Good morning all and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Thirty-Seven of The Cursed King. It’s been a much-needed, much quieter couple of weeks. Allowing me to focus on my true passions – Fantasy Football and Football Manager, BUT ALSO, this book. Chapter Forty-Five is now officially finished, which means that I am just beginning to write the Chapter that inspired me to follow through and write this whole book – Chapter Forty-Six. I won’t spoil anything, but this one is a big one. By my count, you have about 20 or so weeks to wait for that one, so watch this space.
In today’s Chapter, we are back with Robert as he struggles with his imprisonment in Hartlake under the stern eye of Lord Steel. Robert’s night terrors are becoming even more potent and vivid, but the deeper he sinks into his memories, the closer he comes to unravelling the reasons behind his inner turmoil. Thank you for reading, and Chapter Thirty-Eight will be posted on August 14th.
“You don’t remember this, do you?” Isabelle whispered to Robert as Harold slept in her arms.
Robert did not remember it. He was laying on a beach in the Arubel, the Cesaran city occupied by The Hartlands. The sand was soft and white and trickled through his fingers whilst the gentle rumble of the surf echoed around them. Robert turned on his side and leant the weight of his upper body on his forearm, with his free hand he pushed Isabelle’s hair from her face and marvelled at her emerald eyes. “This never happened…did it?”
Isabelle shook her head and then pulled his chin towards her and kissed his lips. “No…it didn’t, but it is happening now.”
“Will it be like this? When I die? Will it be like this forever?”
“I hope so,” Isabelle said. “We have been here a lot lately, you know? Every time you forget.”
“I’m sorry. It is becoming harder to separate.”
“I know. It’s okay.”
“I don’t even think Arubel is like this anymore. It used to be when it still belonged to Cesara. I visited when I was a child, and the beach was always full of people. Children played and swam in the waves. I think I am remembering it from then.”
“You felt safe here. It wasn’t home. It was away from Jonathan and the boys. We always end up here when you are suffering. It is strange that despite your night terrors, you always seem to find a place of peace when you are truly under threat.” Robert smiled at her and sighed. “What’s wrong?”
“I never told you about my trip to Arubel…you would never have known about it.”
“Don’t be silly…I would be a fool to really believe that any of this was real. Sometimes these are preferable to my memories. They are far less painful.”
“They are essential, Robert. You must face them. Brodric. The cabin. The Hawthorn. All of it. You must learn to accept them. If you cannot move on from them, then…well…you might never move on from what happened to us.”
“Don’t…please…don’t. This place…this scene…you and Harold sleeping. It is all so perfect. Please don’t make me go to that place…please.”
“Robert…this is why you never remember this one. This place. Whenever you come back here, we have this conversation, and you go to that place. You will always come back here until you finally accept that we’re gone.”
“No, no no, please, please…don’t make me go there.”
“It’s okay,” Isabelle said softly. “We will be here with you.”
Robert pleaded and pleaded, but suddenly the clear skies swiftly turned to rain, the waves began frantically crashing against the rocks. He was no longer on the beach, but sat atop a jagged rock that was being slapped with continuous thrashing waves. The cold rain splatted against his skin, and he was soaking wet. Robert screamed into the air. “No! Wake me up! Wake me up!”
Then, the waves pulled away, the rain was sucked back up into the sky and the jagged rock became a desert. There were bones beneath his feet, a woman with a half-melted face gripped his throat. “Find me! Find me!” She screamed as she choked him. Suddenly, all he could see was Eiruc’s face in place of hers, blood falling from his mouth. Then, a horse galloped through the woman and she vanished into the dust. It was Avairghon. He chased after his horse and eventually caught up to him, but soon found why he had stopped. He had his hoof embedded in a man, a knight, his brother, Jonathan. Robert tried to pull him free, but it would not budge, and he soon panicked and cantered away with Jonathan’s body hanging lifelessly from him.
“Let me out! Let me out!” Robert screamed and pushed his hands against his ears and closed his eyes.
