Good afternoon everyone and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Thirty-Five of The Cursed King. It’s my birthday this weekend, which is why you’re getting this one a day earlier than usual as I will be sans computer until next week. Whilst this means no writing, it also means no Football Manager, which is equally as devastating. Book-wise though, the writing is continuing smoothly as I write the crescendious (this is not a real word) finale to my tale.
In today’s chapter, after the successful battle for Dawnmount, Riechard takes his army south, and whilst he encounters a familiar face, these familiarities require him to make tough decisions as the horrors of war and the stark realities of leading an army are revealed to the teenage lord. Thank you for reading, and Chapter Thirty-Six will be posted on July 17th.
Dawnmount had completely encapsulated Riechard for the last few weeks. There was an eeriness to the place. An intermittent fog that seemed to shroud the castle and its surrounding community at dusk and dawn both fascinated and agitated him. Riechard had received ravens from his father, from Lord Steel and even from his grandfather who was imprisoned in Harthelm. From his father, he received congratulations. From his foster father, he received instruction. From his grandfather, he had received a tirade. Riechard was so angry when he received his grandfather’s letter that he screwed up the parchment in his fist and threw it into the fire. Despite his attempt to destroy it, the words were etched into his mind. Foolish boy. Abandoned castle. Fraught alliance. Riechard’s grandfather was as cutting with a quill as he was with a sword. His words hurt him deeply. Knowing that he had disappointed his grandfather despite winning a battle was as great a pain as having his skull smashed in by Karlon.
Riechard had no choice but to keep driving forward and to lay siege to Silver City at all costs. It was the only way that he would be able to redeem himself in his grandfather’s eyes. A knock on the door pulled Riechard away from staring into the mystifying fog that surrounded the castle. The chambers that he occupied were smaller than he had become used to in his short time at Duncath, and reminded him far more of Steelmont. Though he had expected more gold and decoration in a castle in this part of the New World, he also remembered that Dawnmount was as much Ismann as it was The Hartlands. Whilst there were some minor comforts, there was a coldness and a minimalism to everything. All that adorned the walls were rusty weapons and faded paintings of long dead men.
It was Salman who greeted Riechard at the door, he two had developed a far easier friendship since they had travelled from Duncath. It was far easier to trust a man who had stood in the way of a giant for him. Not only that, their destinies had been tied together in their march.
“There is wine on the table,” Riechard told him, and Salman darted towards it and poured them both a cup.
“The townsfolk are settled. It has taken some time, and in truth our men did not help when we stormed the castle, but I believe they are more at ease with the new regime than they were when we arrived.”
“What of Lord Esak?”
“Still nowhere to be found. He has gone, along with half a hundred knights from all around the Northern Earldoms, we have discovered. They must have fled as soon as they knew that we were on the march.”
“It is strange. We are sure that they did not go south?”
“We had scouts follow a path toward Hazelfield. They did not go south; they would not dare go north or west…and so they must have gone east.”
“There is nothing East of here…perhaps they fled to The Old World?”
“Your guess is as good as any, my lord.”
Riechard picked up his cup of wine and took a sip. “How do you like the room?” Riechard asked.
Salman looked around and shrugged. “Worthy of a minor lord…perhaps not quite worthy of an Earl.”
“It should suit you just fine then.”
“I need someone I can rely on to keep the Northern Earldoms in check, and to keep communication with Dudsoner whilst we march. You will stay in Dawnmount and act as Castellan.”
“Lord Riechard…I am honoured you would choose me, but who will advise you? I feel as though I have served well and have earned the right to fight alongside you.”
“Aye, I agree. I would not have got this far without you. I think I would have died in the snow had you not been with me.”
“Yes. You would have.”
“But I need someone I can trust here, and in truth, if you are to marry Isabel, you need to be alive to do so. King Aron and Prince Asher will not surrender Silver City lightly. There will be blood.”
“I do not need protection, my lord.”
