Good morning all, and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Thirty-Two of The Cursed King. I am currently experiencing the euphoria of having my Out of Office emails on and being away at my parents’ house for the weekend. It was my Dad’s Birthday yesterday, so Happy Birthday, Dad, and it was great to catch up with the family. Things are starting to get back to normal in the UK, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Though even though I am away from home, a promise is a promise, and I promised another chapter on 22nd May, and so here it is.
Today, we are back with Robert on the perilous and dangerous venture to rescue Lady Natalie from the Blacklands-occupied Hartlake. The mission is treacherous, but the rewards are great. With Lady Natalie no longer a hostage, the south becomes vulnerable to Prince Asher’s wrath. Thank you for reading, and I will post another chapter either on June 4th, 5th or 6th. The reason for the uncertainty is the fact that I am away that weekend, and may not have access to my laptop – either way, you will get a chapter on one of these days!
Robert had never known such a short journey to take so long, but he had also never travelled with anyone as aged as Arkgodson Jerimeh. He would not have minded the length of the journey had it not been for the cantankerous drunkard Sir Trevon Blacksquire moaning and slurring like the arrogant pig that he was every few moments. Their band was small. Prince Asher did not want them arousing suspicion on their journey, nor did the Prince want to involve more people in this endeavour than he thought absolutely necessary. Robert was joined by Sir Danayal Grosvenor and Elden Hardwick, whilst Sir Eiruc was given charge of the City Guard in their stead. Robert was pleased for the young knight. He was arrogant, and sometimes stupid, but he knew the boy was well-intentioned at heart, and was eager to see him succeed.
Their journey was long not so much because of Jerimeh’s speed, but that of his accompanying horse. The Arkgodson’s horse had been trained to be cautious in its steps as to not injure or startle the old man. Sanguine was a young horse, however, spirited and energetic, and it took all of Robert’s strength and skill to reign her back to a gentle trot. The terrain they walked through also did not help the length of their journey. The closer they got to Hartlake, the damper the ground became. The heavy rains of autumn flooded the surrounding marshlands, which become muddy and slushy when the first of the winter sleet and snow fell upon the ground. Robert was wrapped up in furs, but could not help but feel the chill through his winter clothes. Moreover, the weather, the bleakness of the grey sky, rotting leaves and bare branches combined with the enormity of their task made Robert glum and sorrowful. He felt that his close ties to the Prince had turned him into little more than an errand boy, and whilst he appreciated that the Prince had entrusted the rescue of his family to him, he could not help but think that he was just being used as a body guard for an elderly man.
When they finally made it through the trees, the lake soon began to take shape in the distance. They had seen the castle already, but the marshlands surrounding it were so flat that it took a while for the eye to distinguish the water surrounding it from the rest of the wetlands. It was a glorious sight. The ancestral home of House Hartlin, where the cousins of Ivar Hart helped secure the south western border of The Hartlands to protect themselves from the Amenti to the South and The Blacklands to the west. Robert had won every tourney he had ever fought at this castle. It had always been a good omen for him, but he had never seen it in winter. In the icy grey fog that surrounded them, these lands invoked a far more apprehensive atmosphere than what he had become used to.
Robert unhorsed without taking his eyes of the castle in the distance, when he turned around to face his band, he saw Elden Hardwick helping Jerimeh from his horse. Robert did not offer his assistance. Sir Danayal was taking a piss behind a shrub, whistling a tune so merry, you would have thought the man was in a bustling tavern and not these bleak woods. “Danayal,” Robert snapped. “What are you doing?”
Danayal looked down at the cock in his hand. “Watering the plants…what does it look like?”
“Can you do it in silence? What if somebody hears you?”
Hardwick and Jerimeh had finally caught up to them and took respite on a felled tree trunk. “I wouldn’t worry about that. These are vast woods and we’re about to approach some absolutely repugnant swamps. It is Prince Asher’s bugbear that his guards do not patrol this area because of it, and I doubt that Lord Steel’s men are any different. I know these lands well, and Lord Steel does not. There is an approach to the church that will largely avoid the marshiest parts of the swampland, and is hidden enough to escape without detection. If Jerimeh can act quickly in convincing Lady Natalie to come with us, then we should have just enough time to escape.”
