. He releases your father-in-law who seems to be the man behind Queen Lorne’s madness and the death of my nephew. Now why on earth would Aedvard want to release a man who was behind the death of his daughter? Can you answer me that?”
Robert knew Thair Spicer. There was no doubt that his father-in-law was involved with people and deals that were not entirely within the laws of the Kingdom, but he could not see how he would benefit from causing such chaos within a city that had granted him an exceptionally generous tariff for his trading. It did not add up for Robert. “Perhaps King Aedvard believed him innocent.”
Prince Asher stopped pacing. “I know he is your father-in-law, Sir Robert, and you have a duty of care to the man’s daughter, but you surely know that it was him?”
“I would not for one second question your judgement or that of King Aron or Arkgodson Jerimeh. But…I must also be honest with you. I am yet to hear a plausible motive.”
“Well motive or not. I am sorry to tell you that you are wrong. We heard it from King Aedvard himself. He told us that it was Thair Spicer who was behind it, and that it was he who organised his escape.”
Robert could not hide the shock on his face. He could not believe it. “Why on earth would King Aedvard admit that to you?”
“We are the rulers of The Hartlands. We have ways of making men sing. And he sung every word. I am sorry to tell you this, but surely this is good for you. Every nobleman knows you only married that girl because you owed the man a debt. Mallory is his only heir, and so his wealth is now her wealth under the eyes of our laws. Thair Spicer is a criminal wanted for treason and regicide, but with a wealth that could buy an army. I remember what we spoke about after the battle, Sir Robert. You will be Earl of Hillhold. And when we have Thair Spicer back in our grasp, you will be an extremely rich Earl.”
“My Prince, this all sounds wonderful. But Hillhold is surrounded by an army. My father has locked himself away in his castle. I imagine the town is a ruin. I apologise if I do not feel optimistic about our chances in this war.”
“That is fine for you, Sir Robert. But I have no choice but blind optimism. My family are in the clutches of my enemy, and my King brother wants nothing more than to keep me locked behind these walls to help him defend his city. What am I to do? I am bound by my duty as a Prince whilst my heart breaks at the thought of my wife and children under the stern eye of Lord Steel. Their safety depends on King Aedvard’s life, and yet day after day that goes by, Aron is more and more desperate to put his head on a pike to prove a point.”
“It would not be a bad move.” As soon as those words left his mouth, Robert knew he had made a mistake.
Prince Asher’s patience with him seemed to run dry right then. “Would it not, Sir Robert? Perhaps the life of my family means little to you, but I can assure you that the moment King Aedvard dies, what is left of our Kingdom will be dust!”
“I am sorry, my Prince. I did not mean…I just meant.”
“What did you mean?”
“I agree. The worst thing that could happen is that King Aedvard is killed…but would it not be prudent if…you said yourself that Aron is on the edge…well…”
“Spit it out man!”
“What if Lord Steel and Prince Charles thought that King Aedvard was in danger of losing his life…what if they believed that King Aron was truly capable of doing something as monumentally stupid as executing The King of the Blacklands? Would that not be…advantageous?”
Asher stopped biting his nails and sat down opposite Robert. “Keep speaking.”
“I am no strategist. Far from it, and I do not intend to tell you or your brother how to win a war…By Natos, I can barely win the battles in my own skull! But…it is not what you do, but what it is people think you are capable of doing that frightens them. It is silly, but when I have terrors. Dark, dark terrors when I sleep as you know. And yet sometimes the things I dream of, being chased and beaten, my head dunked in water until I felt like I was going to drown, having torches put to my toes…all of these things that terrify me in my sleep…none of them ever happened. I was chased as a child, yes. I was picked on and kicked, but when it came down to it. The thing I feared the most, was what my tormentors were capable of. It was never what they did. Because once it happened, I knew that it could not kill me. I knew that if they did that again, then I would survive it. It was the things they did not do. It was the things they threatened that made me believe it would be the worst pain imaginable. They never did it, but…they never needed to. Perhaps…perhaps you and Aron just need to show your tormentors…Prince Charles and Lord Steel…perhaps it is time to show them what you are capable of doing.”