“I do not mean to humiliate you. I know you still see me as a child, but I am not. I am looking out for what is the best strategic decision. The best decision I can make right now is to place someone I trust in control of the Northern Earldoms. If it were you advising me…, what would you tell me to do?”
Salman stared into his wine. Riechard could see the disappointment. There was a sense of resignation, that he would not be able to complete what he helped begin. “I will do it.”
“Thank you, Salman. We will meet again soon, I promise you. As soon as the city is ours, this will all be over.”
Flanked by Sir Gavon and Sir William, Riechard mounted his horse. They aimed for the Central Road which would take his army towards Hazelfield. Hilde and Karlon were having a heated discussion at the gates, which none of them could understand. It became so aggressive that Hilde swung at Karlon. Riechard instinctively dismounted his horse and ran towards them, eager to protect his betrothed but swiftly realising that Hilde would have a greater chance of defeating Karlon in single combat than he would. Karlon avoided the blow, and seemed to have enough sense not to try and strike her back.
“Enough!” Riechard interrupted them. “What is the issue?”
“Not your concern,” Karlon waved his hand dismissively.
“This army is my concern. As part of this army, a fight between two of its leaders is my concern. What is the issue?”
Hilde turned to Riechard sharply. “Karlon sent ten of my warriors back to Ismann.”
Riechard turned to Karlon. “What was your reason?”
“This is the problem. He will not tell me!”
“General, we need all the men at our disposal. Why on earth are you sending men home?”
“My business is my own.”
“Your business is our business.”
“Do you want another beating, boy?”
Sir Gavon and Sir William suddenly appeared beside him, with their hands on their hilts. “You can try,” Sir William said, beginning to draw his sword.
It was Hilde who stepped between them. “Karlon. We can accept that you have sent men home, but we need to know why. Tell us.”
Karlon stepped forward and looked Riechard in the eyes. “Would you trust Hilde that I made the correct decision if I told only her?”
Riechard was taken aback. “Well…I…I suppose so.”
Karlon pulled Hilde to one side and whispered in her ear. Riechard studied her face. Initially it was shock, then a brief flash of horror passed across her, before she composed herself and nodded slightly. “Okay,” she said. “Karlon’s reasons are fair. We will march now, yes?” Before anyone could respond, Hilde strode so quickly forward it was as though she was escaping the conversation, and mounted her horse to take the lead. Riechard looked at Karlon, but all he returned was a stone-cold stare.
It took Riechard half a league to catch up with Hilde, who he found staring straight ahead of her down the road. The road was wet with melted snow. He had become used to the snow and the bitter winds of the far north and even the cold rain felt warm to him now. Wrapped up in his polar bear furs, he was half-tempted to remove his coat as he rode. Hilde was dressed equally as wrapped up, covered in furs and a pristine surcoat with her long blade at her side. Her hair was in a constant braid, her face stern and unyielding. Everything about her announced strength and resolve. Hilde was one of many women in their army. It had taken his own army some time to get used to the concept of a female warrior, but in Ismann it was commonplace. Everyone must fight. Everyone must be able to war there. It is part of what made their country so strong.
“I do not want to speak of it,” Hilde said without turning around to look at Riechard.
“I was not going to ask you to,” Riechard lied.
“Then why ride with me?”
“We are to be married are we not?” Hilde did not say anything. “Perhaps we should learn more of one another.”
“Perhaps we should survive this war…and then we can speak of what comes after.”
Riechard could not help but be offended by that comment. “You do not think that I will survive. Is that why you agreed to this marriage? The odds that I might not get out of this war?”
Hilde scoffed. “You southern men are so insecure. It seems as though you are just describing your own fears.”
“I am not afraid.”
“Of course, you are. Why would you not be? You are barely sixteen years old and you are marching an army through the heart of your enemy’s kingdom. You should be terrified.”