The plan would have seemed sound enough to Robert had it not been for the fact that Jerimeh was able to move about as quickly as a snail through salt. “What about Jerimeh? I mean no offence, but the man is not exactly agile,” Robert said, meaning some offence.
“I can travel at a canter for a short time. Lady Natalie will ride with Lord Hardwick, the children will ride with Sir Danayal, and I will ride with you, Sir Robert.”
Robert could scarcely hide his annoyance. He had liked Arkgodson Jerimeh before the man accused his father-in-law of high treason. Robert knew Thair Spicer was not a perfect man, but he was a spice merchant, not a murderer, and Robert had grown to like him. Moreover, he knew that Mallory missed him, and it always gave him comfort knowing that he never left her completely alone when he had to travel away from home, but now his wife had no one to keep her company. “Wonderful,” Robert finally said with as much sarcasm as he could muster in one word.
Their journey through the woods was drier than Robert had expected for the first part, but as soon as they could smell the stench of the swamps, the terrain sucked their boots into the thick, sticky mud, which eventually became less sticky, but slimier and wetter until they were walking through puddles ankle-deep. Robert was happy that his boots were tight fitting and made of fine leather, and stood up to the punishment of the marshland, but still some water seeped through, and he worried about how long he would be wearing these boots before he could change them. He was haunted by visions of his feet rotting away in his boots whilst he travelled, and them falling off as soon as he took them off in his home.
Robert worried for his horse too. He did not like leaving her. Not since Avairghon was put to rest. When he left Sanguine on her own, it made him think of what might happen to her if he could not protect her, which made him think of Avairghon, which made him think of his brothers, and his father who hated him so. All of these thoughts were linked together like a chain around his throat, but when he knew that his horse was okay and between his legs, then somehow this kept all of those thoughts at bay.
Eventually, Robert’s group could see the church from the distance. It was a small chapel perched just atop a small mound surrounded by cypress trees. Despite the smell, it was a beautiful sight. A building which looked a thousand years old with rough-cut stone surrounded by glistening waters with leaves hanging long over the lake. It was still light, and as dangerous as it was, they would need to wait until nightfall until Lady Natalie would be left alone in the chapel with her children.
Sir Danayal was excellent with a fire. He had been away on a few battles and grew up in the greenest parts of The Hartlands, so he knew how to build a fire, and could tell when the wind had changed direction, so he knew where the smoke would blow. Between these trees, they were fairly hidden, but Elden Hardwick did not want to take any chances whilst they ate. Unbeknownst to the rest of the group, Sir Danayal had been stuffing frogs into his satchel as he came across them through their journey. The man pulled them out of his bag, held them against a rock, and then decapitated them before cutting their legs off and driving a stick through them. By the time he was finished, there were sixteen frogs’ legs on four sticks roasting over a small fire. Sir Robert was at once impressed and disgusted by what he had seen.
“You eat those things?” Robert asked.
“Frogs? Aye I do! Tasty things – texture like fish, flavour like chicken. Wait until you try one.”
“I think I’ll stick to my salt beef.”
Sir Robert regretted saying that as soon as he smelled the aromas that were coming from the smoke that almost covered up the stagnating swamp. Despite his initial protest, Sir Danayal offered the legs to Sir Robert and was humble enough not to mention a word about his backtracking when he took a bite and smiled. There was little conversation around the fire. Jerimeh was pensive. Clearly concerned about what he could possibly say to Lady Natalie to convince her to escape. Elden Hardwick seemed concerned about how they would navigate this area with nothing but moonlight to guide them, and an entire army chasing them down through the forest. Sir Danayal seemed relaxed, if not far too excited about slaughtering and eating amphibians. This meant that Sir Robert was left to stew in his own silence, thinking about how much had changed, wondering what he was even doing there, and what he was aiming for. He came to Silver City for a life away from his family, and now that he had finally found a small family whose company he enjoyed, they had been pulled away from each other.