Suddenly, Robert felt the ground erupt around him and felt himself lifted into the air. Robert looked down and saw skeletons, charcoaled and burned, prodding their fingers into his skin and marching. Hundreds of thousands of them marched him through the desert as he balanced on their sharp fingertips. Apart from the clatter of their bones, there was silence all around them until finally the bones shattered and fell to the ground. Robert landed with a thud on top of them. When he got to his knees, he found himself facing a Hawthorn bush covered in snow.
Robert looked around. All of the bones had disappeared and had been replaced by layers of snow. The Hawthorn bush reminded him of the ones near Hillhold, but he knew that he was not there. He was further north – somewhere on the border between The Blacklands, The Hartlands, and Ismann. in the Steurholm Mountains. The thin brown twigs poked out of the heavy snow with their blood-red berries glittering in the light. It was freezing cold, but Robert found himself knee deep in the slush in front of the Hawthorn, staring at it, as if he was waiting for it to speak to him, but no voice came. He waited there. Waited for the next horrible thing to happen to him, for his next torturous memory to engulf him, but he waited and waited…and nothing came.
Slowly, Robert found himself awake. He felt the cold floor on his face and pushed himself up from the ground. He clutched as his ribs, suddenly aware of the bruising down the side of his body. Sat against the wall, Robert picked up his tin cup to find that it was devoid of water. He tapped it against the stone wall of his prison and rolled it towards the cell door. After a moment, the gaoler appeared and peered into his cage. Robert gestured towards the cup and the gaoler scowled. The gaoler picked the tin cup up in his hands and pondered it before pulling out his cock and filling the cup with hot, yellow piss. Then he placed it back where he found it, smiled sweetly and walked away.
Robert sighed. It was far from the worst treatment that he had received since he’d arrived, and he no longer really cared what happened to him. Whether or not Thair rescued him or his father got his way and had him killed, neither would be any worse than being in his cell night after night screaming in his sleep so loudly that he would wake up with a sore throat and bloodshot eyes. There were two gaolers. One worked the day and one worked through the night. Robert had become quite friendly with the man who worked the day. That gaoler did not hear him scream in the night and Robert always woke up so tired that he had very little to say to the day gaoler. The night gaoler on the other hand had to put him with his terrors all night. I’d have pissed in the cup too, he thought.
It was the day gaoler who told Robert to face the wall and put his hands behind his back. He was an elderly man with a thick grey beard that reached his chest, a bald head and no teeth, so that it always looked like he was chewing his jaw. The old man spoke in a low growl, but Robert had gone some way in understanding the mumbled words that came out of his mouth. “t’lor’wuntstaseeya,” the gaoler told him as he gently tied a thin rope around his wrists. Robert knew that he could have easily overpowered the man to try to escape, but he also knew that he would likely not get out of the dungeon without being bludgeoned with a sword handle and thrown back in his cell. Robert instead allowed the gentle old man to tie him. In truth, he was eager to take a walk. The worst part of his imprisonment had been the confinement. His legs ached and he felt weaker and weaker by the day – he worried that he would struggle to hold a sword by the time he was released.
“I assume he has received a letter then.”
The gaoler led Robert to the Lord’s council office. Lord Steel was alone. Robert’s father used to march political prisoners to his dining hall at dinner in front of the family. John Talford would starve them and then sit them in the corner to watch him feast, throw food to the dogs and then plate up what the dogs spat out for the prisoner to eat for their dinner. Robert remembered feeling awkward about it whenever it happened, but it never stopped him eating and he never said a word in protest. He wondered why he never protested it. He knew it was wrong, and he thought back to it often and wondered if all lords did that. Lord Steel did not. Not a single man saw Robert in his jail cell. Not a single taunt was levied. When he was beaten, those who beat him were punished and an apology was given by Lord Steel himself. It was not in Lord Steel’s nature to be brutal or violent without cause. It did not bring him pleasure to cause pain. All Lord Steel cared for was the progression of his Kingdom, and his duty to King Aedvard. In a way, it made him more dangerous than any Lord in The Twin Kingdoms. He was a man truly without ego.”
“You look tired,” Lord Steel told him. The Lord of Steelmont offered Robert a seat, which Robert refused.