Riechard and Hilde rode alongside each other in silence for several leagues. They rode past hamlets and small towns all staring at them from the fields. Some stared in horror, others with intrigue, some even greeted them with a smile. The army marched along slowly. Children ran towards them, but were soon pulled back by their parents who kept them close. The sight of the Ismann who favoured longer hair and strangely shaped weapons must have been a terrifying sight for the smallfolk.
Riechard and Hilde rode ahead into the forest. The Great Forest expanded throughout The Blacklands and The Hartlands. Many communities lived entirely in the forests, though they were sporadic, they were much like the Northern Earldoms. It is hard to fight battles for land in forests, and so the forest had always been considered neutral down due to its depth and density. The Central Road cut directly through the forest and for several leagues the trees were cut to arch over the road and meet in the middle. On a summer’s day it would have made the floor sparkle with sunlight, but in the winter the sky was overcast and grey, and the trees were bare of leaves, skinny and black. Every now and then, Sir Gavon and Sir William caught up to him to provide him with updates of the army’s progress, but by the time they reached the heart of the forest, the sun had begun to set, and so they set up camp between the trees.
Riechard had not even unpacked his horse when he heard a grunt and felt a thud beside his feet. He looked down to see two young men not much older than himself tied up on the ground, groaning and swearing. It was Karlon who was standing over them. Sir Gavon was standing beside him, both of them looking as though they wanted to beat both of the young men into the ground.
“What is it?” Riechard asked.
“We caught them raiding a hamlet,” Sir Gavon explained.
“Who are they?”
“Little more than farm boys,” Sir William said.
“My father is Lord Tigos of Bankwater,” an irritable voice came from the mud.
“No more than a bastard,” Sir Gavon said. “His mother was a low-born wench. You’d think it would give the boy some sympathy for the common folk.”
“And who is beside to him?”
“That…is Marcus Steel. Lord Steel’s second cousin.”
“In Ismann we would drown them in the ocean,” Karlon said as he jabbed his knife into a slab of meat.
“It is not that simple…these young men are powerfully connected,” Riechard pondered.
“A bastard and the fifth son of a man who is a Steel in name only?” Sir William questioned.
“It is not that simple. I have met Lord Steel’s family; I have grown up around them. I recognise Marcus. We spent time together as children. I did not even know he was in the army. I was so caught up in getting it here.”
“It is the job of a leader to make tough decisions. You must send a message to the other men that this behaviour will not be tolerated.” Hilde said.
“What would King Aedvard do?” Riechard asked Sir William and Sir Gavon.
“If I knew that,” Sir William replied, “then I would be King of The Blacklands.”
Jordan Tigos and Marcus Steel were tied to separate trees on opposite ends of the camp. It was Jordan who Riechard approached first. The boy was spirited, even when he was bound, but at the very least had become fatigued trying to wriggle out of the rope. Jordan had a plain face with dark, curly hair atop his head. He gnashed his teeth in mockery whenever someone approached him. It was his energy that struck Riechard. As if his soul wanted nothing more than to be free of its body. Now though, he had calmed enough that Riechard was comfortable talking to him.
Whenever Riechard had been punished as a child, he remembered that Lord Steel would always sit him down and listen to his story before deciding on the punishment. Context was important for his foster father. If Riechard had hit another boy unprovoked, then the punishment would be a lot tougher than if he had suffered weeks of torment. It allowed Riechard to accept his punishment, safe in the knowledge that his actions were treated justly in every situation. He thought he must provide the same courtesy to Jordan and Marcus. Even though they were the same age as him, he was still the leader of the army, and he must allow them the chance to share their stories.
Jordan looked almost excited to see Riechard. It was the same movement a puppy made when its master returned. If Jordan Tigos had a tail, then it would be wagging constantly. “My lord, what a pleasure it is to see you. These gruff men of yours…why, I can see why you keep them by their side, but I admit I would have much rather have been reprimanded at your royal hand.”
“And what were you reprimanded doing. Master Tigos?”