Sir Robert had not suffered his affliction for a while, but it always loomed over him like a rain cloud in the distance. It was easier being around men whom knew about his condition, and who did not question him about it. He had noticed that he suffered less when he was in some form of comfort. It was when his worry overcame him, or when he was forced into a pressured situation or relived a past trauma that it overwhelmed him and took him from his reality. In this situation though, Robert felt that he could do little to fail. The onus was on Arkgodson Jerimeh. Rescuing Prince Asher’s family was his sole responsibility, and Robert was a reluctant participant. Whatever happened, the blame would surely not land at Robert’s door, and so he felt a strange focus come over him that only this security could provide.
He excused himself from his men to sit alone by the water under a large cypress tree. Dusk licked the sky and painted the sky pink as the sun set. Robert thought about his home, and wondered whether he should write a letter to Mallory. If she was sent away, he thought, I think I would like to read a letter of hers. He often wondered whether they should write to each other anyway, even when he was at home. Mallory’s reluctance to communicate verbally had not been so much of a barrier for Sir Robert. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more they seemed like an excellent match. Robert has grown fond of the silence, and was not sure now what he would do without it should it change. The thought dried as he realised that he would have no way of sending a letter until they were back in an Earldom not under Lord Steel’s occupation, and by that point they’d be mere days from home.
Robert pulled himself to his feet to see the Arkgodson standing behind him, smiling. “We should talk,” the old man said.
“We should?” Sir Robert asked. “Far be it for me to reject the wisdom of such a learned man.”
“You are upset with me. And rightly so. You are a loyal man, and Thair Spicer has been good to you.”
“I have said my piece already. I am not here for my father-in-law. He can look after himself. Prince Asher has also been good to me, and so I will serve him as a knight should. The Hartlin Twins have been good to you too, which is why you are here, and it is why you arrested Thair Spicer. I do not doubt that you did what you did out of loyalty for your King, and out of conviction that you believe that my father-in-law is involved in some way with the murder of Prince Edward. But I must believe that you are wrong. You must understand, that I cannot for one moment consider the possibility that you are right. To do so would put the life of my wife in danger, and I will not have that. If I am cold with you, Jerimeh, then it is because whether you are right or you are wrong makes no matter. Either way, your actions whether good or bad, have affected me, and whilst that will not douse my respect for you, it means that you and I are now unfamiliar. Do you understand?”
Jerimeh nodded respectfully. “I do. More so than you do.”
Robert, Danayal and Elden waited anxiously in the chapel for Lady Natalie. They had waited until the line of torches drifted over the horizon before they snuck in, and as they expected, it was completely devoid of life. Not just in that there was no one there, but it was scarcely more than a hut in the woods and could not truly be considered a place of worship. Robert had been to Hartlake and had seen the God’s Hall there. It was grand and beautiful, ornate and full of light. This swamp-soaked, dreary pile of stone was damp and mouldy, and featured two puny statues of Natos and Jivana with a row of candles and a few tatty cushions. This was no place for the Lady of Hartlake to pray, and Robert began to worry that the whole thing was an elaborate trap.
“Why on earth would Lady Natalie insist on coming all the way out here just to pray?” Robert could not refrain from saying.
“The days and nights of a Lady are full of noise. God’s Halls tend to echo and there’s always someone or other clattering around doing something. Perhaps it is the only place she can find the peace and solitude of total silence,” Jerimeh answered.
Robert understood then. He imagined that this would be the place that Mallory would choose between the two, and wondered if he should have a small chapel built in his own woods. Then he realised what that would mean. Despite Asher’s promise, it would mean unseating his father, his nephew, all to take his father’s earldom for himself. It was the first time he had allowed himself to think such thoughts, and it was then he realised that the excitement of battle was streaming through his veins. It were these thoughts that went through a man’s mind before battle, the thoughts of destruction, envy, passion and violence. The emotions that were pushed down in day-to-day life, but when the fear of capture or death approached, these primal feelings raised to the surface. Robert could hear the singing of the sisters as they approached, and though it was a calming song, Robert saw that Danayal and Elden were also prepared for an accompaniment of Knights or even Lord Steel himself.
