Good evening everyone and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Forty-Two of The Cursed King. I’m off to Ireland tomorrow morning for my girlfriend’s birthday, and so you’re getting this chapter a day early as we’ll be on a train very early tomorrow. I’ve got two weeks off work now so I’m going to make the most of it and spend my time enjoying a country I have never been to, despite the fact that it is on my doorstep. Writing may even take a back-seat this week, but next week I will be aiming to have Chapter Forty-Nine finished.
In today’s chapter, Robert finally discovers the nature of his terrors and the dark history that led him to this point in his life. When he finally awakes, a shocking revelation is brought to him by Lord Steel. Thanks for reading and Chapter Forty-Three will be posted on October 22nd.
It was the first time since Robert could remember that he awakened to the sound of the birds singing. They were perched atop the branches of the great oak trees that stood beyond the oriel of his tower. Hillhold in Spring had always been beautiful. The rolling hills that turned into dense, lush forests and the mountains of Steurholm, that stretched long into the distance of the snowy lands of Ismann, gave the land a sense of eternity. As if nothing about it had ever changed, and never would. It was easy for Robert to feel such ease and comfort whilst his wife snored gently with her hair draped across his chest, and his son nuzzled into his ribs in just as deep a sleep as his mother.
Perhaps at the very back of his mind, Robert knew that he had lived this before, and that this was no more than a dream, but he could see and hear enough, and feel enough, for him to push those thoughts deep down inside him. Robert dared not move, dared not speak a word or fall back to sleep, for fear that it might wake him from this moment, and he may never find his way back. It was Isabelle who broke the uninterrupted birdsong with a satisfied hmm and a kiss on his cheek as she lay a protective hand over her child and put her thumb in his small hands so that he could squeeze it. This gesture of affection woke Harold too, and before long, they were sat up in bed talking.
“We should stay for a while,” Isabelle told him.
Robert was not opposed to the thought. They had been travelling for well over a year, and Robert had made enough coin from tournies and jousts that he could even purchase a small piece of land for them if they’d been so inclined. The constant fighting and training had taken its toll on Robert, and he was physically exhausted. He felt his back twinge when he awoke, and he constantly worried about the health of Avairghon.
“I think my mother would like that…my father on the other hand,” Robert pondered.
“Your father is like mine…he would sooner strike you than tell you he loved you, but it’s all a show. They were raised by men who taught them that love is weakness.”
“Love is weakness…look at me…completely weak when it comes to you both.”
Isabelle gripped his cheeks with one hand and kissed him. “Love is strength,” she whispered.
Robert smiled. “I should go…before everyone wakes up. It is the only chance I will have.”
Isabelle frowned. Whilst at first, Robert feared that the look in his wife’s eyes was envy, it became worse when he realised that it was pity. “I understand,” she said and squeezed his hand tight.
As soon as Robert stepped outside, he felt the sharp crispness of the air as the shadow of the tower loomed over him, but as he stepped into the sunlight, it instantly warmed his skin. With a deep breathe, he took his first strides towards the crypts. He passed the kennel master and the stablemaster and greeted them both warmly, their faces already red and sweaty from their work. Robert had no doubt that they had already been up for hours. Usually, Robert would stop by to visit Avairghon, but his thoughts were elsewhere today, and he wanted to pay his respects before he was due to meet his family in the hall to break their fast.
When Robert arrived by the stairs of the crypt, Carmon, one of Hillhold’s groundsmen was there to greet him. The old man was grizzled and tired, but unfailingly kind and gentle, and Robert had known him since he was a boy. Carmon handed him the key to the faded oak door, and Robert thanked him. He stepped over the puddle of water that had gathered beneath the final step after days of rain had finally ended, and unlocked the door to the crypt. Inside was dank and cold, shielded from the sun, and the light, and all of the good things that life had to offer. In these depths there was nothing but death and darkness, ice and bone. Robert had never been afraid of the dead. The only thing he feared when he was young was his brothers, and they were made of flesh and blood, of which none remained on those that resided here.
In order to be buried in the crypts of Hillhold, one need be a Talford or have married into the Talford family. Robert had scarcely been married to Aramana, and he remembered their time together fondly, despite the fact that they had not truly loved each other, but she asked him to promise that she would be buried with her son before she died in his arms. Prince Julier was not best pleased with the arrangement, but after the Filosi rebellion was quashed by The Twin Kingdoms, the Prince had very little negotiating ground. Robert lit the lantern that was hanging on the wall and navigated his way through the graves.