“I’d prefer to stand if it please you…I have been sitting and lying for days.”
“Suit yourself. Thair Spicer has agreed to pay your ransom.”
“You have heard from him?”
“And my father?”
Lord Steel shook his head. “Not a word. Believe me, I sent two letters. No response.”
“He is aware Thair Spicer has agreed to pay?”
Lord Steel nodded. “Perhaps your father exaggerated his hatred for his only living son.”
“Or perhaps he is broke and cannot match Thair Spicer’s amount.”
“There is that. Of course, I cannot let you go right away, but I have agreed that you will be moved from your cell and into a chamber befitting a man of your rank.”
“If he has agreed to pay, why can’t I go?”
“Sir Robert, The Blacklands are on the cusp of doing something that has never been done before. We have almost conquered The Hartlands. To let you go would be gross negligence on my part. No…when the war is over you will be released, but not a moment before.”
“And until then?”
“Until then, you will be moved to my tower. You will be under guard from sunrise to sunrise. And you will help train my son in swordplay.”
“I’ll do what?”
“As you have already seen, my son Oscar is a moron. He is seventeen years old and as dim as dungeon darkness. You teach him something and it is about as useful as telling the sword to wield itself. I would send him to the church, but he cannot read. I would send him to be fostered, but he is too old. I would send him into the sea, but alas, he is my son. Perhaps I should blame myself for his idiocy. I spent so much time ensuring Lord Riechard was raised right, and now look at him…leading an army with his father to the very gates of Silver City. My daughter, Sorcha, on the other hand, is a mastermind, and, between you and me, perfectly adequate with both bow and sword. I have half a mind to name her my heir. The one thing that Oscar isn’t terrible at is fighting. He is a brawler, but he can get the job done. My Master-at-Arms, Sir Lief stayed in Steelmont and so I need someone to keep his training up. I need that boy to fight like its second nature to him. I cannot have him think about anything lest he be slaughtered while he does.”
“You make it sound like such an appealing task.”
“Well, that is the one luxury you have when you do not have a choice in the matter. You will train my son until the war is over. Then you will return to Hillhold, as Earl.”
Oscar really was a moron. The most difficult task Robert had was explaining to Oscar why punching his opponent whilst they struck him with a blunted sword would not be so effective in battle.
“It works fine now!” The boy protested.
“Yes, but the sword won’t be blunted in battle! You’ll be dead before you can land a second punch!”
Oscar just looked at him, bemused. Robert set up another swordfight. This time, fists were banned, and he could only use his sword. Despite the ban, the boy still punched and kicked until the poor lad he was fighting was on the ground.
“You lost!” Robert told him. “I told you that you could only use your sword!”
“I didn’t lose!” Oscar shouted. “He’s the one on the ground, not me!”
Robert was almost at a loss of how to teach the boy until he saw the elderly gaoler walk past with another prisoner. He saw how the man’s hands were tied behind his back and immediately grabbed a small amount of rope and tied Oscar’s left hand behind his back.
“There!” Robert said.
The boys got back in their positions. Oscar exchanged a few parries with his opponent, but his sword was knock out of his hand. Oscar exchanged a brief glance with the lad and punched him square in the nose. The poor boy once again fell to the floor. Fearful that Oscar might beat the boy to a pulp, Robert pulled Oscar to the side, untied him and sat him down.
“Do you understand what we are trying to do here?”
“Aye Lord. You’re teaching me to fight, though I must say your methods are odd.”
“I’m not teaching you to fight, Oscar. Clearly you already know how to do that. You must understand that in battle, you cannot get by with your fists. The swords in training are blunt. You can take hit after hit and not feel a thing. If a sharpened blade strikes you in battle. You are dead. Mortally wounded. Do you understand? The reason I am training you to use a sword correctly is so that you can stay alive in battle. What are you going to do when you come up against a knight in full plate? You’ll break your knuckles on his helmet if you try to hit him. You have to be smart. Do you understand any of this?”