Robert’s hand hovered over the hilt of his sword as the door was pushed open, and almost instantly a shrill shriek escaped the lips of Lady Natalie herself, which immediately set off an equally piercing second of a scream from her daughter before Elden Hardwick had the quick-thinking to lift her into his arms and cover her mouth. Before Lady Natalie could vent her rage at the man for grabbing her daughter, Jerimeh grabbed her face and turned it towards his. She immediately recognised the Arkgodson, turned to Elden and recognised him too, and wrapped her arms around their necks.
“Ssh, ssh, it’s okay, everybody quiet, quiet now.” Natalie spoke to her son and daughter. “What are you doing here? Are you all mad? Elden, Jerimeh…if they capture you both this war is as good as over!”
“And if we get you away from here, my lady, then this war might just be salvaged. Prince Asher will not bring an army down on here until you are all safe,” Elden explained.
“My foolish husband! He should have brought an army down on this place already.”
“How have they been treating you?” Jerimeh asked.
“Like any prisoner, but fine…really, fine. Lord Steel gives the demeanour of an aggressive man, but he would not see me or my children harmed. You should not have come here,” she sighed.
“Well, we are here, and we need to leave immediately. Arnulf and Moya too. How long do you have here alone?”
“Not long. As soon as we walk through the door, they send men from the castle to come and get us. If you are serious, and we are leaving, then we have already been here too long.”
Robert had no time to worry about where he was putting his feet as they clamoured through the mud. Moya wrapped her arms tightly around his neck and buried her face in his chest. Robert was glad that she gripped him so tightly, it meant that he did not need to support her, and he could use his arms to grab at branches to pull himself out. This allowed him to get a lead on the rest of them, and so he was constantly looking over his shoulder to make sure that none of them lagged behind. Danayal was just behind him carrying Arnulf, whilst Elden and Natalie helped Jerimeh through the sludge.
The Goddaughter’s stayed behind, loyal only to their Gods, it was not in their interests to meddle, and nor would they be expected to. Robert was suspicious of the fact that they had not sent any guards with Lady Natalie to the chapel. If they were pursuing them, then they would be just as caught as they are in the mud. They did not know this land like Lady Natalie did either, she called to him to guide him as best she could.
Eventually, they reached dried dirt again, and Robert was able to run, although he could not move too much faster as he did not want to trip and harm Moya. The trees thinned and the moonlight and stars provided greater light. The he heard the whinnying of his horse, and felt a wave of relief. Their horses were still hitched by the trees, not a single one harmed, and not a single man to be seen, not even in the distance. Robert patted his horse and hoisted Moya onto the saddle of Sir Danayal’s horse before jumping onto Sanguine. It wasn’t long before the rest of their party caught up. They were all safe, and it seemed that Lord Steel had not even been alerted that they had escaped.
“Sir Robert – lead the way back, we are heading towards the camp outside Hunter’s Valley.” Elden commanded.
Robert helped Jerimeh onto the horse. The old man seemed to have been invigorated with a new energy, and he mounted the horse in one swift movement. Sir Robert waited until everyone else was mounted and then mounted his own horse. As soon as he turned Sanguine, and was about to instruct her to run, Robert heard a galloping of horses in the distance.
“Hurry…we must go!” Danayal shouted.
Robert looked around frantically. There was no way that he could outpace them with Jerimeh on his horse. He looked up at Elden. “You must go. Get them back to Silver City to Prince Asher. Go!”
“We cannot leave you and Jerimeh!”
“Jerimeh will be fine. I will see to it.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Think of it as an excellent trade. Three Royals for a Knight. Now, unless you want them to have six hostages instead of one, you’ll go!”