Each grave was engraved with the name of whom it carried. The ones nearest the door were the oldest and most faded. The horizontal statues no longer contained their facial features and their faces had become smooth stone oblongs, whilst the once raised-lettering was now almost unrecognisable. There were many Johns, and Roberts, and Harolds – traditional names of Talford men. There was also a Myriam, and one or two Annes. Finally, Robert reached his brothers. Reuben and Sibley, Harold and Clarence. Then there was Brodric. Robert stayed slightly longer by Brodric’s side.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I should have joined you.”
“No, you shouldn’t,” a voice came from behind him.
Robert jerked upright and pushed his lantern towards the noise. “Who goes there?”
“The Earl of Hillhold, now get that flame out of my face,” John Talford said, agitated.
“Father? What are you doing down here so early?”
“The same thing as you…paying my respects to my sons.”
Robert felt his heart slow, and brought the lantern slowly to his side and took a deep breath. “How often do you come down here?”
John Talford shrugged. “Now and then,” he said nonchalantly, almost emotionless as if he was answering to what he had for dinner.
It had never been in the nature of Robert’s father to show emotion at the best of times, not least to Robert, and in such a private moment between them. What might have been an opportunity to share their grief, to talk of their mutual losses and their commonalities, was beyond the both of them. The ground they would have to cover, the years of anger, resentment and tragedy they would need to overcome to endure such a moment, and to even find catharsis within it, was far too great. Though they stood not a yard apart in that dreary, morose pit, there was an ocean of distrust between them. Too great a distance of years and personalities to let one’s guard down. Neither man would dare even dip their toe in that great sea, and so Robert tread safely on the shore and did not say another word of it.
He took his lantern and stepped past his father to where his wife and child lay. The stone had been etched masterfully, and was still almost pristine. Stone did not age like man, and preserved youth greater than any cream or ointment. Aramana was a truly beautiful woman in all the ways that men were told a woman should be beautiful, but beyond that, there was a soulfulness to her eyes. A deep and stunning care of all things, and most closely her family. Sir Robert never thought that he could achieve the level of love that Aramana had for her flesh and blood. Though he had often wondered what life would have been for him had his first wife and child survived. He would certainly never have met Isabelle. It was his grief that caused him to begin his travels, had he never taken those steps out of Hillhold, he would have never even known of Isabelle’s existence.
“Should I have brought flowers?” Robert asked when he saw his father watching him from the corner of his eye.
“Flowers are wasted on the dead. They cannot smell them, and it is just placing more death atop of them. Best to leave them be.”
Robert grazed his thumb across Aramana’s cheek. Her statue had been sculpted with the baby at her breast, only half of the baby’s face could be seen. Robert thought that perhaps he should have named him, even though he had died, but it made it easier in a way. Calling him baby almost made it easier to accept. Naming the poor child would only have made it harder to bury him. Robert touched the baby’s stone face with the back of his hand and let out a sigh.
“Your mother had eight of you…eight…only on the last one did she fail to deliver me a healthy child. That would have made it nine. I still have no idea how she did it. Each one of you were large babies, even Myriam. It’s in the Talford genes. The pain that she endured to bring you all into the world…it was minute compared to the pain she felt when these boys left it.”
“How do you do it?” Robert asked.
“Do what?” His father shrugged.
“Grieve,” Robert said bluntly.
A smile almost crept onto his father’s face before he seemed to remember he was speaking to his least liked son. “Like most things in this castle, I left that to your mother. Most men are blessed with just one or two sons…that if they are lucky. I was given far more. Clearly, someone somewhere thought I was not worthy of them, or that they were not worthy for this world. Perhaps the God of Death thought their souls would be better suited to other vessels. Regardless, I still have Jonathan…” John paused… “and you, of course.” Sir Robert shared a brief glance with his father before the old man turned away. “Don’t spend too long down here. It will send you mad.”
Robert did not spend long in the crypt. All of the time building up to it he spent wondering how long was appropriate to spend with a dead wife and child. It turns out that Robert did not have an awful lot to say to her. They really had not known each other long, and it had all felt so long since it had happened. The only thing he truly felt was guilt. Guilt that he was spending his mornings kissed by the sun with his wife and child in his arms. Guilt that the vessels of a Filosi Princess and her noble son were left to rot in such a cold and dreary place. Guilt that he had survived when almost all of his brothers had died, and only the worst of them remained. Free to walk the earth.