“It is Jordan Umbar-Tigos. Do you know why a bastard takes their father’s full name as a surname? It is to shame the father. I carry his shame around with me. Isn’t that strange? I did not ask to be born, and yet I must carry the punishment of my father for all my life.”
“What were you reprimanded doing, Jordan Umbar-Tigos?”
“Your foster cousin and I…Lord Riechard…we’ve been away so long. All we wanted to do was to find some common girls in the hamlet to spend some time with. You must know…or maybe you don’t. See, we were not causing any harm, not raiding or the like. But one of the girls see, her father caught us. Held a pitchfork to my throat. Marcus was just protecting me. He didn’t mean to kill him. I swear he didn’t. He just meant to give him a scratch, get him to back off, but the farmer lunged at him with the pitchfork. Marcus just defended himself. See, if the man had just been reasonable then we would have just gone. But he threatened us, you see? Threatened soldiers of your army…men of noble blood.”
Riechard did not say anything in reply. He simply nodded and got to his feet before walking to the other side of the camp. “It’s the truth!” Jordan yelled after him, but had already heard what he needed to hear.
Marcus Steel was not quite as fiery and energetic as Jordan Umbar-Tigos, but then, he never had been. Riechard had not seen Marcus in years. The last time he spent any time with him, he was ten years old at the wedding of Marcus’ eldest sister, Penelope, to Lord Coor of Roots Hall. They had spoken briefly, but only about their favourite knights and who would win in a fight between one and the other. Even those conversations were short-lived. Riechard did not know about the knights that Marcus spoke of, they were all from books. Myths and legends about slaying sea squids and dragons. Riechard was far more interested in real knights. Knights that he spent time with and who he had watched fight in tournies. Marcus spent his time in the library whilst Riechard spent his time on the courtyard.
“Hello cousin,” Marcus said pleasantly. Riechard had stopped caring so much when people did not call him Lord. At first, he would pull them up on it, but now, it happened so often being around Ismann that he no longer had the energy for it. In this case, he did not even consider it insulting from someone so close to his foster family.
“If I had known you were travelling with the army, I would have greeted you far sooner,” Riechard said. “Why did you not seek me out?”
Marcus bowed his head. “I did not want Lord Steel to know I was here. My father sent me to serve you.”
“Why did he not inform me of this? Why did your father not send you to join Lord Steel?”
“He thought it would be an insult to Lord Steel.”
Riechard laughed. “Aye…it was a hastily assembled army. Hardly the best of what The Blacklands had to offer. I would have thought you would be on your way to becoming a Godson by now.”
“I am, Lord. I have been serving as a page since I was eleven to Godson Michaels. I am due to become a Godson soon, should I survive the war.”
“Then why on earth were you sent here to fight?”
“I wasn’t…my father wanted me to perform Godson duties for the army. To a large extent I am. I am offering prayer, helping the sick and injured. I have done more of this than actual fighting.”
“Except for farmers of course…Jordan told me that you killed the farmer.”
“He did what?” The shock on Marcus’ face was something that Riechard had prepared for. “I…I did no such thing. It was…oh I suppose it does not matter.”
“I am here to listen to your side, Marcus.”
“Whilst what Jordan has said is not true, it would do me no good to tell the truth either. I have betrayed my duty as a servant of the Gods to this army. I was weak and I have failed you and the church.”
“I do not need to hear your wallowing, cousin. Just tell me the truth.”
“I went with Jordan to the hamlet. He told me that he wanted to visit a small tavern for an hour or so. I decided it would be safer to go with him, especially as I could stop him from drinking too much. The problem was, we both decided to drink. We were there for hours. As we were stumbling back, we found some common girls. Most of them would not give us the time of day for our drunkenness, but one stayed. Whilst Jordan went off to chase the girls, I spent some time in the barn with this girl. We were caught by her father in the act and he tried to attack me. He was stronger than I and punched me a few times. Luckily, the man showed me mercy and told me to leave. I picked up my things and escaped. I looked for Jordan, but I could not find him. I went all around the hamlet until I saw him at the farmer’s barn. That was when I saw him. Jordan had killed the man with his sword. It was not in any defence of me. He was drunk and violent, and then he went to approach the girl. I managed to pull him away from the barn. It was then that we were discovered by Sir Gavon and Hilde.”