Elden reluctantly nodded to Sir Danayal who did not hesitate and cantered off into the distance. “This will not be forgotten, Sir Robert,” Lady Natalie beamed. “Thank you.”
Elden Hardwick gave Sir Robert a nod and galloped into the distance. Sir Robert pulled his horse into the trees and dismounted before giving Jerimeh the reigns. “Jerimeh. You need to ride to the nearest town. Lord Steel would not dare send his men more than ten leagues from here; he is too cautious. The only way he would move is with a full army. You must ride as fast as your body will let you, and then seek an escort back to Silver City. Look after Sanguine and tell my wife I will not be home for a while.”
Jerimeh gave him a pitying look. “Why are you doing this Sir Robert? Sacrificing yourself? If I am able to do this, then so are you. You could easily join me.”
“If I escape with you, then they will chase down Lady Natalie and the children. This war needs to end, Jerimeh. I need this war to end. I want to go home. I want to live with my wife and forget all of this horror that has befallen us since this war began. You know as well as I do that if Prince Asher does not get his family back, he will be useless. We need a War Commander. We need him. I will distract them long enough to give you all a head start. You are wasting your time, Jerimeh. Please…go.”
Jerimeh nodded. “Jivana be with you, Sir Robert.”
“And you, your worship.”
Sir Robert watched as Jerimeh trotted Sanguine through the trees and he walked back into the path and stood in the centre of the road. The thumping hoofs of the galloping warhorses thundered across the hardened ground. Louder and louder until Robert could hear each man’s voice individually. Sir Robert drew his sword and waited for them to turn the corner. As they did, the first man pulled the reins of his horse, which caused a commotion as each horse reared and groaned until they were taken under control by their riders. As soon as they had calmed, two of the men had arrows aimed at him, and the rest had their weapons drawn. Sir Robert recognised the one who led them. It was Lord Steels son, Oscar. Sir Robert had seen him at tournies when he was just a boy, but now he was almost a man. As tall as his father, with broad shoulders, hairy face and long hair past his shoulders.
“This is who they sent to kidnap the Lady Natalie? A single man and a sword.”
“Not just a man, my lord. A Knight. Sir Robert Talford.”
Robert saw the worry flash across the boy’s eyes. Oscar had seen Robert at tournies. He knew that he was capable of taking on all of Oscar’s men if he needed to.
“You have been caught, Sir Robert. Lay down your sword or I will instruct my men to loose their bows. Now, tell me where Lady Natalie and her children are.”
“Oh, they will already be too far gone by the time you reach them. We have a hundred men camped two leagues north of here. I suspect they have already reached them.”
“You are lying. There was only a few of you.”
“Here? Why yes, there was just a few. But I am not lying, Lordling, I assure you. Though if you want to see for yourself then be my guest. I will stand aside.”
Sir Robert stepped from the road, but not a single man moved his horse. Oscar raised his hand as if his men were about to make their move. “What do you get out of this arrangement, Sir Robert? Left behind to hold us here whilst Lady Natalie escapes. They have traded her life for yours. Is that what you are now? A pawn to be played with?”
Robert laughed. “I already told you, Oscar. I’m not a pawn. I’m a Knight.”
Lord Steel looked almost a King himself sat upon Prince Asher’s seat. The room was scarce and low-lit even in the darkness, and the torches flicked only small spells of light across the room. Robert was on his knees before him, a triumphant smile across his face. Lord Steel never smiled as far as Sir Robert could tell, at least he had never seen it, though they had met on many occasions. It made Sir Robert wonder the last time a captured man smiled so broadly and his capturer so little.
There was silence for a moment or so before Oscar stepped forward. “My Lord. I regret to inform you that Lady Natalie and her children have escaped. We caught Sir Robert who was one of the men who helped them. He will not give up the names of those who helped him or the whereabouts of Lady Natalie. What should be done with him?”
Lord Steel waited a moment before he rose to his feet. “What should be done with him? What should be done with you, lad?”
“I’m sorry, father?”