By the time Robert returned to the courtyard, everyone had left and dusk had fallen. Prince Asher had quizzed him for hours, as if every word that fell from the knight’s lips was gold dust. Sir Robert had not thought that his vague suggestion would have been taken so seriously by the Prince, but even the most modest man could not resist flattery from the heir to the throne. Every time Robert spoke, he felt as though he was clutching at straws to give the Prince more insight, and yet he just became vaguer. Eventually, Asher excused himself to speak to King Aron, which gave Robert his chance to leave. Robert looked over the city from the courtyard. He could hear the faint noise of the taverns and watched the torchlight dance in the alleys. He bent down to pick up one of the swords before realising that it was one of the wooden swords of the men who had wanted to test themselves.
“Sir Robert,” a child’s voice came from behind him. Robert turned around to see Nadir standing at the edge of the squared battle yard.
“Nadir, you startled me. Is everything okay?”
Nadir nodded. “Sometimes I help tidy up and take these things to the armoury. Effei tells me if I do it enough then he might let me practice.”
“You want to learn to fight?”
“I used to practice all the time in Ashfirth. Lord Tigos used to wooden swords from Ayden for my friends and I to train with. My mother used to tell me it was just to keep us out of trouble, but Lord Tigos told me that I could be a knight one day.”
“It is a hard thing, to be a low-born Knight, there are not many that I know of.”
“Did you ever hear of The Boulder of Bankwater? He wasn’t a noble, but he was a brave knight from my village who died bravely in battle.”
Robert had once heard of a low-born Knight from Bankwater, but that was the story of a short, fat buffoon who caught syphilis from a camp follower, went mad and ran into battle with a blade welded to his helmet. The idiot was apparently cut down by a woodcutter’s axe. Robert had heard plenty of one-off stories of half-baked knights, but he did not feel as though the child needed to hear that. “Alas, I have not, but he does indeed sound mighty valiant.” Sir Robert knelt down and pulled Nadir close. “Did Mallory give you your gift?” Nadir nodded. “Good. I want you to promise me something. If you ever get yourself into trouble and you need to use it, I want you to come to me first. If you have the time of course. You should only use it to give yourself enough time to run away.”
“What’s wrong? Do you think I will need to use it soon?”
“I should hope not, but this war, Nadir. It is not going away, and I would like you to be safe. My wife is fond of you, you know? And I am keen to make sure that you are protected.”
“You want to make sure that if I am caught, then I do not tell King Aron and Prince Asher that I was the one who released Thair Spicer?”
“Our fates our tied to each other, Nadir. Whether you like it or not, we need to look out for each other. I need you to do something for me.”
Nadir shook his head. “I am done doing things for people. Even you, Sir Robert. It is not working out for me very well, and I do not intend to continue unless it is for my own ends.”
“Oh, but it is, Nadir. Didn’t I tell you? Our fates are tied to each other, in more ways than you think. If you can help me, Nadir, I might just be able to get you back to your mother.”
Robert lay in bed in silence as Mallory rested her head on his chest. He looked up towards the high ceiling and squeezed his wife in tight beside him. They had become more intimate since their father-in-law had been caught and released. It was as if it had brought them closer together, but Robert also felt more comfortable being closer in bed with his wife knowing that her father was not doing business in the same city. For some reason, Robert felt as though he had to maintain a front when he was near, as if he did not want Thair to know that he was actually quite enjoying the arrangement. He wondered if he felt that way because he knew that Thair had the power to take it away. Robert had a name, but without Thair’s wealth, whilst John Talford was still alive, Robert had very little.
Robert thought back to Dalchester. The night that his brother Brodric had perished in battle, crushed under the boots of Filosi, Blacklanders and Hartlanders alike. How horrible it must have been for him, and yet for Brodric that was only one night. Robert had to suffer it every single night for the rest of his life. That was his curse. For Brodric. For Jonathan. For Harold. For Clarence. For Reuben. For Sibley. All of his brother’s dead. And yet here he lay, barely into his thirties, the only one left of them. And for all of it. All of the terrors, the pain and the fear. He felt very little. Only a distant longing. Not for any of them. But for Isabelle. For Harold. Those moments that he carried around with him in his heart, he knew, were not the haunting reminders of the darkness of his brother’s fates, but of the light and joy that his small family, for however brief a time, brought him. Every dream haunted him more than if his brothers were to burst from the ground and bring him under themselves. Even that would only last a night. Then it would be over. But this. This would last a lifetime. This was the curse that he carried in his heart that was doomed to haunt him until the end of his days. The memory of happiness.