“You do realise that Jordan has given a totally different version of events? Implicating you as the murderer.”
Marcus hanged his head. “I did suspect as much as soon as you split us up. You walked over here with such purpose, as if you already knew what had happened.”
“So, who is telling the truth?”
“My father once told me something. There are two sides to every story, and the truth will be somewhere in the middle.”
“You admit that you have embellished your side?”
“No more than Jordan would have done.”
It was not until the following day that Riechard had made his decision. The sky was so white with cloud that it was almost blinding. There had been no rain overnight, but the grass was glossy with dew and the ground was soft beneath his feet. Sir Gavon greeted him with a cut of bread and a slide of blue cheese to break his fast.
“How far away is the hamlet where you found Marcus and Jordan?” Riechard asked.
“Two leagues from here.”
“Do we have time to visit?”
“Aye…we can make it. Have you decided what to do with the boys?”
“It depends. One’s only crime is messing around with a farmer’s daughter. The other’s is murder. I need to find out which one is which.”
When they arrived at the hamlet, Riechard immediately saw the barn. It was the largest building by far aside from a few huts scattered around. There could not have been more than thirty people who lived here. None who lived there showed themselves, it seemed there was no one outside at all.
“They saw us coming,” Riechard reflected.
“I do not blame them for being on the lookout.”
They moved forwards towards the barn and soon realised that there was a woman standing at the entrance. Beside the barn was a small hut, where the family lived and in the barn were several oxen. The woman standing in front of the barn was of a similar age to Sir Gavon, in her thirties though her hair had already started to grey beneath her bonnet. She was a large woman with small facial features, close-set eyes and red cheeks. It was clear that she had been crying. It was not until Riechard had dismounted that they noticed a mound of dirt in front of the house that had been recently unearthed. There was the sign of the pentagon, the Symmetry of the Earth, made of wood that had been lodged in the soil.
“We do not want any trouble,” the woman pleaded.
Riechard raised his hands to the sky. “I am not here to cause any,” he told her as calmly as he could manage. “I am here to discover the truth. My name is Lord Riechard Byrne of Duncath, I am the leader of the army that passed by here yesterday.”
“What do you want from us?”
“Only the truth. I understand that two of my men were here yesterday. I do not doubt that one of them was responsible for your tears and for that pile of earth over there. I understand you are upset, and I want you to know that the man responsible will be duly punished to the full extent of my justice. I just need to know who did this.”
The woman turned away from him and cried. “My husband is dead…” she wailed into the air. After a moment, a young girl came running out of the hut. She could not have been older than ten with bright blue eyes and her arms held open. Her mother picked her up and continued to cry into her shoulder.
Riechard turned to Sir Gavon, who had turned whiter than the snow in Ismann. After a few seconds, the colour flashed back to his face in the form of a deep, crimson red. “Is this your daughter, madam?”
The woman nodded.
“Your only daughter?” He continued.
“Yes…my only daughter.”
Sir Gavon spat on the floor beside him, hurried to his horse and pulled out a coin purse. He then gestured to Riechard. “Give me your coin purse.”
Riechard pulled out his purse. “What for?”
“Did you not listen to her? Give me your purse.” Sir Gavon had never spoken to Riechard like this. Once the words had sunk in, Riechard handed over his purse. He stood still and cold and watched Sir Gavon hand over his gold to the woman. The woman was shocked at what she held in her hands, but the knight had already turned away and hoisted himself atop horse. “We need to go now.”
Riechard did not argue. He followed suit and the two rode away with their purses emptied. After a few moments, Riechard pulled up alongside Sir Gavon. “When we get back to the camp, have a Godson draft a letter to Lord Steel. Let him know that his son has been hanged for his crimes.”