That afternoon, Robert, Isabelle and Harold walked the fields where Robert played as a child. He watched as baby Harold sat in the grass and pulled out the dandelions and blew the pappus into the air and giggled as it floated away. Robert smiled and took in Isabelle standing in front of him watching the river flow through the hills. She turned around to him and smiled back, and then peered over his shoulder. A strange look took her face, a bemusement that made Robert turn around to face it. They stood there, looking up at the hills, on which a cabin sat atop one of them. Robert recognised the cabin, but could not remember where from. He searched his mind and did not recall ever seeing it as a child, and what was more, all of this land belonged to John Talford. If people had built upon it, they had done so illegally.
“Do you remember seeing that on the way here? I would have thought we’d have noticed something like that,” Isabelle said.
Robert shook his head. “This is all my father’s land. No one can build on it except for him, and my father has never been much of an outdoorsman.”
“Perhaps we should go up there, and see?” Isabelle suggested.
“I will go…you stay here and enjoy the sun. I won’t be long.
Robert hiked up the lush grassy hills with each blade reaching as high as his shins. He took in a deep breath and savoured the fresh, clean air, far away from the stench of people, dogs and horses crammed into one space. He had nothing but good memories here, nothing but happiness. And yet with each step he took, with each stride that he dragged himself closer to this hut on the hill, he felt his stomach lurch. It was as if the wind had changed direction sharply and had become icy cold, and the first puffs of cloud had begun to appear over the horizon.
Just before he reached the hut, he stood before a Hawthorn bush, its stout trunk was covered grandiosely with white petal flowers as the branches hung low and touched the ground. There was nothing else like it all around. It was isolated, away from any of the other flora which was mostly oak trees and small wildflowers that spread sparsely around the great meadowy hills. Robert waited at the Hawthorn for longer than felt comfortable. There was something he didn’t like about it. The way its branches shifted in the wind, the crispness of the white petals and the deepness of the brown trunk. The more he noticed it, the more he realised that the colours were otherworldly, impossibly bold, so much so that his eyes began to blur as he squinted to focus. Suddenly, his legs felt heavy and his head leaned forward as he found his hands deep in the grass. And he was sinking, sinking into the hills, sinking beneath the Hawthorn.
Robert found himself completely still, as though his soul had been removed from its vessel. He looked straight ahead, with his eyes open, but all he saw was darkness. He wondered if he had died. If he had accidentally taken some fatal poison that slowly killed him. Perhaps there was a berry on the Hawthorn bush that he shouldn’t have eaten. There was no worry within him though. It was as though all of his earthly concerns had evaporated. He thought about his wife and child, but he could only think of good things. Of their smiles and their joy. Nothing else outside of that seemed to exist. Robert tried to move, but it was as if he had nothing that could move. He was outside of his body, so, of course he could not move in a way that he was used to. The knight began to wonder if he could move in another way. He urged himself forward by visualising a movement, but nothing happened, he kept trying, he even thought about himself moving in his human body, but even that did not help him. Robert then tried to speak, but he realised again that, without a body, he was unable to. All he could do was think and wait.
After some time, Robert felt a presence around him. It was as though the other being knew he was there, and seemed far surer of what it was, than Robert did. After another moment, Robert could see again, and he could hear again. It was as if he had been placed back into his body. Quickly, painfully, as if he had never been separated from it at all. In front of him was a cloaked figure. He could not tell if the figure was tall, as they were surrounded completely by what looked to Robert like mounds of dirt. There were roots sticking out of the earth walls, and when he looked above him, he saw the sunlight beaming through the canopy of what he thought must have been the Hawthorn bush. It was enough to provide light to illuminate the figure’s purple cloak.
“Hello Robert, it is good to see you again,” the voice echoed impossibly. There was nothing for it to echo against, and yet it sounded almost ghostly.
“Hello…” Robert said, and realised how calm he was. Why am I so calm? He wondered, yet he felt no fear.
“You would not remember me, but we have met many times before.”
The figure was shrouded completely in the purple cloak that hung loosely over what must have been an exceptionally skinny frame. “Who are you?” Robert asked. “Why am I here?”
“You have nothing to fear, Robert. Nothing at all. We have done this before, and you have never been stressed. You will do this many times again, and you will not be stressed then either.”
“What is this place?”
“Somewhere familiar. The place where we met all those years ago. I always bring you back here when it is time.”
“When it is time for what?”
“To go around again, of course.”
Robert began to worry. “What are you talking about? I demand you tell me.”
The purple cloak did not speak immediately. “I never thought I would find one such as you, Robert. One so capable of repressing their darkest thoughts, their most painful feelings and memories, their most…brutal decisions. You really do not remember a thing? You really do not know what this is?”