The boy stared at him with a blank look on his face. “Oscar!” A girl called from over his shoulder. Standing there was a round-faced girl with long black hair and happy eyes. She walked over purposefully into the courtyard and grabbed Oscar by the wrist. “Bet you can’t fight with just the sword.”
“Shut up! Of course, I can!”
All of a sudden Oscar was sparring with his opponent, one hand behind his back, dancing around him and slashing away.
Robert turned to the girl and smiled. “You must be Lady Sorcha.”
“You must be the prisoner that my father has lumped with this unhappy task. Sir Robert Talford, I presume?”
“Nice to meet you. How did you do that?”
“Years of practice. Oscar seems to function purely on pride. I have never known anything like it. Tell him to do something or try to teach him something, it goes in one ear and out the other, injure his pride and watch him swim across The Settler’s Sea with his hands and feet tied together.”
“Amazing,” Robert said. “Your father speaks very highly of you.”
“Aye, he ought to. I am his only hope of managing our House when he is gone.”
“How old are you?” Robert laughed.
“I’ll be thirteen next birthday.”
Robert shook his head. “Do you have any other tips for training your brother?”
“I would say don’t, but it doesn’t appear you have much choice. That’s your lot, I’m afraid.”
Sorcha ambled away. Robert turned back to the fight to see Oscar standing over his opponent with his blunted sword poking into his chest. “Ha! You lost Sorcha! I told you I could do it!”
Robert was invited to dine with Lord Steel. He was brought a much more substantial meal than he had eaten since he’d been imprisoned, and ate as finely as he had ever done at Hillhold. As he ate, Robert was imbued with a memory of his grandfather. Lord Lachlan Talford was on his deathbed by the time that Robert was five years old, but no matter how ill the man was, he always possessed an insatiable appetite and scoffed down food as if he was a fat teenager. Lord Steel did the same. He did not eat with the decorum that was thrust upon Robert as he grew up. In fact, it was the one thing Lord Steel did without an unerring sense of calm. The stern Lord ate as if he would never eat again. Robert did not see Lord Steel as a slovenly or gluttonous man. He was thick-limbed, but taut of torso, broad of brow and seemingly immovable. Yet watching this man as he ate made him seem almost vulnerable. As if the opaqueness of his exterior was just a thin sheet of dark fabric. Difficult to see through, but easy to tear away.
The knight had been studying the Lord for so long that it was soon noticed by Sorcha who was sat opposite Sir Robert. The Lord’s daughter smiled at him as if to say ‘he always eats like that’. Lord Steel sat at the head of the table, flanked by his son and his wife, Rhiannon Steel, nee Grosvenor. Lord Steel had married the Earl of Grosvenor’s sister as part of the peace agreement. This was the same agreement that saw Aron Harltin marry Lorne Byrne, Charles Byrne to marry Amelie Hartlin, and Asher Hartlin to marry Natalie Black. Of course, the last marriage was of necessity rather than alliance. Asher Hartlin had already impregnated the girl after Lord Black’s visit to Harthelm. It would have been a scandal if they hadn’t been married. It was rumoured that King Eldrian had Isabel Byrne in mind for Asher’s wife once she came of age, but it was not to be.
Robert looked down at his venison rump and panned his eyes to look up at the fine tunic that Lord Steel had provided for him. He took another piece of the rump and delicately placed it in his mouth and it melted away like butter.
“Are you enjoying your meal, Sir Robert?” Lady Rhiannon asked him.
“Very much so, my lady. It is a feast far too grand for a prisoner.”
“Not too grand for an Earl of The Hartlands,” Lord Steel interjected. Robert could not help but frown whenever he heard that, and it did not go unnoticed by the company he kept. “What is that look for?”
“What look, my lord?”
“The look of guilt that flashes across your face whenever I tell you that you will be Earl of Hillhold. Your father wanted you dead need I remind you.”
“He did not return your letter…”
“Probably never got it. The one thing your Kingdom has got is plenty of archers knocking ravens out of the sky to read my messages.”
“I did not wish to hold my father’s seat. I have never wished that.”
“Well, all of your rivals for that seat are dead.”
“Vincent Talford, my nephew, is the rightful heir to Hillhold.”