As soon as the crimes were announced to the camp, the hangings drew no objection. Riechard felt no emotion as his cousin dropped from the tree branch and his legs twitched frantically until he died. He looked them both in the eyes until it was over. The boys protested until the rope was cut, but their cries and their pleas fell on deaf ears. As soon as it was done, Riechard instructed the men that they would move on Hazelfield the next day at dawn. Dusk was creeping up upon them, and there was little point in trying to make it to Hazelfield before sundown.
Before the bodies were taken down, Riechard took to the top of a hill and looked out over his army. “I want it to be known for all of those that need to hear it. This will not happen again. There will be no harassing smallfolk, there will be no rape, there will be no murder. You will conduct yourselves as though you will one day live amongst these people. This army is on the cusp of greatness, The Blacklands are about to achieve what neither Kingdom has achieved since they were founded by Luther Black and Ivar Hart. I will show no mercy to those who behave like these two traitors did. And yes, they are traitors. Any man or woman who dishonours us, who dishonours themselves or those around them damage our campaign, and all those who do so are traitors to our cause. We will march to Hazelfield at dawn. We will meet with my father’s army, and we will storm the gates of Silver City. Eat well and sleep long, for a new era begins tomorrow.”
After the crowd dispersed, only Riechard and Karlon remained to watch as Marcus and Jordan were removed from the trees. Riechard still felt awkward being alone in the General’s presence. The ache in his mouth still persisted, even though the pain had receded, he relived the memory every time he ran his tongue across his teeth. Despite the tension that remained between them, Riechard did not fear Karlon and it seemed that Karlon had little issue with Riechard as the leader since their successful capture of Dawnmount. There was an air between them now that was respectful if not friendly.
“You were right to hang them.” Karlon said blankly.
Riechard nodded. “Aye…I know.”
“Do you want to know why I sent my men home?” Karlon asked. “They spoke ill of you to my face. If I had caught them talking on their own…then perhaps I would not have reacted so rashly, but they called you weak to my face. They laughed as if I would laugh too. They joked about how I beat you. I must admit…it made me very uncomfortable. To talk to their superior like that about the leader of an army…a future King. I do not know. It did not sit right.”
“You beat me to a pulp, General.”
“And we stand at each other’s sides, not always in agreement, but in unity. Your job is to take this Kingdom, to free your King from his cell. My job is to win this war. I cannot win this war with men I cannot trust. I cannot trust men who do not respect those whom I respect. You cannot win this war with distractions like these boys caused.”
“I did not hang them for causing distraction, I did not hang them because they disgraced us. I hanged them because there is a man dead and a child scarred because of their actions. Would you have hanged them?” Riechard felt relaxed enough to ask.
Karlon scratched his bald head. “No…I wouldn’t have hanged them. I wouldn’t have let them off that easy.”
When they arrived at Hazelfield, Riechard felt as relaxed as he had been since he had decided to march to Ismann. He reflected on the past few months without regret, but wondered how he had got there in one piece. He had survived a pummelling at the hands of the man who now rode by his side, he had won his first battle and had hanged one of his foster father’s kin. Now that they approached Prince Charles’ camp, Riechard wanted nothing more than to rest. Even for a day, before he marched upon Silver City. It was as if all of a sudden, his adrenaline had faded and the wave of weariness caught up and pulled him down. He had left Duncath with an army of five-hundred, and arrived in Hazelfield with four-thousand more.
Prince Charles was at the edge of the camp to greet him. Riechard had never dismounted a horse faster. As soon as he saw his father, he forgot all of his pride and threw himself into Prince Charles’ arms. They squeezed each other tight and Riechard felt several slaps on his back in between them. He heard his father laugh and Riechard did too. He had not expected the tears to well up so easily in his eyes, and was glad that his army could not see them.
“It’s okay…it’s okay,” his father told him. “Your grandfather will not be happy with you, but you did it. You’re here…you’re safe now.”