“Did you send men after them? All of your party returned here to the castle when I specifically told you to hunt down Lady Natalie and her children. Why did you not send men after them?”
“There was an army of a hundred men. We would have never caught them before we ran into the ambush.”
Lord Steel scoffed. “How did you know about this army?”
“Sir Robert told us that…”
“Sir Robert told you that, did he? Sir Robert…was there an army waiting for Lady Natalie?”
“Did you fight these men to stop them getting past you?”
“Did you perform your duty exactly as you planned, Sir Robert? Distracting my son, and using his inexperience against him?”
“Is this why you are so happy, Sir Robert?”
“Yes, it is, lord.”
Lord Steel turned to his son. “What are you still doing here? Leave now and chase them down, and do not dare step foot in this castle without a Hartlin in your grasp. Go!”
Oscar turned on his heels and scurried from the hall. Lord Steel stooped beside Sir Robert and untied his wrists. Sir Robert was taken aback, but soon realised that he was unarmed, and really had nowhere to escape to. He also knew that he would lose in any fist fight with Lord Steel. The man was ferocious in a fight, exceptionally strong, and had been in many a melee with him. Lord Steel’s fist through his skull was the last thing he needed.
“You should not smile so much. He is just a boy…and still learning. This is little victory for you,” Lord steel said as he pulled Robert to his feet.
“When one has suffered as much defeat as I have, every victory brings a smile.”
Lord Steel and Sir Robert walked together amicably through the corridors of Hartlake Castle. Robert had never seen a castle so untouched after it had been taken by an enemy. Usually, the paintings were torn down and trampled, and the furnishings were either stolen or sold, but it seemed that everything had remained untouched. The paintings had not even been taken down and replaced – still mounted above the fireplace in the main reception hall was a painting of Prince Asher and his family. Lord Steel stopped and looked up at it.
“It is true what your Earls say on this side of the border. If Prince Asher would have been born first, this would have all been so different. He is a fine man.”
“Are you trying to goad me into saying something treasonous against my King, Lord Steel?”
Lord Steel let out a breathed laugh through his nose. “It will not be long before your entire existence is considered treason, Sir Robert. You are a Knight of The Hartlands, which will soon be in the hands of King Aedvard. You know as well as I do that this war is as good as over.”
Robert nodded. “It certainly looks that way. You have the South and the East…”
“And the North,” Lord Steel finished.
“Aye. It seems my foster son, Riechard, has abandoned his post in Duncath to marry a savage girl from Ismann. He has taken four-thousand Ismann Warriors and has torn through the Northern Earldoms. Once we march north, Silver City will be surrounded.”
Robert held his mouth aghast. He had heard very little of Lord Riechard, but the boy sounded half mad, moreover, he worried about Mallory. His wife was alone in the city without her father or her husband to protect her. “Do you happen to have a drink, lord?”
Lord Steel shook his head. “Not for you, Sir Robert. Your fate is yet to be decided.”
Robert suddenly felt a wave of panic. “What are you talking about?”
“There is a bounty on your head. It appears your father really does despise you. Before the Battle of the Mountain Pass, he made a deal with Prince Charles. He told him that if you were captured and executed that he would double the ransom that would have been paid for you. So, in this spirit, I have sent two letters. One to your father, and one to Thair Spicer’s Natonian residence. I have asked them to provide me with an amount that they are willing to pay for your release into this world…or your release into the next.”
Robert felt his stomach lurch. “I…I don’t understand.”
“It is really very simple. Whichever returned letter has the highest number wins.”
“Lord Steel…we have known each other…we have fought at tournies… and-”
“And your Kingdom is soon to be ruin. Your King will be slaughtered and his bloodline eradicated. This entire Kingdom will be under our shroud, Sir Robert. We have known each other, but do not think that we are friends. Given the chance, you would end my life on the battlefield as I would you. We may not be covered in mud and blood, but this is a battlefield, Sir Robert. Do not make any mistake. My sword is at your throat and I cannot help you. There is only one man who can save you now.”