“And he can’t be an Earl as an infant. You will need to guide him. There are many benefits to being a puppet Earl. One of them is you don’t actually need to do anything but act like you’re doing something. Hillhold will be so full of Blacklanders, you’ll start thinking of Hillhold as The Blacklands soon enough.”
“I never had you down as arrogant, Lord Steel. The war is not over yet.”
“I never had you down as naïve, Sir Robert.”
After dinner, Lord Steel invited Robert to drink with him in his chambers. Lord Steel had taken Prince Asher’s chamber as his own. The tower looked out over the lake and far in the distance, Robert spotted the small chapel through the trees where he had helped Natalie and her children escape back to Silver City. Robert could not help but think that at the time that they were completely hidden, but now he saw how precarious they were. Even in the pale moonlight and under the indigo sky, Robert could make out the small stone building in amongst the trees and surrounding swampland. It was a miracle that they were not seen sooner.
Lord Steel brought Robert a glass of brown liquid, which he sniffed and immediately knew that this was not whiskey or any other dark spirit he had smelled. This was bunbo, the favourite alcoholic beverage of sailors and freemen who would drink themselves to death on their boats. It was not flavoursome, in fact it was deeply sour, but incredibly addictive.
“If you want to kill me there are quicker ways.”
Lord Steel didn’t laugh. It took more than that to amuse a man of his stoic demeanour. “It was sent to me by our Naval Commander, Lord Neville, in Duncath. Along with it was a letter saying that it was confiscated from a pirate ship that tried and failed to interrupt our trade. My foster son, Riechard, put him in charge whilst the three Byrne men were away at war. It looks as though he has made some excellent decisions in hindsight, but he has been extremely lucky.”
“Sometimes competence looks a lot like luck.”
“It’s only competence if you’re consistently lucky. I am proud of him though. I sometimes wish they would have taken Oscar and left Riechard with me. The boy could be great, you know? Really, great.”
Lord Steel raised his glass to Robert and took a sip of the bunbo. Robert did the same. “I am sure my father feels the same about me. I am sure he would trade me for any of his other sons.”
“You won’t have to worry about him for much longer. Once you are Earl you can have done with him what you will.”
“You are not the first man to want to make me Earl of Hillhold. For the life of me, I cannot understand what the obsession is. Until twenty years ago, Hillhold was a nowhere border town. The smallest and most insignificant of the Earldoms. Now, it seems as though you and the entirety of the Twin Kingdoms is trying to oust my father and put me in the seat. What is going on?”
“Perhaps men think highly of you.”
“You are good at many things, my lord, but bullshitting is not one of them. Tell me the truth. You. Grosvenor. Hardwick. Prince Asher. Almost any man of rank in this Kingdom and your own seems to want me in Hillhold.”
Lord Steel drank again. “It is your father-in-law, Sir Robert.”
“Spicer? I don’t understand.”
“There is not a man in the Twin Kingdom who is not in some way indebted to your father-in-law. He is unfathomably wealthy, to an extent that I don’t even think you truly comprehend. The man could buy an army and sweep through The New World like a tsunami and crown himself King of the sludge that remained. He is that rich. Thair Spicer also does not hold loyalty to a Kingdom. Born in The Hartlands, yes, but low-born without rank or honours or family connections. This makes him dangerous. I’d imagine that Asher and the rest have had their eyes on you since you agreed to marry Mallory Spicer. Who was it who offered you the role in the City Guard?”
“Lord Hardwick,” Robert said beneath his breathe.
“Aye, and when did he offer you this role? Out of the blue, was it?” Robert nodded. “You are being groomed; don’t you see? What happens if Thair Spicer were to die? Where would his money go? How better to keep a rich man on side than to treat him favourably before he became unfathomably rich? Who does that man remember to help?”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I respect you. War or not, we have met many times and I have always enjoyed fighting you – even when I lost. Thair Spicer’s financial support will be vital to keeping the borderlands protected and protecting the occupied land. In return, I aim to convince King Aedvard to give Spicer what he has always wanted himself…”
“Nothing too grand…just enough to keep him satisfied and loyal. But it is more than the Hartlin boys would ever do for him.”