“Stop with your riddles! Why am I here?”
“Six brothers, Robert. Six. Such a burden…such a tough time being a young boy. Scared and afraid, bullied and chased and alone. What a horrid thing. No one could blame you for what you did. You were just a young boy. Vengeful, angry and overzealous. And I…well I must admit, I do not take pride in taking advantage of the mind of one so young. You remember the day, I believe. I mean, if you really think then you will remember. It was a day much like today. The sun was just as hot, and the beauty of these fields were alive with greens and yellows and browns. Yet you did not see any of that. As you ran from them – Jonathan, Sibley, Reuben, Brodric and Clarence. Such violent boys, so eager to show you who was boss. All you could think to do was run and hide. You fell in front of the Hawthorn bush. Do you remember now?”
Robert bit the inside of his bottom lip. “I got right back up and run to the cabin.”
“Very good. Of course, I could not have you remember our little talk back then. You cannot erase memories, but you can bury them. Deep, deep down. Most people never want to access the memories that cause them pain and guilt and grief. You were never one to dig too deep into yourself. Even now…you are deep within your dreams. Even this is a memory. Layers upon layers of repression finally erupting. I would not want to be there when you awaken, but you know that I won’t be. You know that they won’t be either.”
Robert’s wrists began to twitch and found that he could not move freely. “Stop your talking. I have heard enough. Get me out of this place.”
“I offered you a deal, Robert. I offered you something that no one else on this Earth could offer you. How could you refuse? All of your problems…gone. One by one. All I asked for was something in return. Do you remember now?”
Robert ran towards the figure, but it evaded him and Robert found himself face down in the dirt. “What do you want from me?” Robert screamed.
“It’s time for you to remember, Robert.”
“I don’t want to!”
“Perhaps you already have then…what did you say to me, Robert? When I told you that I could make all of your problems go away. When I told you that I could end your suffering by making sure those who tortured you die. What did you say to me?”
“I didn’t know! I didn’t know what any of it meant! I was a boy!”
“A life costs a life, Robert. Nothing is for free. Every hated brother you wanted dead cost the life of one you loved. For your brother Clarence, I took your brother Harold, for your brother Sibley, I took your first wife, and for Reuben I took your son. Brodric and Jonathan, now they cost you Isabelle and little Harold. The debt would have been repaid…had we not met again when you were a teenager.”
“Stop it! I said stop it!”
“You killed them all, Robert. I may have orchestrated their deaths, but you instructed them. You gave me your word. I told you the rules when you were young. I told you that for each one of your brothers I killed, another would have to die too.”
“You did not tell me it would be people I loved!”
“Hate costs love, Robert. It has always been that way. Hate destroys love, just as death destroys life. But both are necessary for balance. We must have balance. This is balance.”
“Let me out. I don’t want to listen to you. Let me out!” Robert cried.
“Not until you understand, Robert. Not until you accept it. You will remember everything now. Your father, Robert. Remember when we met then? You added to the list. You wanted him gone too. You immediately took it back, but you promised me a life, and once you make a promise like that, it cannot be taken back.”
“You took everyone from me! There is no one left! Just leave them all alone.”
“Oh, there are some left, aren’t there? You don’t think I cannot see inside your very soul. Myriam and Mallory…oh how you love both of them. So much so, that I could not possibly choose between them…and so you will.”
Robert awoke shaking so violently, but could not move his hands or legs. A flash of light pulled his eyes open and he felt a wave of cold water splash his face. He took a deep breath and felt a hard slap across his cheeks. He panted heavily until his breath slowed and a dry cloth was wiped over his face. When his eyes settled to the light, he lifted his head to see Lord Steel standing over him with a strained looked upon his face.
“You’re finally awake.”
“What happened? What happened to me?”
“You’ve been screaming all night. You were so loud that you woke the guards. They came into your room to find you screaming and wailing. I have heard your terrors before, but this…well this was something entirely different. We had to restrain you to stop you lashing out at us all.”
“I don’t remember anything. I just remember falling asleep.”
“I’m not surprised. When you flailed, you smashed your head against the wall and knocked yourself out.”
“I need to get home. I need to get back to Silver City.”
Lord Steel laughed gravely. “I don’t think any of us will be going anywhere, Sir Robert.”
“What are you talking about?”
“There is an army at our gates. Although, I assume you already knew that.”
“How on earth would I know that?”
“Because your father-in-law is leading it.”