“And what do I get out of this? A Lordship that I have stated multiple times to multiple men that I do not want? To spend my days in a place that offers me nothing but pain?”
“Sir Robert…where am I, right now?”
“Look outside. Where am I?”
“Hartlake. I am Lord of Steelmont, and whilst I spend most of my time there now, that is by choice. If I wanted, I could travel to Launton Vale, to Roots Hall, to Natonia in the Old World or Antinna. I could sail over to the volcanic Molten Isles. I could spend time with Ismann Warlords or get drunk with the freemen on the Free Islands. I am Lord, Sir Robert. I travel where I want for reasons that are my own, and I answer only to my King. If you were Earl of Hillhold you would not need to mind your castle day and night. You could travel the Kingdoms, fight in tournies, jousts, swim in rivers and marry another woman for all I care. Earldoms run themselves.”
Robert did not answer him. All he could think of was his time with Isabelle and Harold travelling The New World. Even the hard times, the times where they did not have a lot of coin, the times where Robert had taken a serious beating, or when his son was sick, even those times were better than the life he’d known before or since. The thought of travelling again filled him with the first glint of hope he’d dared allow to wash over him since Isabelle had died. It seemed that his entire life since that brief period where he’d been happy was cursed. Many times, Robert wondered why he continued to fight, and why he didn’t just stand in the water and allow the sea to take him away or fall on his sword in battle. Something kept him going beyond his will, and perhaps now, this was it. The opportunity to live the rest of his days with Mallory how he lived them with Isabelle.
“You want me to betray my Prince? My King?”
Lord Steel smiled. “That is interesting.”
“You professed your loyalty to your Prince and then corrected yourself. I have met many men in The Hartlands who do the same. I do wonder how many this affliction affects.”
“I will not be a puppet for The Blacklands.”
“Yes, you will. It is easy to sit here across from me and drink my bunbo, knowing that no matter what that you will be fine. I am offering you the same thing as Prince Asher. Either way you will be Earl, and you know you will take it. No matter how much you deny that you won’t. You would be stupid not to, and you are not a stupid man. You can profess your loyalty to your Royals, so that if they somehow miraculously turn this war around, then you can claim with honesty that you never thought of committing treason, but we both know that what I am offering you goes far beyond what you could ever wish. Enjoy it, Sir Robert. I would enjoy it too. Just know, that when this war is over. Hillhold, Silver City…all of The Hartlands, will be ours.”
As soon as Robert’s head hit the pillow, he was almost asleep. After weeks spent sleeping on a cell floor, being on a feather bed and underneath furs was like laying on a cloud. In his last waking thoughts before he drifted into his dreams, Robert always thought of Mallory. No matter what happened between sleeping and waking, he thought of his wife in Silver City. He had no way to contact her, and worried for her safety alone in the city. And yet he realised that she was in an estate, surrounded by a City Guard who were loyal to Robert with an Arkgodson and a Prince looking after her. Robert was a political prisoner, under the eye of one of the sternest Lords in The Blacklands who would have been more than happy to sell his corpse back to his vengeful father. Robert soon realised that his worry was unnecessary, which allowed him to fall into a soothing sleep.
Then he was stuck.
Looking all around him, Robert had his feet stuck in the swamp beyond Hartlake. He found himself looking up at the castle. He tried to move his feet, but he was paralysed. There was nowhere for him to go and the rain poured down on him from the black sky. There was a blood moon hanging over the swamplands and he soon noticed that the raindrops were arrow tips falling around him, just barely missing him each time. A figure approached him from the trees. The figure’s face and body were covered in a purple cloak. It was the only colour that surrounded him. Everything else around him was different shades of grey, white and black. When the figure approached him, it was calm and gentle, and it took his hands. It had gloves on, but removed one of the gloves to reveal skeletal fingers that had been sharpened at the ends. Robert felt an icy chill, and he knew exactly what was happening. He was going to the darkest place within his soul. The place that caused all of his terrors. He was going to see Isabelle and Harold for the last time.